The History of Green Screen
The green screen is used in many of our favourite movies, to conjure up monsters, magic, exciting scenes and exotic locations. However, the green screen techniques employed current are just the latest in a long line of technological advances that go back almost as far as the dawn of film itself. Read on to find out more about the history of green screen.
Once upon a time…
Long ago, in a century far, far away, an illusionist and film director created the first precursor to the modern green screen. It happened like this: back in 1898, looking for ways to depict a man surreally removing his head, Georges Méliès developed a meticulous technique that involved combining multiple frames of film in multiple exposures. By blocking parts of the camera’s lens to leave it blank, then superimposing these blank frames onto alternative takes of the same sequence filmed with a clear lens, he was able to create a surreal special effect that certainly lived up to his reputation as a master of illusion.
Méliès’ approach inspired a number of techniques all using a similar process to achieve the same aim; superimposing different layers onto the same frame in order to add or remove something from the picture. These processes, known as matte techniques, were useful for filming scenes set in far-off or historical locations because they made it relatively simple to superimpose the actors in the scene in front of a specially made backdrop. It’s possible to see how the history of green screen was predicted in this procedure, as many modern situations use a version of the matte process to do the same thing.
The dawn of the blue screen
The history of green screen began in earnest with the invention of chroma key technology in the 1930s. Larry Butler, who used the “blue screen travelling matte” technique to impressive effect in 1940’s The Thief of Bagdad, realised that using a single colour as a backdrop for filming could help filmmakers isolate the actors from the background and make special effects easier to create. The colour he selected for this process was blue, because it was sufficiently different from the actors’ skin colours, so foreground and background could be separated more easily.
From blue to green
From this point on, chroma key technology was employed in all kinds of film situations to create some impressive effects. As time went by and digital camera technology was developed, filmmakers began to realise that green was usually more suitable as a background screen colour because digital cameras are more sensitive to green than blue. With blue eyes and blue jeans also vulnerable to ‘disappearing’ in the blue screen film process, green can also be a safer bet!
Latest advances in technology
The green screen continued to be a trailblazing technology throughout the 20th century and beyond. In 1988, green screen was used to combine live-action with animation, in Who Framed Roger Rabbit which won multiple awards for its special effects and marked a new era in filmmaking with actors interacting with ‘invisible’ cartoon co-stars. Multi-million-dollar blockbusters achieve amazing effects using this versatile technology – but today, low-budget productions can all benefit from the miracle of the green screen.