Media Math: VFX, Greenscreen and $

Once upon a time,  Hollywood tricks were real insights. But no more. Everybody in the world knows what a Greenscreen is.  In “The Wolf of Wall Street” comparison (see more at, we can see the Stage (top photo) and the final result (bottom).   They used flooring because specular lighting  in VFX is difficult to create between Actors and Lighting.  Specular Lighting is

A specular highlight is the bright spot of light that appears on shiny objects when illuminated (for example, see image at right). Specular highlights are important in 3D computer graphics, as they provide a strong visual cue for the shape of an object and its location with respect to light sources in the scene.

Simply put, too many moving parts between Actor-Light Source-Flooring-Shadows-Reflections would make VFX against a Greenscreen floor very difficult and costly.  Easier to lay down a floor.

Why Should A Writer Care About Greenscreens

Maybe not greenscreens themselves but what they can do.  I built one in my garage (painting the garage door and a hanging green screen)  for several projects.   You can use actual professional Greenscreen paint or get a cloth Greenscreen.     Of course, the paint stays where you painted, but the cloth is mobile.

Greenscreens offer enormous flexibility to the Writers Vision.  One can create ships and a harbor in “Boardwalk Empire”, vast mountains in “Game of Thrones” and soaring vistas in “The Hobbit”.

From Stage to Sea

I believe that writers should cultivate a Producer Mentality, offering strategies and solutions for their very own project.  With that in mind, informed suggestions about Greenscreen usage would probably be welcome.  Particularly if you had a list of these in hand when in a meeting about your script.  That piece of paper shows that you’ve genuinely considered the proper use of greenscreen.  And not just wave your hand around yelling ‘Greenscreen’ as a verbal crutch to get the financing for your film.   That excuse sounds too much like “We’ll fix it in post” – a line which made uninformed or uncaring producers the butt of many a joke.

The Best Areas for Greenscreen Use

VFX Crowd Replication

VFX crowd replication

Opinions will vary for the ‘best’ areas for the use of VFX.  Suffice to say that on certain films like the Marvel and DC Comics world like “Avengers” and “Iron Man”, etc.,  huge TV shows like “Game of Thrones” and “Walking Dead”, the cost for VFX is probably the cost.  They need to sell the show and sell it BIG.  However, while the examples are from these tentpole films, the same principles apply to virtually any media project.   I think that VFX can best be used for:

Crowd Replication – crowds can be very costly.  I’ve read that crowd replication software was really developed through WETA in New Zealand for the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.  In their massive battle scenes, they used MASSIVE software.  This software has “the ability to quickly and easily create thousands (or up to millions with current advances in computer processing power) of agents that all act as individuals as opposed to content creators individually animating or programming the agents by hand. Through the use of fuzzy logic, the software enables every agent to respond individually to its surroundings, including other agents. These reactions affect the agent’s behaviour, changing how they act by controlling pre-recorded animation clips, for example by blending between such clips, to create characters that move, act, and react realistically.” (See website for:  MASSIVE)

Background replacement – Hills, vista, skylines, location structures like castles, etc.,   This technique is amongst the easiest because clear separation between active actors and the background is right on the greenscreen.

Difficult Locations – Certain locations are impossible to shoot in like the Alps, Himalayas, etc.,  In the “Wolf of Wall Street” example, we have a seaside quay.    In “The Great Gatsby”, the Roaring Twenties (1920’s for all you non-F. Scott Fitzgerald fans) would impossible to create in today’s Time Square.  Enter VFX.

Dazzling Roaring Twenties Comes Alive!

Notice that in virtually every scene, the locatioren’s set dressing, pictures vehicles, etc., is easier to layout than replicate in VFX.  That means period Picture Vehicles for “The Great Gatsby” and debris in the “The Walking Dead”


What Is Saved with VFX and Greenscreen

Each Script is unique in its Locations, Talent and specific production requirements.  But let’s make a broad (read that again!) list of what a production might save on Stage Using Greenscreen vs. Location Filming.

Assumptions are always present in a project.  Let’s assume (1) the Principals live and work in Los Angeles. (2) Stages are in Los Angeles.  (3) If not using a Greenscreen, then building some sets


Category Location VFX-Stage Greenscreen Cost Winner
Talent Travel-Per Diem-Hotel-Perks None VFX
Transportation Increased Transportation Dept Ideally, talent has a trailer parked outside the stage door. VFX
Extras Actual extras – Breakfast/lunch; addl Assistant Directors VFX
VFX Personnel Would probably have 2-3 on crew Expand crew to 10-12 Location
 Set Construction Expense building, painting, plaster; Transpo increases Minimal builds to enhance actor level work.  VFX
Overall Efficiency Requires Shooting Company movement; unpredictable elements-weather, terrain, etc., Fixed location; Reduced O.T. (hopefully!) and predictable costs.  VFX
 Overall Planning Location scouts with multiple crew. Predictable  VFX
 Overall Film Quality Realism is realism. VFX is getting so good that it’s fine.  VFX
 Overall Cost More expensive Cheaper  VFX


Conclusion – At the End of the Day

The above chart is a broad analysis of the VFX vs. Location choices.   VFX has a great many attributes which make it the ideal production strategy for a film, especially with unique and costly locations.  More importantly, the location moves for the shooting company in a shooting schedule become critical.   If you were shooting Game of Thrones, the shoot for one weekly episode probably involves castles, deserts, glaciers, various rooms, battlements, etc.,   If these were all practical locations, then just moving the Shooting Company from one location to the next location would be incredibly arduous.  Every time the company moves, then you open up the entire production equation with variables.  Who got lost?  Delayed?  Had a flat tire? Suffered an injury because they were tired?  Communications missed that involved movement orders, contracts, location contacts, and more.   Yes, it has and continues to be done in the old-fashioned way.

The Writer should learn more about VFX rather than just assume that anything can be done.  A professional VFX Supervisor will navigate all the unique circumstances of a film through production.  But having a sense of how to make your film and a bit of plan will go a long way to engaging the producer in a discussion where you too are considered not ‘just the writer’ but part of the team.

But with VFX, a show like “Game of Thrones”, “Boardwalk Empire” and others bring to life: Amazing Worlds.  A medieval landscape, the bootleggers life in 1920’s America and more.  By using a greenscreen on a Stage with VFX, efficiencies are gained.  Depth and scope arise in the production.  And your audiences wants – and will pay for – more.

That’s Your Goal.