The Basics of Green Screen Lighting for Filmmakers and Vloggers
Feb 18, 2020
It’s hard to believe that in the not-so-distant past, there was once a time when the only people who could afford (or understand) green screens were a handful of Hollywood’s top effects artists.
Fast forward to the present. These days it’s almost shockingly easy to construct a green screen setup and start adding incredible visuals to everyday projects. People even use them for home videos, and some newer cameras are pre-programmed to paint out certain materials.
In other words, there’s never been a better time to get into the green screen game. It’s not very expensive, the materials are easy to carry, and — most importantly — green screens provide an easy way to let you tell more epic stories than you would otherwise.
Of course, it isn’t quite that easy. Not using green screen won’t hurt you, because it’s how you’ve always worked. But using green screens badly can make your stuff laughable...or even unwatchable in some cases.
There are still a few things you’ll need to learn to make sure you do things well. So to help you start using this technique correctly, let’s look into how green screen lighting is different than lighting for “normal” video shoots.
Get Familiar With Green Screens
In reality, all you need to start using green screens is a blank material. While there are “official” products you can buy, chances are good that you could make a green screen out of things you already own.
You could use a large bedsheet. Or pieces of foam board. Even a blank wall works, if you don’t mind the color green.
The truth is, as long as the material is smooth, you’ll just need to pick up some ChromaKey green screen paint. And, just like that, you’ve got a green screen to work with!
Think About Your Lighting Setup
Now I’m betting that you’ve already got some experience lighting a shoot. If that’s true, you already know how to use a three-point setup, which is a universal principle in this industry.
Light plays a few roles in video production. The obvious job is making sure that elements in a scene are visible; the less obvious job is subtly directing the audience’s attention.
Green screen lighting introduces a new wrinkle to plan for when you’re setting up a shoot.
Think of green screens like a canvas. Eventually, you’ll need to “paint” a new backdrop or effect over that blank slate. In order for that to happen, a green screen needs to be a continuous and uniform field of color.
In other words, the screen (or whatever object you use) must be well lit in order for it to be used correctly.
Before I break down what that looks like, here’s a word of warning: Green screen lighting is an additional element to your lighting process, not a replacement.
You’ll still need to light your subject appropriately, so plan for a shoot like you would without a green screen backdrop.
Keep Your Lighting Consistent
The most important part of using a green screen is consistent lighting. Any major differences or fluctuations won’t just stand out — they might make it impossible to create the illusion you want. Consistent lighting is the easiest way to pull off a glimpse of an alien world or a bright city skyline.
If you’re new to green screens, this could be one more confusing piece of an already-confusing puzzle. But the good news is that green screen lighting is a lot easier than it sounds, so long as you understand your goals.
Start with lighting your green screen. The brighter the source, the easier time you’ll have lighting the entire screen. And using fewer lights means you should have an easier time matching the temperature of the lights, which also makes it easier to edit your footage in post.
In some cases, that could mean using two box lights just like you would on a normal set. But if you’re on a smaller budget, you may have to get creative. It’s not unheard of for vloggers to take lamps from around their house and situate them at different positions to achieve the same goal.
Thinking outside of the box is a required skill for filmmakers. So as long as you use lights with a similar temperature, you can still get the effect of a balanced — and well lit — green screen.
Review Your Green Screen Lighting
You just finished your first shoot with a green screen, and you’re feeling pretty good. You managed to create a consistent lighting temperature. Maybe you even added some movement in the scene, or multiple subjects interacting.
Either way, you’re moving on to the editing phase. And that means it’s time for the moment of truth — you need to start “painting” a backdrop over your green screen.
But an interview with a businessman would clash with an African savanna backdrop. And a commercial for a local business’s new product would clash with a sweeping vista of, say, the planet Pandora from Avatar.
Even if everything about your green screen lighting was perfect, take some time thinking about how to implement outside elements. (Unless you’re working on a funny vlog or satirical mockumentary — in that case, go ahead and add an extra T-rex in your background.)
Using green screens turn filmmakers into magicians. And by adding this skill to your toolset, you’re on your way to becoming a master of illusion. But to really sell the image or idea on screen, you need to make sure every component of your video supports it.
Editing green screen isn’t just about dropping in a visual layer or admiring your handiwork. It’s about adding in the right background music, finding some clever sound effects, and tying all of the different pieces together.
In that sense, using a green screen is just one piece of a much larger puzzle. But seeing the role lighting plays will make your job a lot easier. More importantly, it’ll help you start incorporating green screens into your projects right away.