My Experience With Keying
While I wouldn’t necessarily refer to myself is a “Green Screen Guru”, I have my share of experience with pulling color based keys. For me is started on a Grass Valley 200 switcher in the late 80’s with the little spinning knobs you used to select and finesse the color. I remember that little chirping sound it would make as you went from one limit to the other. Just thinking about that switcher really takes me back.
In later years I worked with a Ultimatte 45 external hardware box that allowed you to pull great keys using a component signal. At the time it was a $35k box and the place I was working at would only rent it when we had a project that required it. Sometimes I would run it as part of a studio shoot to check keys as we went, but most of the time it was setup in the online suite I was in.
The difficult part about using this box was that the first few times I used it I only had a few short hours to actually learn the box. As soon as it showed up I would pull out the manual and start reading so that I could at least appear to the client that I knew what I was doing!
Years later we have tools that are so much more powerful right on our computers, and they cost a small fraction of what the original Ultimatte did, or in some cases come free with editing and compositing software. FCP Studio has some ok keyers included, but Primatte inside of Motion is actually pretty good. And AfterEffects has KeyLight, which I find to be the best blue/green screen keyer out there for what I do. It’s rare that I can’t get a good key out of keylight regardless what I throw at it.
Why I Decided To Read It
So with my years of experience you might think that I’m great at pulling keys of all kinds without issue. In fact you may say the same thing about yourself. While I can hold my own for sure, I have always felt there were holes in my knowledge. I learned on the job, and only learned about the things that were thrown at me, as opposed to any kind of formal training or even keying basics. We have a reoccurring job at Edit Creations that always seems to be more difficult than it should be. While the keys in the end come out pretty good, they’re not perfect. And while there are times that maybe you decided it’s “good enough” what you’re doing, I want to know that I can in fact pull that perfect key every time, no matter what.
So it was with great pleasure that I found Jeff Fosters new book, The Green Screen Handbook. The book’s only focus is green screen, and it’s a modern book that’s based on technology that’s available today, not from 10 years ago.
What The Book Is NOT
If you’re hoping that this book has tons of difficult keying examples with step-by-step detailed instructions on how to get great results, it is not. It does not get into what slider bar to adjust or which keyed is the best for which situation. This is what I was hoping it was. While I was disappointed initially, as I kept reading I realized it was much more comprehensive and covered the entire process, not just the post production part.
What Is Covered
The book starts out with a history of how we got to where we are today with travel matts, and what it was like in the early days. I actually found this part of the book fascinating and really enjoyed it. It gave me a good appreciation for what we have today and I couldn’t help thinking that the originators of the technology would really be amazed with what can be done now with relative ease.
Jeff goes on to explain the difference between blue and green screen (and when to use one over the other as well as when to use both at the same time), and hardware vs. plug-in based tools.
What I really ended up liking about this book is the way he covered everything from pre-production through post, as well as different budget levels. In other words, no matter where you are in the spectrum, if you do green screen work you’ll find something that applies to your part of the world.
One of the most important things I learned from reading the book was that the reason that some of my keys are difficult to pull, is that there are some issues related to the way they are shot. First, there would be a great benefit to using green bulbs to light the green wall (I didn’t even know you could do that). There are specific bulbs made just for this purpose. Second, and the biggest problem we’re having is the video we’re recording, while in HD and the P2 format, has too many compression artifacts, thus we are getting very noisy source footage to start with. There are some adjustments that can be made in the camera, but we are also considering recording uncompressed right out of the camera to ProRes 4444 on a Ki Pro. Our next shoot is coming up in a few months, and I look forward to implementing some of the new ideas.
There is a section of the book called “How the Pros Do it” that make my little head shot keys look like child’s play. It’s interesting to see some of the high end work with explanations on how they accomplished the scene.
Other topics covered include the importance of pre-production and storyboarding, testing shots as well as your workflow, having your talent interact with background elements and how to retain natural shadows from your subjects.
Overall I was very impressed with the work that went into this book and feel like I will be a better green screen artists having read it. It reminded me of when I took a motorcycle riding class years ago. Going into the class I thought I knew it all (or at least a lot). But once I was done with the class I realized how little I really knew, and was a much more confident rider.
There is a DVD that comes with the book (unless you buy the Kindle version, more on that later) that includes tons of goodies organized into folders that match the chapter numbers. You’ll find movie clips PS files and AE files that let you see first hand how some of the examples in the book were created.
Don’t Buy The Kindle Version
I love my iPad and the Kindle App, so when I realized I could buy the book and have it instantly I didn’t hesitate. However, a book like this probably would have been better in print. Here’s why.
Formatting on Kindle books is great, if you have a simple text layout with few images that can be shown in-line. Because this book is about visuals as much as the printed content, the formatting was just terrible. This is not the fault of the author, but of the Kindle book format itself. It just does not allow for free flowing organic looking layouts. I could have gotten by with this and still been happy with the Kindle version. The big problem was that you get no DVD with the kindle version, and that is a deal breaker for me. I was able to get a copy after making a few phone calls, but this was the exception. No physical book, no DVD.
Applying What I Learned
There are 3 main things I’m going to change in our reoccurring project based on what I learned in this book.
1) Shoot with green bulbs. This is covered in great detail in the book.
2) Record uncompressed out of the camera into a codec that is more “keyer friendly”, or at least to one of the higher bandwidth ProRes codecs.
3) Try some slightly modified techniques in keylight to see if a different approach will yield different results this time around. Another takeaway from the book was that there is no one single technique that works in every situation, and I picked up a few new ones from the book.
I love learning. I love feeling like I have a challenge, I overcome it and have a new set of skills that I didn’t have before. This book really delivered that experience for me.
In my opinion if you are a video professional that either shoots or edits green screen scenes, this book is a must read to take you to the next level. I can’t think of anybody that I know that wouldn’t learn something from this book and improve their craft.
Another great resource is Alex Lindsay of Pixel Corps fame. He’s done some great web posting on the work that he does, with some real world examples. I’ve been really impressed with not only his process and what he has learned over time, but his openness to share what he knows to help others. We all improve when we help each other. Thanks Alex!
You can find some of his posts here.