How Does a Green Screen Work: The Ultimate Guide

Once the domain of only the biggest summer blockbusters, modern computers have brought the green screen effect to the masses. Now, many of your favorite streamers or YouTube stars chroma key themselves using programs that cost as much as a video game, rather than requiring a Hollywood budget.

If you are interested in making videos yourself, you've likely seen how prolific this effect is now and wonder how it all works. In this post, we'll take a look at how the green screen effect works to make it look like foreground subjects are in a completely different location.

Is There a Difference Between Green Screen and Chroma Key

The 1978 movie Superman was one of the first major motion pictures to use a new technique called chroma keying. Back then, a blue screen was used for the effect, though now a green screen is more common. It is so much more common that 'green screen' is generally thought of as the effect's name. In reality, using modern tools, the screen can be any color. Green is chosen because it is less likely to clash with foreground objects.

In filmmaking, keying is when you take a part of the picture and make it transparent to combine two shots into one. There are several ways to accomplish this task. A much more tedious method involves having someone trace a mask over the film and using exposure tricks to combine the masked frame with a background frame. Modern technology even allows us to use an AI trained with machine learning to detect and remove a video's background without any special setup. When the keying is based on color, it's called chroma keying.

So colloquially, green screen and chroma key are the same thing. Though technically, a green screen is just a tool used in chroma keying. 

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How Does a Green Screen Work?

On modern computers, everything is digital. This makes the work of the green screen software easy. It simply needs to loop over all the pixels in the image and remove any that is the color you've chosen: green in most cases. Of course, getting a good chroma key effect requires a bit more finesse. First, the green screen needs to be evenly lit. If the color's intensity is constantly changing due to varying light conditions, it's harder for the software to know which pixels you want it to remove.

When chroma keying, lighting is essential in another way. Imagine you want to put your actor outside on a sunny day, where the sun is coming from the left. If you film them inside with a cool fluorescent light coming from the right, the two shots will not match up. The actual process of the chroma key could work flawlessly, but it won't be a very convincing effect. Good effects artists will go to great pains to ensure that both shots' lighting is similar enough to sell the shot. For computer-generated effects, a light probe is taken of the real-life scene. The computer can take that image and use it to light the CG scene. With very little extra work to match things like saturation and brightness, the two shots will match up.


Green screens are easily obtained, and software powerful enough to perform chroma-keying, such as VideoStudio, is available at prices anyone can afford. There has never been a better time to take up the art of chroma keying and let your imagination run wild. Whether you want to place yourself in front of a static background or create the next indie sci-fi masterpiece, green-screen effects are accessible and easy-to-use.

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