The world is full of amazing locations perfect for filming. However, taking an entire film crew to exotic locales requires a large budget, and if you’re dealing with travel restrictions or time limitations it may just not be practical. Beyond that, some locations don’t actually exist or are just impossible to film in, such as outer space or deep sea. Luckily, green screens and green screen software help to make even the wildest filmmaker visions attainable.

This isn’t your meteorologist’s green screen 

For decades, green screening has been used in televised newscasts to add digital maps, images and printed information. It’s especially useful for weather reporting, because the background maps can be quickly transitioned from regional to national views. However, the risk of hilarious compositing errors is high in live broadcasting. If the colors in the subject’s clothing is too close to the color of the backdrop screen, it won’t superimpose properly. Parts of the subject may vanish showing only the digital images, leaving them as a floating head, or they may appear slightly transparent but still visible.

In modern filmmaking and videography, green screen techniques are widely used. You’ll find it implemented in everything from DIY videos on social media to some of the most expensive productions in Hollywood. It’s particularly useful for the illusion of exotic locations and mythical creatures of any size with computer-generated imagery (CGI). Several blockbuster films ⁠— “Alice In Wonderland,” “Sin City,” “Life Of Pi,” “Aquaman” ⁠— ⁠have been created almost entirely on green screen.

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How do they do that? 

Originating in the late 1800s for use in photography, double exposure was used to add images together in photographs. Soon the technique evolved into green screening (coined “chroma-keying” by RCA in the 1950s) for the filmmaking industry as a visual effect created in post-production. It begins with filming in front of a specific backdrop. The backdrop is usually a bright green, blue or white selected intentionally from the RGB color model. During the editing process, the designated color of the backdrop is selected and replaced with a different background image or footage. 

This is, of course, an oversimplification of a highly technical process. Excellent results can be achieved with the right gear, software and skills. Check out Chromakey: How To Use a Green Screen for more on the process. Whether you do your own editing or have a post-production team, choose your green screen software wisely. 

Things to consider before choosing your green screen software

When searching for green screen software, you’ll want to think about more than just the price. In fact, even when you do consider the price, you should definitely think about the value. Software that is free or inexpensive may have unexpected limitations. For example, it might require additional components or it may not work with the gear you currently own. These things increase your total cost and reduce the value of a “cheap” price point. 

Your media format will come into play, as well. Uncompressed MOV format is ideal for editing on Mac because it’s actually made for QuickTime Player. MP4 is also uncompressed but a little more flexible to use with various operating systems. You can shoot in compressed formats and still incorporate chroma keying. Compressed images have lower resolution, though. This means you may have less control with your colors or the sharpness when you work with chroma keys. It’s not the end of the world but it can take a lot more time.

Resolution will matter. For instance, not all green screen software will support 4K footage. If you are trying to save money by using a free trial version or tiered subscription, be sure that you understand what is excluded. In these cases, you still have options. You can convert your 4K footage to a lower resolution or upgrade your software. Again, you’ll have to weigh the cost and work that goes into these solutions and decide which is more worthwhile.

Choices, choices

Everyone knows that Apple is really good at creating cool stuff that is exclusively compatible with other Apple products. As long as your videos are clean, the iMovie app can – as Apple’s website boasts – turn your videos into movie magic. Since it’s an app, you can use it on your iPhone, iPad and Mac. It doesn’t offer much for custom adjustments but the drag-and-drop features along with a collection of templates make the green screen process easy. For a similar app on Android devices, try Kinemaster. 

Wondershare Filmora will work on most operating systems and has options for either subscription or full-purchase. It’s intuitive and full of creative freedom. They offer additional tools, such as a media converter, that can make your green screen editing painless. Plus, if you need to hone your skills, there’s a learning center on the website. If you’d like to get all of the bells and whistles without purchasing and downloading extra tools, consider Camtasia. It’s more of a one-stop shop editing software that covers all the bases. 

At the high end of the market, Final Cut Pro and Adobe Pro are some of the most sophisticated editing software. Designed for professional use with fantastic storage capabilities, they keep your projects organized. When it comes to chroma key, professional-level software will give you the best control. You can adjust the most finite edges and colors with precision. Do you have big visions but small budgets? HitFilmExpress has managed to bring all of the professional editing tools together and offers it for free.

Beyond the software

Attention to detail during shoots will be pivotal in creating excellent chroma key composites. This applies to the background screens, lighting, pace and attention to details. Whether you use a background screen in green, blue, white or even bright pink, it’s easier to chroma key a really well done screen. It should be pulled tight and evenly lit. Shadows, hot spots and wrinkles on the screen can be frustrating in post-production. The director will need to control the timing and angles of the filmed scenes so that the composite will make sense. 

Someone left a coffee cup on the table in a scene that is impossible to re-shoot? Chroma key can fix that. A foriegn backdrop is perfect for your scene but traveling abroad isn’t practical? Green screen is the answer. Perhaps you have an elaborate sci-fi or post-modern storyline that requires expertise and professional touches. Everything from epic creature battles to impactful documentaries might benefit from the use of green screen techniques. 

Every filmmaker has their own set of needs and priorities, so there is no “best” editing software for everyone. Once you’ve figured out which features make the most sense, the best choices for your projects will be pretty clear. Don’t hesitate to take the tutorials and masterclasses available with many of the options out there. Practice your skills and put energy into your pre-production planning. These steps will help ensure your green screen composites are seamless and your audience can be immersed in your stories.

As a transplant from Videomaker headquarters to the California high desert, she feeds her wanderlust with obscure touristy experiences. Often by the light of the moon, she digs into writing topics that range from personal to technical in a variety of fields.