Lighting Green Screens For Streaming, Part 1: Screen Dreams

So. You’re a streamer or content creator using video of yourself over some other footage. You don’t want your space in that video of yourself and the obvious answer is a green screen. Lots of streamers have them and kits on Amazon don’t cost a huge ton. But there are a lot of considerations to this and getting it to truly look good. The following is part one of a series of tips and tricks for improving your lighting setup when using a green screen while streaming or creating video content on Twitch, YouTube, Mixr, Picarto, and the like.

But, Like, Do You Have Space For This?

This probably sounds super obvious, making sure that you have the physical space for a green screen, but you’d be surprised how much room it actually can take up. To judge: sit or rest at your streaming setup then stand and move away from it as normal and add another .5–1.5ft or so. That’s about how much room you’ll need to safely and accessibly set up a green screen, which will also take up to 1ft of space. Some of that space can safely overlap. If it feels like that’s starting to get especially tight or you’re doing acrobatics to go to the bathroom, consider instead giving yourself an interesting background in soft focus. Green screens are nice and look clean but they aren’t necessary by any means.

Other considerations are things like if the room has a lot of natural light and windows (great for real estate listings but the light will mess with your green screen slightly differently every moment of every single day), other occupants to your house, and as with anything the actual total cost of equipment. Some of those can be substituted with other options or accounted for in case something happens.

What, Truly, Is In A Screen?

So you’ve decided you’ve got the space or maneuvered things around to make it work. You hop on Amazon, type in “green screen” and get something like this:

This is just the end of page 1 of 65…

Big screens, small screens, collapsible screens, muslin screens, non-woven screens, screens with supports, screens by themselves, screens with lights, screen that go onto the floor, screens with hooks like a shower curtain, screens that get the clamps… Needless to say, it’s a lot to try to take in. So here’s a few considerations to help you narrow things down to the screen that works best for you.

First, That Shit You Don’t Do

First things first, here’s a few things you don’t want to do. Some of these are hard or impossible to avoid but try to avoid as many as possible.

  • Use a fabric with a textured surface: This isn’t a mistake you’ll run into if you buy a green screen as part of a kit or from most retailers. However, if you’re on a budget and at the local fabric store, it can be a problem. Surfaces that are textured like velvet or others with short hairs/fibers will show up on camera as different color tones and be hard to key out. Try dragging your hand over fur or velvet and take a look at the path left behind to see what I mean. This will only be a problem if you buy fabric make your own screen but be aware in case the one you buy is fuzzy. Return it immediately and question the retailer’s life choices.
  • Use a fabric with a easily visible weave: This one will also probably only come up when you buy your own screen. More open weaves will be easy to spot because you’ll be able to look through them and pretty clearly see the other side. Think of nylon stockings in comparison to opaque tights and how different they can look. The problem they create is that then the color of the screen (with anything behind it) isn’t even. That makes it harder to make a solid color to remove and then makes you reliant on your software, lighting, and skill to completely remove it.
  • Use a color close to one you wear often/matches tattoos/approaches skin tone/etc: This one is really hard to follow in practice. If you’ve ever watched a streamer with color tattoos or who has a shirt that is “missing” parts or seems to vibrate slightly due to how close the screen color is, you’ve seen this problem in practice. That’s actually part of why green is what’s used for chroma keying/green screen. It’s not usually a skin undertone or used for lighting in film and video. The same goes blue, though somewhat less so. For instance, a lot of local television weather forecasts are recorded in front of blue screens. If you have tattoos with green but not blue, search for a blue screen instead. Otherwise, a green screen is the best bet. In theory, any color can be chroma keyed but others can also be present in/on the lit subject (probably you). For instance, I personally have used bright pink and bright orange when shooting puppets for a stop motion animation because the puppets had both blues and greens but not pinks and few oranges.
  • Draw more power than an outlet/circuit can handle: This is a pretty big one but also incredibly hard to actually control. Do everything you can to avoid overloading a circuit, especially over long periods of time. Here’s a guide on balancing your usage. This is especially important in older homes and apartments with older wiring.

So Which Screen Is My Screen?

There’s a lot of considerations when picking the right screen for you, aside from just space as mentioned above, and all of them affect costs.

  • How much do you need to get rid of? You rarely, as a streamer, need to remove huge swathes of a background. You need about a foot or more above your head to about sitting waist height, depending on how far back you screen is from your back, how close your camera is to your face, and your cropping. This, however, only works if you’re usually capturing yourself at a desk. If, say, you want to capture your whole body, you will need a screen that trails along the floor with a longer length depending on how far away your camera will be and how much is shown. More screen is fine, except if the screen trails on the floor and intersects with your active space while recording. This is incredibly important because green screens need to be as absolutely flat as possible to be as consistently easy to chroma key as possible. Rolling over the bottom with a chair, stretching and creating wrinkles, folding while not in use… All these will lead to uneven surfaces. In this case, pin or otherwise secure any extra screen real estate out of the way to avoid any problems. If you absolutely have to move over part of the screen while recording, you’ll need to secure the edges and make sure the screen’s transisition along the floor is a gentle curve instead of a harsh bend.
  • Does the screen need to be moved when not in use? If your screen and especially lights for it need to be removed, even if only only temporarily or occasionally but still consistently, this has to be a consideration. Does the frame it hangs from also need to be moved? A good compromise might be a collapsible screen. These are often used for photography and film on location but they are relatively restrictive due to their size. Can the frame stay but the screen or lights can’t? Hanging your screen with hooks or clamps is a good comprise but be sure to use something like artist’s tape to mark where things go. Don’t have to worry about moving things? Then the screen world is your oyster and dependent on your preference. As I mentioned, these are considerations and aren’t necessary but setup time will be added to your stream.
  • How many lights can you stand sitting under? The trade-off of a larger screen that covers more is that there is more screen to light (which I’ll cover next time). That means you need more lights. More lights will need more space, more support, more power, more ways to secure cables, and more ways to mark where everything goes. Remember as well, if you’re capturing your full body, you’ll need to light the entire screen and the floor it trails over as well to chroma key it so everything is removed properly. Speaking from experience, it’s truly a lot to cover with lights.
  • Do you have a precocious or clumsy roommate/child/pet/self/etc? We’ve totally all been there. You’ve got something done perfectly, you leave it for a bit with a feeling of accomplishment, and you come back to it being lopsided. This is a situation where you might need to get creative. You could use the solutions for a removable screen and very carefully and heavily mark where things go with tape and marker on tape. You could get an extra sturdy frame then weight the legs with sandbags or other weights. You could even get heavy black-out weight fabric and a well supported curtain rod and hang the green screen like a curtain. Having a machine washable screen isn’t a huge concern, however, unless messy accidents occur often enough to warrant it. This is one where you’ll need to use your best judgement to suit your situation.

But there’s more to this whole business than just the screen, though that’s how a good green screen makes it look. The most important things are actually lights and how they’re positioned around the subject and the screen. But I’ll cover that beast next time, with diagrams and all.

If you’ve enjoyed this tutorial or found it particularly helpful, please drop me a tip. The next part of this series will be all about lights, how to light a screen and yourself, and some budget solutions. See you after TwitchCon!