The green screen technique, also known as chroma keying, involves placing a person or object in front of a solid color (usually green or blue), then removing that color and replacing it with a different background. Weathercasters on the news use it every day, and it has appeared in some of Hollywood’s biggest movies. You may have recently discovered that video apps like Zoom can remove you from your office and place you on a beach, even without a solid background. Could the days of chroma key be coming to an end?
Surprisingly, compositing techniques have existed for more than 100 years. Cinematographer Frank Williams patented his traveling matte technique in 1918. It involved shooting against a solid black background that was later replaced with a more thrilling locale. In the 1930s, Linwood Dunn at RKO Pictures replaced this with a blue screen. As television emerged in the 50s, the effect evolved further, and RCA coined the phrase “chroma key.” The technique has improved as digital capturing has crossed from television to movies and is now used practically everywhere.
Today, AI-powered tools can easily remove any background, even complex ones. Websites like unscreen.com, cutout.pro and photobear.io offer background removal for a one-time fee or subscription. Editing apps like Filmora and Adobe Premiere Pro offer similar tools.
But how does it compare to chroma key? In certain cases, it works flawlessly. In other cases, like cutting out a background behind a person with fine hair or lots of clothing detail, it’s not quite as effective. Additionally, just removing and replacing the background doesn’t mean that the person fits into the new background. Lighting and color reflections give away the illusion.
A newer technique, however, is becoming more widely used and might signal the end of color screens on certain levels. This technique involves massive video walls that wrap around a subject. LucasFilm revealed this process in their behind-the-scenes documentary “Disney Gallery: The Mandalorian” (2020 – present). The effects team at ILM demonstrated how they used The Volume — the production team’s nickname for its immersive projection room fitted with many LED screens — to film some of the more elaborate scenes. In The Volume, LED screens pair with a computer gaming engine that senses camera positions and movement. The effect is a nearly flawless background that gets highlights and reflections right. The technique is so good it even fools actors.
So, what becomes of green screen? No technique completely disappears; it just becomes another tool that filmmakers and content creators can choose from. Incredibly expensive volume stages won’t appear in someone’s garage anytime soon. For smaller productions, green screen is still an accessible and affordable solution. That will probably remain true for your local TV meteorologist, too. For now, we won’t see the death of green screen — we’ll just see it fade farther into the background.