DIY green screen

How to create a DIY green screen video effect (aka chroma key)

The green screen has come a long way since Lawrence Butler won an academy award for his special effects in The Thief of Bagdad in 1940. Butler was the first person who figured out how to use green screen technology (or more accurately for him, blue screen technology) in a color film; previously the effect was only possible in black and white. Back then, the process was incredibly intricate. It required things like optical printers and multiple film strips.

If throwing around terms like optical printer is making your head spin, you’re not alone. Thankfully, none of those things are necessary today. Nowadays, all it takes to make a passable green screen is about $30, your smartphone…and Camtasia, of course!

In this post, I’ll go over how to make your first green screen video on the cheap. We’ll take a look at the various elements you need to consider: backdrop, software, camera, and lighting. Then, to prove how easy it is, I’ll show you how green screen works in Camtasia.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. Before we get started on the how…let’s talk about the why. Why would you ever want to use a green screen effect in your video? To what end?

What is green screen and why would I use it?

Green screen is when you replace the real background of a video with a digital background. Quite simply, it offers the most natural-looking way to integrate your subject with other types of content you might want to show.  Instead of putting each visual element in its own frame (a la picture-in-picture), green screen lets you blend them seamlessly.

Green Screen vs Picture in Picture

Most everyone has seen a meteorologist use a green screen to report the weather. Meteorologists stand in front of the green screen point out specific parts of the forecast, but the green screen does more than simply provide clarity. It also allows them to personalize their broadcast and connect to their viewers.

Although you may not be detailing cold fronts from your desk, I’d bet you still have opportunities to connect with an audience at work. Green screen is a great option for for adding a personal touch to lots of different types of videos. Consider using it the next time you need to record…

  • presentation slides
  • screen video
  • screenshots
  • photos
  • animated elements

We think the remove a color / green screen effect is a big deal for anyone who needs to connect deeply and professionally with viewers. When done well, green screen can give your video an expensive-looking aesthetic on the cheap. Instead of building a fancy set or renting studio time, you can shoot your video anywhere and replace the background with a branded graphic, stock photo, or video element. If you’re an educator teaching an online course, try superimposing yourself over the lesson you’re teaching. Instant upgrade!

Teacher using green screen

What gear do I really need?

Backdrop (usually required)

To get started today, you just need a regular smartphone (or digital camera that shoots video), some inexpensive software, and a wall that’s painted a color that does not appear anywhere on your clothing, skin, eyes, or hair. Since walls like that are sometimes hard to find, you consider  buying a piece of muslin cloth that’s a hideous shade of green. Something like this:

Green Screen Cloth

You’ll also find blue screen backdrop cloth available, but blue screens can cause problems if the person on camera has blue eyes or clothes.

If you don’t want to mess around with hanging a cloth, a really nice option is a collapsible panel like this:

Collapsible Panel Green Screen

Since it’s not too big (5′ x 7′), it’s perfect for when you need to travel for a shoot. We’ll discuss shadows more when we get into lighting, but for now, just remember to have your talent stand as close to the backdrop as they can without casting a shadow on it (usually 2 – 3 feet). Also make sure they don’t gesture too broadly. Any part of their arm or hand that extends past the backdrop will look cut off in your final video.

Camera (required)

For a camera, you want something that shoots HD quality video (720p or higher) and that saves out files in a format your green screen software can import. Camtasia can import most MP4 and MOV files; we’ve had good success just using an iPhone but most any digital camcorder that generates either of those file types should work.

If you do choose to record on a mobile device, you can easily import your footage directly into Camtasia using our free app, TechSmith Fuse. Fuse connects the images and videos on your phone straight to Camtasia, so you don’t have to worry about getting the files from one place to another.

When you’re just starting out, recording footage on your smartphone might seem daunting. Mike Gruszynski, one of TechSmith’s video marketing specialists, has put together some tips and advice for shooting your mobile videos. He’ll cover everything you need to know about audio, shot composition, and lighting.

Not seeing the video? Watch it on YouTube…

Lighting (optional)

Speaking of lighting, one thing you should keep in mind as you shoot your green screen footage is to minimize shadows. You’ll want a flat green background, no shadow puppets! The flatter the green, the easier it will be to remove the screen.

Shadow Puppets

Don’t worry too much about getting a perfectly lit set though. The remove a color effect in Camtasia is really quite forgiving of background shadows. Spend a few minutes tweaking the settings a bit and you should be good. But if you’re having trouble getting the background to fully disappear or there’s a slight halo around the person, it means you need to upgrade your lighting. The more even your lighting, the better the effect will be.

The easiest thing to try is a couple of hardware store clamp-on work lights with high-output CFL bulbs…and something to clamp them on. Aim the lights so that the green screen doesn’t have dark areas and bright areas. Focus your efforts on the area directly behind the person, as you’ll be able to crop out the excess space around the person later (don’t forget to factor in the person’s “gesture zone”).

To really throw a lot of light, you need multiple bulbs in each fixture. You could build your own video lighting rig for less than $100 (see video below). Or if you’re not into DIY projects, you can shop around for a video softbox. CowboyStudio is a good place to start. Look for “continuous lighting” as opposed to flash or strobe lighting. Whether you buy or build, it’s best to use a diffusion filter for each light, as that will help keep them from throwing shadows.

In this video, Mike Gruszynski not only shows you how to build your own lighting kit on the cheap, but he also provides a few tips of the trade for making your subjects look more natural.

Not seeing the video? Watch it on YouTube…

Software (required)

For software, of course we’re biased toward Camtasia Studio (Windows) and Camtasia for Mac, which you can download and use free for 30 days. The benefit of using Camtasia is that you can easily add screen captures and other media to your project. Plus, removing your green screen is as easy as clicking a button. To help get you started, we have free video tutorials for both the Windows and Mac version of Camtasia.

Not seeing the video? Watch it on YouTube…

Download Camtasia – free trial

C’mon, is it really that easy?

Yes, yes it is. And to prove it, I’ve recorded a quick demo using only footage from my iPhone. While Mike is a video pro, I can’t say the same for myself. If I can do it, so can you!

Not seeing the video? Watch it on YouTube…

So go ahead…put yourself in your video, and tell us how it goes in the comments! We’d love to see all the awesome things our customers are doing with Camtasia!

Download Camtasia – free trial

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in May 2012 by Daniel Foster and has since been completely updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.