Back in 2005, I was knee deep in pre-production on my feature, Livelihood. At the time I knew that there were a few scenes in the film that would need to be green screened, either as part of a special effect or because I couldn’t afford to shoot at a certain location that was crucial to the story. I spent months scouring internet forums and books for tips on DIY low-budget green screening, but mostly came up with a lot of circumstantial “I had a friend who did it this way,” or “I heard on this movie they did it this way”. There was little to no first-hand knowledge backed up with footage from people who had actually pulled off successful keys and composites on a low budget.
Dismayed by a lack of proven step-by-step methodologies with concrete examples, I ended up spending months testing the various tips I’d found, most of which turned out to be either too complex, too expensive, or simply based on unfounded myths about what couldn’t be done on a low budget. After months of trial and error (not to mention a decent amount of wasted cash) I finally hit on a combination of green screen backdrop material, lighting configurations, and keying software that I felt confident enough about to put into production. When I actually shot the film, I was rushed and ended up getting some shots that were either unevenly lit, had too much spill, or were just poorly composed. As a result I spent many more months in post-production learning all about junk mattes, spill suppressors, noise reduction, and more, just trying to figure out how to pull decent keys from my lame footage.
Of course, right after my film was finally in the can and had been sold to a distributor, MicroFilmmaker Magazine co-founder Jeremy Hanke sent me this book, GreenScreen Made Easy: Keying and Compositing Techniques for Indie Filmmakers, written by him and Michele Yamazaki. Immediately upon reading the table of contents I became angry that I didn’t have a time machine (why don’t scientists do something about that already?!) and couldn’t go back to save my poor past self from the horrors of wading through the unknown waters of low-budget green screening. Because believe me, no bones about it, Hanke and Yamazaki have written THE definitive guide to getting as close as possible to Hollywood-level green screen composites on the micro-budgets that most of us, for better or worse, are forced to shoot with.
The structure of the book basically follows the stages of making a film, starting with pre-production, moving into production, and ending with post-production. The pre-production chapters go over all of the available off-the-shelf green screen solutions out there, along with the pros and cons of each. More interesting to a DIY guy like me, there is also an extensive chapter on various ways to build your own green screen setups, including topics such as choosing the right color backdrop (green or blue, and if green, specifically what color?), the right material for the backdrop, how to hang/frame/mount the screen, and even how to create a cyclorama. The production section deals mainly with lighting, which is a complex subject to begin with, but gets even more complicated when you realize you have to evenly light your backdrop while also lighting your subject in a manner that will blend properly with your background composite. It’s here that we’re also told about the best ways to setup your camera for optimal keys, and are also given some cool tricks and tips about how to shoot certain special FX. Finally, the post-production chapters (which make up about half of the book) go over the large number of plugins available for keying and compositing, describing the strengths and weaknesses of each. We’re also given extensive step-by-step instructions on how to pull off perfect keys both with and without these plugins, with a focus on Adobe After Effects.
For such a technically complicated subject, Hanke and Yamazaki sure have a way of making everything seem simple, which is good, considering the name of the book is GreenScreen Made Easy! That said, I’ve been through this stuff myself, so I already know the terminology and the basic processes. To a green screening newcomer the topics covered in the book might seem daunting at first, but here’s how the two authors make everything very simple: lots of pictures! For pretty much the entire book, if you find yourself getting confused about what you’re reading, just move your eyeballs a bit and you’re pretty sure to land on a picture that visually describes exactly what you’ve been reading. In fact, the pictures are so numerous and well-framed that you could probably skim through the book just looking at the pictures and get a pretty solid idea of how the green screening process works, without even reading one word!
As I said before, this is pretty much the be-all and end-all of green screening books. If it’s not in here, chances are it hasn’t been invented yet. I can’t think of a single issue or subject related to green screening that was not dealt with in the book. Simply put, if you follow the advice and information laid out here, you should have no problems pulling off successful composites on a micro-budget.
I particularly enjoyed the emphasis on lighting, as poor lighting more than anything will ruin an otherwise decent green screening setup, mainly because it’s extremely difficult to fix in post production. I also appreciated the home-brew recipes for effects such as light-wrap; plugins definitely make these effects easier, but not all of us can afford such plugins, so it’s nice to know that they can be done natively in After Effects in a pinch. It also seemed like all of the product evaluations and reviews in the book were fair and honest, discussing both the strengths and the weaknesses of the products instead of giving glowing reviews to everything. When there’s a cheaper and equally effective way of doing something, the authors aren’t afraid to say so.
As an aside, something that I’d be interested in seeing more of are interviews and case-studies with independent filmmakers who have successfully used this technology. There are a few quick tips here from other filmmakers, but I think an entire book full of interviews (maybe even with video examples) about low-budget green screening and compositing in general would make an excellent companion piece. There are some indie filmmakers out there who have done some crazy and amazing compositing work (Graham Robertson’s “Able Edwards”, Miguel Coyula’s “Red Cockroaches”, and Alex Ferrari’s “Broken” come to mind), and it might be interesting to learn more about their experiences.
I’m a self-professed film geek, with a strong love for the techie side of the art. So, I ended up reading just about the entire book in one evening. I might not be normal in this respect, but I think anyone reading this review, or anyone thinking of picking up the book, is going to be engrossed, mainly because the techniques that Hanke and Yamazaki explain are going to get you excited about the creative possibilities that can arise from green screening. It’s very inspiring, both because you realize that green screening can open up your visual horizons as a filmmaker, and also because the authors make you confident that you don’t have to have a million dollars to achieve your artistic visions.
The only parts of GreenScreen Made Easy where my interest waned a little were some of the step-by-step tutorials on how to use the plugins/software in post production. You really need to have access to the software to grasp some of this stuff, and not being familiar with a lot of the plugins I found myself just skimming through some of these tutorials on the first read. Of course, it should go without saying that the best way to use these sections of the book is to read them while sitting in front of the computer, working through the tutorials with the actual software. Just reading them isn’t going to do you much good because most people won’t be able to retain the information without actually running through the steps a few times. But if you don’t have (or don’t plan to purchase) the software being discussed then some of these more in-depth software-specific tutorials are going to look like Greek and won’t be as exciting as the rest of the material.
GreenScreen Made Easy is pretty much the model for a perfect score on the “reusability” scale. You’ll have it by your side when you’re buying or building your green screen. You’ll have it on set when you’re filming, comparing the diagrams and photos in the book to what you’re seeing through your camera. And you’ll definitely have it on your desk when pulling your keys in post; the step-by-step tutorials seem tailor-made for this. If you’re making a film with even one green screen shot this book is going to be dog-eared, stained, and beat up by the time you’re watching your final cut.
Time is money; you could spend a hundred hours digging around online forums and scouring through dozens of books looking for all of this information, and even then you probably wouldn’t find everything offered here. Not to mention the money wasted on discarded green screens, lights and software that didn’t meet their overly hyped expectations. I’d rather spend the $20 on this book, take a few evenings to read and digest it, and be happy that Hanke and Yamazaki have already done all the hard work for me.
If you’re even vaguely considering using green screening in an upcoming low-budget production, don’t think twice about buying this book as soon as possible, preferably before you even start writing your script. In fact, I’d highly recommend it to any indie filmmaker, because even if you’ve never thought of using a green screen before, Hanke and Yamazaki might inspire you to take your ideas to ambitious new levels. Let this book and the awesome and affordable technology it describes inspire you to dream big regardless of your budget.