7 of the Most Inventive Uses of Green Screen in Movies
There’s no shortage of movies that use visual effects, but only a few have been totally cutting-edge and crazy when it comes to green screen.
The art of an innovative chroma key is truly underrated. It can turn a good movie into a great movie. It can take a bad movie and make it tolerable. The idea is simple — use a green screen (sometimes a blue screen), cloth, or paint to composite images together during the post-production process. With most of the big-budget blockbuster tent poles you see in theaters nowadays, you’re bound to see some creative green screen uses taking place. But the truth is, great green screen happens without you ever knowing it.
Some of the best visual effects ever attempted on the silver screen were so meticulously and flawlessly executed that I left the theater not even realizing I had seen a computer-generated image. It was only later that I found out the entire background was a composite. From the iconic cartoon-live-action hybrid of Who Framed Roger Rabbit to David Fincher’s subtly feigned suburbia in Gone Girl, these are some of the most innovative and creative uses of the green screen ever, in no particular order.
1. The Great Train Robbery
Technically, The Great Train Robbery didn’t incorporate a green screen. But, the film features one of the first known uses of visual effects. The makers pulled off their desired VFX by cleverly layering footage on top of each other. To do this, they simply took the route of double exposing a negative. They recorded a scene first with the windows blacked out. Then they rewound or removed and replaced the negative and recorded the same shot, but this time the rest of the room was dark and the windows were exposed to show a train passing by. Its basically two exposures on one negative frame. Does that make sense? Watch the clip above so you can see for yourself.
This is one of cinema’s earliest films, proving that filmmaking has always been built on the back of the DIY mentality. These artists pushed boundaries and found new ways to tell stories. It’s a reminder to throw out the budget. Throw out conventional techniques. It always comes down to your story, and how hard you’re willing to work to tell it.
2. The Films of David Fincher
There are a ton of factors that go into making a movie. Between the screenplay, acting, cinematography, and visual effects, when they all work together, the audience is transported to another world for two hours. That’s why the best visual effects are the ones you never notice – that ones that don’t take you out of the experience.
David Fincher’s films have always pushed the boundaries of VFX, but they’re so subtle they rarely get noticed. Whether it’s the opening title sequence of Fight Club, or the backwards de-aging of Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, his films are wholly unique and inventive. The moment I really started to appreciate his approach to green screen was when I saw this reel from Gone Girl. Just take a look.
So small, so boring, so insignificant, right? It’s just a green screen in the background, after all. But really think about the foresight this requires. It’s a perfect example of a director with vision, executing that vision down to the color of a sign that’s out-of-focus in the background. (Oh, and it’s also cut off halfway, so you can’t even see the sign.) If you want another insane VFX breakdown of a Fincher project, check out this Mindhunter breakdown. It takes the green screen for what it’s really meant for — not replacement, but creation. Fincher’s approach is also also extremely doable. If you’ve ever wondered where to start with green screens — from what to buy and how to pick out the right material — check out our recent breakdown on green screen kits or DIY green screens.
3. Body Suits
This technique has only improved movies. Here’s why. Number one, it gives the animators and VFX artists a real, human reference point to work with. Number two, it gives the actors a real human to act with and react to. Actually standing, touching, and speaking to an all-CGI character is so much harder to execute when there’s nothing actually there. Think about actors with raptor heads interacting with Christ Pratt on the set of Jurassic World. Or, Robert Downey, Jr. standing next to Mark Ruffalo wearing a big Hulk head as a hat in the Avengers films. It’s a genius way to help the VFX artists and actors work together to tell a better, more believable story.
And, if I’m being honest, looking at behind-the-scenes photos of crews wearing full, green body suits — acting their hearts out — is my new favorite pastime.
4. Who Framed Roger Rabbit
When I started making this list, my plan was to include Space Jam. Space Jam was one of my favorite movies growing up, and it’s still a classic in cinema history. I knew that its innovative approach to including a live-action character in a cartoon world was definitely one of the most insane ideas and executions of all time. However, I’m going to have to give the insane-green-screen statuette to Robert Zemeckis‘ beloved classic, Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Most sequences were shot heavily in front of a blue screen using methods both weird and wonderful. For the most part, lead actor Bob Hoskins had to act entirely on his own on a bare blue screen set, pretending he’s surrounded by cartoons in a cartoon world. This was definitely an out-of-the-box approach to telling a story, and clearly, it inspired future films like Space Jam and Spy Kids.
If you find yourself working on a similar project, with the actor working entirely in front of a blue or green screen, the keying process will be hugely important. After Effects is the most popular program to effectively pull off a convincing green/blue screen effect. If you need to key out a person with some kind of animated or composited background, here’s how to get the best results with our keying in After Effects tutorial.
5. Pan’s Labyrinth
The master of creature-practical effects, Guillermo del Toro’s masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth did so much right. Between the story, cinematography, score, and visual effects, the film is an air-tight look at what can be done when an auteur is given complete creative freedom. The single greatest decision in the making of the movie (remember, this is just my opinion) was casting his trusted costume-wearing actor Doug Jones as the fawn character. Jones wore complete prosthetics with the exception of his legs, which were keyed out. The character is a sinister figure, immediately kicking the film into overdrive once he shows up.
What this did was allow there to be a practical character, while still allowing there to be an impractical visual to it. The legs bend backwards and he appears taller, so it could be argued that in any other film with any other director, they would’ve made the creature entirely CGI — but they didn’t — and the movie is now one of the most beloved of all time. The power of smart visual effects! Furiosa from Mad Max: Fury Road is another great example of this technique. Her arm with the green screen sleeve is minor, but adds so much to her character, with the mechanical arm/hand that she uses throughout.
6. Sin City / Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow
This might sound like a weird choice, but Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow was the first production to really figure out how to translate comic books to the silver screen. Released one year before Sin City, the film is an original story inspired by comic books. The director, Kerry Conran, spent four years filming a test trailer for the movie entirely in his garage with blue screens. A perfect example of whats possible when you take the time to perfect green screen production.
Obviously, not every comic book translation needs to have the distinct visual style of either of these films, but they were certainly groundbreaking for the time. Sin City was shot entirely in a studio with green screen. Robert Rodriguez, Frank Miller, and Quentin Tarantino knew how animated the aesthetic needed to feel. The almost cartoonish background added to the fantastical nature of the story, and the studio setting allowed for creative lighting – vaudevillian at times, and intense film noir at others. I’ve grouped the two together because of the close proximity in release and shoot dates. No matter your opinion on the movies, this was definitely an eye-opening experience for productions and filmmakers everywhere, pushing the boundaries of the visual medium.
7. Star Wars
With Star Wars, this isn’t so much the fact that they used a blue screen for the X-Wing sequences, but more so how they lit these scenes and used hand-crafted miniatures in a believable way. There’s nothing about this movie that wasn’t groundbreaking. The production even prompted the creation of the Dykstraflex, a computer-controlled camera system used for filming the miniatures in front of blue screens. This was a glorious combination of technical innovation applied to existing technology. These methods were also used in the other films of the original trilogy. Whether it was adding a snowy Hoth background, or the moon of Endor, these lived-in backdrops created a seamless blend of fantasy and reality that anchored the wonderful films we know and love.
You might be wondering why i was shot on blue screen instead of green. We asked ourselves the same question. Turns out, green screen didn’t get popular until digital post production became the standard. You can learn more in our examination of blue screen vs green screen.
I hope the message of this article is to simply get creative. It’s important to look at where we’ve come, but never be satisfied with where we’re at. Keep thinking of new ways to tell stories and push the boundaries with never-before-seen techniques.
Cover image via Warner Bros.
Here are a few of our past articles that will help you learn how to master the art of the green screen:
- How to Green Screen Footage in Final Cut Pro X
- Blue Screen vs. Green Screen: Which One Do You Need?
- How to Key Green Screen Footage in After Effects
- How to DIY a Green Screen on a Budget
- Everything You Need to Know About Chroma Key and Green Screen Footage