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The Joy Of Virtual Sets

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In the 1970s, when chromakey technology debuted, it was mainly used in television newsrooms, to project images into a monitor behind the local weatherman, allowing him to interact with animated maps, graphics, and scenes of the local community.

In that role, chromakey did its job reasonably well, but when first used by Hollywood for television special effects, it almost always looked cheap and hokey (four simple words: Land of the Lost.)

But in the decades since, chromakey has shed many of its negative connotations. Combined with computers, sophisticated software and high-definition video, it's the first step to giving films such as Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Sin City, 300 and the Star Wars prequels their distinctive look. But Hollywood has zillions of dollars to spend. What can you do on a shoestring?

All sorts of things, to be honest.

What Can Chromakey Do For You?

For the budding Tarantino, it can provide a backdrop for your actors on the cheap (or strange new worlds, for the budding Roddenberry). Take a look at this clip, in which three actors running around the beaches of Normandy with a skeletal video crew and some green screen material are digitally composited and multiplied into the '82nd Airborne.

Check out the material shot by the Trekkies at Starship Exeter, whose second online effort stretches shoestring production values into an overall look rivaling that of Desilu's craftsmen in 1966.

Or scroll through the archives of Michelle Malkin's "Vent" clips from her Hot Air.com site. You might not be simpatico with Malkin's politics, but there's much for someone new to online video to learn from her video clips. The best of them boast production values (courtesy of blogger and video technician Bryan Preston) that would allow them to cut into any network nighttime news broadcast.

But getting started with green screen isn't for the faint of heart. At a bare minimum, it requires a blend of software, camera, lighting, the green screen itself.

Also note that while so far I've been calling it green screen, blue is still frequently used as well. In fact, in the past, the main color for both chromakeying and film special effects was blue screen, but beginning in the late 1970s, there was a slow film industry flip-over to green-colored screens for chromakey.

This article credits the first Christopher Reeve Superman movie as spawning the change for obvious reasons–Superman's blue suit risked him appearing invisible in front of a blue screen! This is because digital cameras retain more detail in the green color channel. Additionally, green screens typically require less light to properly illuminate. However, both of these colors share a similar trait: unless you're videotaping an Andorian or an Orion, flesh tones don't contain blue or green. Which is why they remain the two most popular colors for chromakey, even though many of today's chromakey programs use a Photoshop-style eyedropper to set their keys, and can key from almost any color.

Learning The Keys To Chroma

John Jackman's Bluescreen Compositing, published by Focal Press, is a great place to begin to learn the keys to chroma. Jackman, the head of an independent film production firm with over 30 years experience, starts the reader out at the beginning with the technology of yore–Hollywood's blue screen film effects of the 1950s through the original 1977 Star Wars, and the first green screen chromakey systems for video in the 1970s. Jackman's book then quickly moves on, to the various software keyers built into today's popular video editing programs.

These chapters serve as both an overview as to what's out there, as well as a hands-on instruction to getting the best keys from these various programs and applets. A DVD-ROM attached to the book sleeve provides footage for use in these tutorials.

Also included is a chapter on hardware-based keyers, which are popular in studios for live use behind those still ubiquitous TV weathermen.

By the end of the book, and through experimentation with its tutorials, you should have the chromakeys to the highway, whether you'd like to produce The Longest Day with three friends, or become a one-man video news producer.

The Joy Of Virtual Sets

Once you're able to pull off a decent key, it's now possible to put your on-screen talent (or yourself, if you're a one man video band) into all sorts of unique settings, as I did in the above video. In the past television productions required a dedicated studio. Now for about $2,500 for software, lighting kit and a green screen backing, it's possible to "build" a virtual set that looks like it costs a lot more than it does.

Mad at the president? Key yourself standing in front of the White House. Mad at Hollywood? Key yourself into a photo of the Academy Awards stage.

Want to report the news–or comment on it? It's possible to key yourself into a slick looking nightly news set. This video was shot using several of the virtual sets originally produced by Serious Magic, a company acquired a few years ago by Adobe. They're designed to be used with Adobe's Ultra 2 keying software, which provides a relatively low entry price, and has an extremely intuitive, easy to learn GUI. (You'll still likely need an editing program to finish things off, and the clips in my video were later edited together in Adobe's Premiere Pro.) The Ultra 2 demo reel in the video helps to explain some of the very basics of green screen and keying.

As anyone who's spent any time surfing the Blogosphere or YouTube knows, this is a tremendous period of experimentation for Internet video, and it hasn't gone unnoticed. Hollywood in general has always been uncomfortable with the World Wide Web and Silicon Valley's empowering entrepreneurship. Primetime television has been distressed with the idea of YouTube since about five minutes before it arrived.

Traditional big journalism was initially very ill-at-ease with the Blogosphere and the pioneers who preceded it. As PC-based video technology and a growing number of free
video hosting sites make DIY news reporting almost as easy as blogging, and as chromakey applications allow for a low-budget operation to punch far above its weight, look for a similar reaction in the coming decade from television.

Katie Couric might not like the competition she's about to be faced with, but I think she'll get used to it eventually.

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