February 23, 2024

Pogue’s Posts: Hollywood-Style Tricks on the Cheap

A couple of weeks ago, my 12-year-old daughter sought my advice about a video she wanted to make. Her concept was so elaborate and involved so many scenes, I doubted it was even doable — unless she used a green screen and filmed the whole thing in the basement.

The Westcott uLite Green Screen Lighting Kit lets you create an easy green screen setup.The Westcott uLite Green Screen Lighting Kit lets you create an easy green screen setup.

A green screen, of course, is the oldest trick in the movie-making book. You name the “how did they film that?” movie — “Mission Impossible,” “Avatar,” “The Matrix,” whatever — and I’ll show you scenes that they shot using the old-fashioned green screen technique.

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To make it work, you film your actor in front of a bright green background — either a green cloth or a painted wall. Then you import the video into the computer, and its software elves cleverly replace every pixel of green with a background you’ve selected, like a photograph or a video you shot at another place or time. If it is done properly, the audience never suspects that the actor was not, in fact, right there at the Eiffel Tower, the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro or the moon.

The key word, though, is “properly.” Getting green screen shots to look right is fiendishly difficult. If the green dropcloth has wrinkles, if the actor casts a shadow on it, if the actor’s lighting doesn’t match the substituted video background, then the illusion is ruined. (Ever see the final scene of “The Hunt for Red October”? The green screen setup is so crude, it almost looks as if there are crayon lines around Sean Connery’s head.)

So as you can imagine, my success at using home green screen kits has been pretty mixed. Just hanging a green cloth usually doesn’t work very well. You have to light the green cloth perfectly evenly, which requires at least two lights on stands, to prevent shadows. Then you have to light the actor, which usually requires a third light. And if you want your actor to walk, you need a second green cloth on the ground (or you have to paint the floor).

After years of fiddling around with amateur kits, I decided to see what a pro green screen kit might cost. My daughter’s project needed one, and there have been many times over the years when I’ve wished I had one for my own video projects.

So I poked around on photo-video Web sites like bhphotovideo.com and adorama.com. As I figured, the pro kits, containing both screen and lights, cost $1,300 and up. (A 6-by-6 cloth with frame by itself costs $675.) But there, nestled among all the high-priced kits, I saw something that I thought must be a misprint: a complete green screen setup — 9-by-10-foot green screen, a second 5-by-7-foot cloth, two 500-watt lights with 20-inch “softboxes” (diffusing screens for even light), two collapsible seven-foot light stands, software to teach you green screen techniques and perform the actual actor extraction — for $250.

But the customer reviews were overwhelmingly glowing. All of them seemed shocked that a rig this good could cost so little.

So I ordered one.

It’s called the Westcott uLite Green Screen Lighting Kit. It comes in a surprisingly tiny box, but everything was compactly folded inside. In our basement, I hung the 9-by-10-foot screen by its grommets from a water pipe along the ceiling. The light stands were easy to set up, sturdy and extremely easy to position and adjust. With one on each side of the green screen, I had a huge, perfectly evenly lit, wrinkle-free background.

I used a third video light, one I already owned, to light my actor (my daughter), but you could use room light, some desk lamps, anything.

The only disappointment was the secondary green screen, the smaller one. I just could not get the prefolded wrinkles out of it, even after 25 minutes of ironing. Since the customer reviews routinely point this out, I can’t believe Westcott doesn’t fix the problem.

Anyway, my daughter’s green screen scenes worked flawlessly the very first time. You can dump the video into iMovie, Final Cut, Adobe Premiere — almost any decent video-editing program has a green screen feature. She used Final Cut X, which makes it extremely easy to replace the green screen with a different video background, fine-tune the result, and even move, resize or crop the actor video. (For example, she wanted it to look as if she were walking behind a parked car that was in the video background; cropping her body out up to the shoulders made that easy.)

Of course, not many people need a green screen setup. But for any beginner or intermediate filmmaker who does, I consider this Westcott kit a steal.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=eb7da97ce422200f9b2932eb48450305