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Filming a computer screen


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Hey guys,


I am going to shoot a short next week. One scene includes the actor looking at emails on his computer screen. I wonder what is the best way to shoot it:


- Everything real (this might result in flickering)


- Insert the email afterwards in the whole frame


- Film the computer with a green screen and insert the emails later


I am looking forward to hearing about your experiences




Edited by DanielSydney
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I'd say shoot it for real. Modern cameras are sensitive enough that the light from a computer screen will have a significant effect on the actor's face, unless you're shooting in bright conditions. Flicker generally isn't a problem, but if it is, you can adjust the shutter angle to remove it.

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Each approach has its pros and cons.


PRO Real Screen: minimal limitations on camera movement and angles, potential for interactive lighting and realistic (good) reflections.


CON Real Screen: potential for flicker and rolling shutter artifacts (fix by adjusting the shutter speed and don't dim the screen too far), potential for aliasing and moire, screens are always daylight-balanced (renders blue when camera set to tungsten), potential for unwanted (bad) reflections.


PRO Green Screen: usually looks cleaner, camera can be set to tungsten white balance if desired, can be faster to shoot if screens are prepped in advance.


CON Green Screen: requires tracking markers, freedom of camera and actor movement directly proportional to quality of and resources allotted to VFX department.


CON Shooting Screens Altogether: it's an over-used exposition technique. See 'text bubble' visual effects on 'House of Cards' for more interesting and imaginative uses of relaying the same information.

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Green screen can prevent the reflections that make the screen look real.


Its quite easy to comp a blank screen - keep the real reflections on the glass and luma key them over the inserted video. You don't always need tracking markers as the corners of the screen can be used for reference - as long as the screen bezel is a different colour. So ok on beige PC monitors but not mac's as the edges are hard to track


Its a bit more work if objects cross the screen as you might have to do some roto - but some times you can pull a luma key if the foreground objects are brighter then the screen

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I've found that moire and aliasing are bigger issues than flickering when filming real screens.


I've done it with both real and comped screens and they both have advantages / disadvantages.


It really depends on what you're shooting. Is it more important that the reflections look realistic than the audience being able to read small text? I've done software ads, where the most important thing is seeing what the software does on the screen. At least with my comping skills, it doesn't look extremely realistic, but nobody cares because that's not what is important.


Regardless of which method, a trick that I use to make it readable is increasing the font size on the computer to make it as easy for the audience to read as possible.

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Often the choice of doing in camera vs in post is taken out your hands by the nature of the production - the choice is as much as logistical issue as an aesthetic one.


Every time I've done a production where we comp the screen its been due a scheduling issue. The material to go on the screen hasen't been produced at the time of principle photography. Often because I've had animation produced and its more cost effective to do that after the rough cut - so you know exactly what you need.


Comping is more work then doing it in camera - but I've always enjoyed the option of adjusting the screen content during the edit - rather then getting locked it.


But on scenes where the actor is typing - it may be easier to do in camera for timing - but the actor has to be able to spell

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I would always advocate doing it for real. As for whether you can easily change it later, it will be a question of if the actor or objects ever block fully or partially the view of the screen. If that happens you would have to manually rotoscope them to create a mask for what you are putting on the screen. If you shot with green this would be easier as you could generate a chroma key. But like I said, make a choice and go with it and shoot it for real and it will be 100% believable.

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How do I do the comping ? Do I need to put something green on the computer screen or is it sufficient if II switch the computer off.


Also would it be possible If have shot it real to adjust it afterwards ?

There are a number of ways of doing it. You can cut green paper or felt to size and attach it to the front of the screen and then light that. You can use 2" green paper tape, although then you would have seams, so that works better for phone screens. Or you can simply set the computer to display a solid green or blue field either through the desktop, screensaver, or a photo viewing program. If you do the latter, you will have to watch out for green spill from the screen onto the actor, as well as flicker and rolling shutter issues. You can also just the turn the screen off and add tracking markers for the edges. Since you are doing a VFX shot, it would be helpful to have whomever is actually doing the compositing work to advise you on set during the shoot.


What do you mean by 'adjust it afterwards'? If you shoot the screens for real and decide later that you want to change something on the screen, then you will have to fix it as a VFX shot exactly like the other method. The problem is you may have shot the practical screens in a way that makes it either very difficult or impossible to replace later.


For example, if you shot with shallow depth-of-field and only had part of the screen in focus, or worse, rack-focused through the screen, then that would make comping the screen exponentially more difficult. If you know from the start that the screens may need to be replaced, then you should make sure that the edges of the screens are always in focus. Also, it would be best to avoid out-of-focus objects blocking or moving in front of the screen.


That's why it is best to know exactly what you want and to have the production team agree on how best to achieve each shot in pre-production. Otherwise, you may be shooting yourself in the foot without realizing it.

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If it's a working computer -- hopefully a flatscreen so you don't have to deal with syncing a CRT -- I'd do it for real but if there's a chance that some of it will have to be replaced and comped in post, I'd do a version that is a lock-off with an electronic green field played on the screen (you can just create a green JPEG and play it fullscreen.) Doing it both ways means you're covered.

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