The Evolution of Greenscreen

Greenscreen is one of those things I’ve always heard described as an ubiquitous presence in Hollywood. Yet I’m still shocked when I realize just how frequently (and seamlessly) it’s being used.

OK, you’re right. It’s not always seamless. And yes, it can discombobulate some perfectly respectable actors into some horrendously wooden performances. But it’s more than just ubiquitous on major movie sets; it’s ubiquitous everywhere! (Seriously, Stargate Studios? You people are nuts!)

The process of “greenscreening” — which I must continuously remind myself is not the same thing as CGI, though the two often go hand-in-hand — has always fascinated me, especially from a technical point of view. It’s an extraordinary cinematic asset, when used correctly (and with a bit of restraint). And it’s also been around for years, though I’m not sure I ever fully appreciated just how far back it goes until I saw this Rope of Silicon post on’s excellent “Hollywood’s History of Faking It: The Evolution of Greenscreen Compositing.” (Georges Méliès’ “Four Heads Are Better Than One,” mentioned by presenter John Hess as the first-ish example of compositing was made in 1898. So, yeah. Way, way back.)


I love how early in film history these processes came to be — Can you imagine how mind-blowing that Sunrise shot must have been at the time? Or King Kong? — and I love how inventively folks dealt with the ever-shifting technical challenges. I also love “Film-Class-In-A-Clip” videos likes these, and I absolutely love how easy it is to cinematically self-educate nowadays. (Wyoming definitely has its upsides. “Within Easy Distance of Anything Remotely Resembling a Film Mecca” is not one of them.)

(Additional videos are available here. Really fascinating stuff for those who are willing to have the curtain pulled back just a little. Don’t overdose, though. You might kill the magic. And that’d be a shame.)

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