Sin City rocked the cinematic world by showing what was possible in a film created in a completely non-existent environment. The black-and-white world of Frank Miller's noir series was brought to life in a completely greenscreened environment; no locations, no backdrops, and very few props or set pieces. The advent of improved blue/greenscreen composite technology is a huge boon to microcinema filmmakers. That fantasy or sci-fi film you've always wanted to make is now an almost tangible reality! But what is the best way to do it? Sure, anybody can slap a few coats of burn-your-retinas lime green paint on their garage walls, set up some lights and a camera, get their hands on an older copy of After Effects and say they're a special effects expert. But in order to make the best use of this phenomenal technology, we have to understand it, learn it's capabilities and limitations, and how we can best use it.
Enter John Jackman. With over thirty years of experience in the field of production, he was an early advocate of digital technology, and has seen it change over the years to become the incredible (and essential) tool that it has. For the purpose of the review, I'll use the term bluescreening, because that happens to be the title of the book. (Although for all intents and purposes, there is not much difference between it and greenscreening, and the two are frequently used interchangeably.)
In college, I tutored both high school and college students in math and Latin (yes, I know, rather disparate subjects). One of the big problems almost all of the students had was that they had never really learned some of the important terms in the respective subjects. Their teacher would introduce a new term, define it once, and then move on. But because the student didn't really understand it, their ability to learn other concepts associated with that term were hindered. However, I found that once the student had a good understanding of exactly what that term meant, the subsequent concepts came much easier.
Similarly, there are a lot of different terms associated with bluescreen compositing. To make it even more complicated, as the field of media has changed, the vocabulary has evolved as well, meaning that you can have several different terms that all mean the same thing. Jackman does an excellent job of explaining not only the background of compositing, but its application in the areas of video, film, and graphics. In the very first chapter (well, technically the second, after the Introduction), he goes through and gives parallel definitions for important terms in the different fields. (For example, the Key Channel in video is the same thing as the Alpha Channel in graphics, which is the same as the Matte in film.) In defining and explaining the differences in the various fields, it is much easier for readers from different backgrounds to be on the same page.
For as complex a process as bluescreen compositing is, Jackman does a great job of explaining it. Sidebars and pictures illustrate concepts and give examples, while charts and bulleted lists are helpful in breaking down complicated concepts and multi-step techniques. The chapters are laid out in a logical and easy-to-follow progression: introductory chapters (the basics, types of keying processes, and simple compositing solutions), studio work (setting up a chromakey studio, lighting, costume/art design), production (video formats, creating plates, fixing problems, live keying), and wrap-up (tutorials, walk-throughs, and additional information). To get the most out of this book, you really do need to have some basic experience with programs such as Photoshop, After Effects, Motion, or Shake, as the terminology is based on concepts used in these programs. If you aren't familiar with bluescreen work at all, this book might take you a little while to wrap your brain around. If it does, don't worry, there's a lot of information to digest, so take your time. If you have previous experience or are familiar with bluescreen compositing, this book is a pretty easy read, but you will still find information that is extremely helpful.
Depth of Information
Mr. Jackman really does a good job of going through the basics into intermediate information on bluescreen technology, getting neophytes into the mentality of compositing from its origins to the present day. To my knowledge, this is the first book of its type to be made readily available to the masses, as we spent a lot of time looking for books on this topic as we planned for this month’s blue/greenscreen focus and found nothing prior to this. (It was only a happy coincidence that this book was available in time for this issue, as the folks at Elsevier sent it to us for potential review without us being aware that they were releasing such a book.) While there are a few DVDs and other resources related to bluescreen compositing out there, there really is a lot of valuable information packed into this little book that’s simply not available any place else.
To go along with the main information in this book, the author includes a DVD full of professional greenscreen footage from the likes of Post-Holes, a well known effects footage company. This is very helpful, as it gives you the chance to work on professional footage and try your hand at it. I would have liked to have seen some problematic footage that had some common lighting and greenscreen mistakes that the user could play with. Additionally, there were a few different video clips that the author references being on the DVD that are, in fact, not there. These primarily are either missing reference comparison clips or mislabeled references to other video clips, so it doesn’t prevent you from doing any of the tutorials, but it would be nice if everything was double checked in this regard.
Now, there are some improvements I would like to see in a future version or spin-off to this book. Most noticeably the tutorials. I appreciate that he delved into a number of different programs in the tutorials section, but much of it was fairly basic. Considering that the book was only a little over two hundred pages, I really wish he had gone into more depth for correcting unusual or difficult keys in some of the keyers he brought up. For example, he mentions that one keying program, zMatte, can create both primary and secondary mattes as core and detail mattes for hard to key footage, but doesn’t go into any tutorial on how to do this. If he had to keep the length of the book down for publishing concerns (due to the number of expensive-to-print pictures in tutorials), I wish that he had focused on a lesser number of keyers, but gone into more depth with each one. Additionally, it would have been nice to have seen him go into a few tricks for getting better keys out of some of the keyers he mentions. For example, Keylight has a screen pre-blur feature that can overcome at least part of its limitations in regards to DV footage that is never mentioned. (We learned that little fact from Andrew Kramer’s Serious Effects & Compositing: Advanced Techniques for After Effects.)
I must admit that I was surprised at how easy it was to read this book. While the terms and concepts are technical, the process of reading it is made easier by the way Jackman teaches it. I was expecting an arduously detailed book going into all sorts of precise and technical minutiae, but was pleasantly surprised to find that it's more like a classroom setting in a book form. The tone of the book is instructional, while at the same time being conversational. As I mentioned before, the author defines and explains important terms early on in the book, but he also goes back and reviews certain terms and concepts before moving on to more complicated material (e.g. at the beginning of Chapter 9, he covers a brief review before explaining how to create plates). Additionally, the organizational style (graphs, examples, bullets, etc.) make the book easy to follow and aid comprehension.
With the increased availability of better digital technology, bluescreening is a tool that microfilmmakers will be able to use even more; they can create locations and sets that previously only existed on studio lots or in their imaginations. And although technology is changing rapidly, the concepts covered in this book are about the process of bluescreen compositing; the overall methods will remain the same (for awhile at least), even though the cameras and software change. Because of this, the book will remain relevant for understanding the bluescreen process, and will be one that you will doubtless be coming back to in the future.
Value vs. Cost
Although the book is good and the material informative and relevant, the $45 price tag gets the into "textbook-pricing" area. While the price may be due to the heavy use of color graphics and pictures (necessary when explaining and illustrating chroma keying), I think it would be more appropriately priced in the $30-35 range.
Despite that disclaimer, the book does have the advantage of possessing information that is readily available nowhere else. As such, that seriously ups the value of it even if I feel the MSRP is too high. As such, if you’re going to be doing bluescreen compositing, you should definitely consider getting this book--you just may wish to get it on Amazon or another discount book seller online.
If you want to do bluescreen compositing, then you really owe it to yourself to check out this book. It explains the basic ideas and then gets you into practically using those concepts in a way that makes sense and isn’t overwhelming.
To get a better feel for this book, check out two tutorials which Elsevier kindly allowed us to reprint from it in this issue: Ultra CS3: Keying Basics & zMatte: Setting Up a Movie Matte.