From bringing Jurassic World‘s all-too-real raptors back from extinction to rendering Black Panther‘s Wakanda in dizzying detail, the use of green screens in the field of visual effects (VFX) helps create unbelievably “real” movie magic.
Using this special technique, two distinct images or video streams can be layered (or, as the pros say, composited) together, allowing filmmakers to put anything they can dream up on screen. Take a peek behind the scenes of your favorite Hollywood blockbusters to see what iconic moments look like before the VFX team works their magic. Spoiler: It’s ridiculous!
Tiger and Scenery from Life of Pi
Directed by visionary filmmaker Ang Lee, 2012’s Life of Pi earned more than $609 million worldwide and clinched 4 of its 11 Oscar nominations. In the film, a young Indian man named “Pi” Patel tells a novelist his life story.
At age 16, he survived a shipwreck and, adrift in the Pacific Ocean, shared a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger — a.k.a. a lumpy, blue screen-coated stuffed animal. “Every shot was artistic exploration,” said VFX Supervisor Bill Westenhofer. “To make the ocean a character and make it interesting, we had to strive to make it as visually stunning as possible.”
Rocket Raccoon in the Guardians of the Galaxy and Avengers Films
The fast-talking, (arguably) saltiest member of the Guardians of the Galaxy is Rocket Raccoon. Smart and easily annoyed, he is voiced by Bradley Cooper, but all of his lines are recorded in a studio — far away from maquettes and green screens.
Much like wolf-Jacob from the Twilight Saga, Rocket has a human stand-in instead of an inanimate prop. This means the other actors have someone to interact with, and as a bonus, VFX artists can use the motion capture performers facial expressions and (sometimes) gestures if needed. In this scene, though, most of the mo-cap performer was completely removed from the film, thanks to that wearable green screen.
Almost Everything in Gravity
This 2013 space thriller was directed by Alfonso Cuarón and starred Oscar winners Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as astronauts who become stranded in space after their space shuttle is destroyed. Unsurprisingly, the seven-time Academy Award-winning film cleaned up when it came to special effects.
As viewers watch Bullock struggle to return to Earth, they forget that most of what they’re looking at is computer-generated. According to VFX supervisor Tim Webber, a staggering 80% of Gravity consists of CGI. Moreover, to simulate the way unfiltered light in space reflects off objects, the effects team manually controlled a lighting system made of 1.8 million LED lights.
Dinosaurs in Jurassic World — Before
Sci-fi adventure film Jurassic World (2015) is the fourth film in the Jurassic Park series, which debuted way back in 1993. Set 22 years after the classic Steven Spielberg film, Jurassic World holds to a similar premise: A theme park full of cloned dinosaurs is plunged into utter chaos when a dangerous dino escapes from its enclosure.
Although the film cost a whopping $150 million to make, all those VFX dinosaurs paid off — literally. Jurassic World generated $1.6 billion in box office revenue, making it one of the highest-grossing films of all time.
Dinosaurs in Jurassic World — After
In the original film, the VFX were done by George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic — the technical wizards responsible for the amazing visuals in the Star Wars films. A new technology was introduced for Jurassic Park — Dinosaur Input Devices, which were models that fed information into computers, allowing them to animate the creatures like stop motion puppets.
Like with the original films, Jurassic World relied on a mixture of animatronic dinosaurs and computer-generated ones. One added benefit? Motion capture technology. In this scene, Chris Pratt’s character wards off some raptors, which were “played” by actors in suits and shot against a green screen.
Heroics in Spider-Man: Homecoming
Even your friendly, neighborhood Spider-Man needs a helping hand at times. For Spider-Man: Homecoming, the VFX teams wanted to reach new heights and even studied translucent polar bear hair to give Spidey’s webs a realistic look.
In order to give the film a different feel from the webslinger’s previous forays, executive producer Victoria Alonso thought about doing away with Sony Pictures’ ImageWorks, but after being impressed by their work, she enlisted the studio — alongside a dozen other VFX vendors. With more than 2,000 VFX shots in the film, Alonso insisted that “collaboration was key” — and she was right.
The Wolves in the Twilight Saga
Whether you’re “Team Edward” or “Team Jacob,” you can definitely agree that this behind-the-scenes shot from the Twilight films is… uncomfortable. Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) pats Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner) on the head — because that’s way more comfortable than patting a stand-in dog or a maquette, right?
For all of his wolf scenes, Lautner — whose character shifts from human to canine form — donned a gray morph suit and acted out every wolf-like movement. In the age of mo-cap professionals, this is sort of surprising. Maybe Lautner is just really method to the core?
Mustafar Lightsaber Duel in Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith — Before
The Star Wars prequel films clue fans into a lot of important information, but, above all else, they center on Jedi Anakin Skywalker’s (Hayden Christensen) descent to the dark side. Episode III promised to transform the young Jedi Knight into the legendary Darth Vader, which was no small feat.
Fans were waiting expectantly to see how Anakin would betray those closest to him — as well as the Jedi Order and longtime mentor and pal Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor). In true Star Wars fashion, Anakin’s journey ended in a legendary lightsaber fight to the death — sort of.
Mustafar Lightsaber Duel in Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith — After
To prepare for the nearly eight-minute long sequence, McGregor and Christensen trained relentlessly to get the choreography down pat. Fighting with wooden dowels, the duo climbed around on wooden blocks and jumped from green object to green object.
In the final film, the duo fights on the lava-filled planet Mustafar, venturing from a landing pad to a control center and then out onto the factory ramparts, which teeter over streams of molten lava and fire. This makes the fight sequence — and the actors’ portrayal — all the more impressive when you realize it was basically the two of them batting at each other with sticks in a green room.
Josh Brolin’s Thanos in Avengers: Endgame
In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the ultimate “big bad” of the long-running collection of films ends up being Thanos (Josh Brolin), a destroyer of universes. Thanos searches the galaxy for the Infinity Stones, hoping to use their power to magically snap away half of the universe’s population.
While we expected Brolin (or a body double) to wear a pretty extensive motion capture suit to capture the hulking titan’s mannerisms, we didn’t expect him to wear a cardboard cut-out of Thanos’ head high above his own. The reason for the strange choice? It was a clever way to make sure the actors were looking at Thanos’ face in the final cut.
Cyborg in Justice League
Of all the heroes in DC Comics’ long-awaited Justice League, Cyborg (Ray Fisher) may be the least known of the crime-fighting characters. Although he does appear as a member of the Justice League at times, Cyborg has more often been associated with the League’s young adult counterparts, the Teen Titans.
While most of the other heroes in the Justice League lineup got to don Amazonian armor, gauntlets from Atlantis and cool, high-tech suits, Fisher put on a nifty motion capture suit, complete with lights and color-coded sections to make it easier for artists to animate all of Cyborg’s moving parts.
Beast from Beauty & the Beast
Tale as old as time, right? Well, maybe not. While other versions of this story rely heavily on practical makeup effects — or the pencils of talented Disney animators — the 2017 remake, which stars Emma Watson and Dan Stevens as the titular duo, leans into motion capture.
On the left, Stevens dons a rather bulky motion capture suit, which leaves just his face exposed. The end result? A Beast who is nearly all computer-generated — save his eyes, which are the real thing. Allegedly, Disney felt this would give the character that “human element,” but we can’t help but feel his performance was a tad stiff.
Portals in Doctor Strange
Compared to Captain America or Iron Man, Doctor Strange is certainly one of Marvel’s less mainstream characters, but the character’s mystical time-space-bending powers allow for some pretty neat — and rather complex — visuals.
Nominated for a Best Visual Effects Oscar, Doctor Strange was described by cinematographer Ben Davis as “Marvel’s Fantasia,” thanks to its psychedelic, M.C.-Escher-inspired imagery. Director Scott Derrickson echoed these thoughts, saying that the mirror dimension chase was an attempt to take Inception “to the Nth degree… [make it] way more surreal.” Thanks to green screens and some cool lighting effects, the film achieved that vision.
Quidditch in the Harry Potter Series — Before
From the boy wizard slaying a basilisk to the main trio being attacked by giant, enchanted chess pieces, there’s a lot of awesome technical (witchcraft and) wizardry to point to in the Harry Potter series. But who didn’t want to hop on a Firebolt broomstick and try their hand at Quidditch?
Well, Radcliffe was glad to hang up his broomstick when the time came. According to the young actor, the rigs were uncomfortable, and shooting scenes for matches took quite a lot of time, meaning he spent a lot of time dealing with discomfort on the annoying rig.
Quidditch in the Harry Potter Series — After
When shooting a Quidditch match, the crew filmed each actor separately and from multiple angles. Afterward, all that footage had to be pieced together to form a fluid game. Most actors used the mechanical rigs Radcliffe wasn’t fond of, but it meant filmmakers could control (or “steer”) the “broom” for the shots.
Add in some artificial wind and the green (or blue) screen magic and presto — flying broomsticks. According to a behind-the-scenes featurette, a few other Quidditch scenes were shot using trampolines, which Ron Weasley actor Rupert Grint said was “quite scary.”
Fight Sequences in The Matrix — Before
Written and directed by the Wachowskis, 1999’s cyberpunk action film The Matrix took the world by storm. (Kind of literally?) The sci-fi masterpiece depicts a dystopian future in which humanity is unknowingly trapped inside a simulation of reality — a.k.a. the titular Matrix.
The simulation has been created by machines to distract humans from the fact that their bodies are being used as an energy source. When Neo (Keanu Reeves) discovers the truth, he is pulled into a rebellion — one he might have to lead. In creating this stylish film, the Wachowski’s leaned heavily into the aesthetics of Japanese anime and martial arts films.
Fight Sequences in The Matrix — After
In leaning into these visuals, the writer/director duo also capitalized on the use of fight choreographers and the “wire fu” techniques that were popularized by Hong Kong action cinema. In addition to using rigs and wires to create gravity-defying fights, The Matrix is also known for popularizing “bullet time.”
In “bullet time,” a character’s heightened perception is represented by the action within a shot moving in slow-motion while the camera moves at normal speed. Needless to say, this fun effect — and some CGI — allow for Neo to dodge bullets, and it paved the way for an on-screen depiction of Spider-Man’s “Spidey sense.”
Quicksilver’s Speedy Antics in X-Men: Days of Future Past
In X-Men: Days of Future Past, super-speedster Quicksilver (Evan Peters) puts his powers on full display during one of the film’s most memorable scenes, where he dashes around the Pentagon kitchen to reposition and disarm the guards pursuing him and his cohort.
Everything around Quicksilver moves in seeming slow-motion to emulate his point of view, so before Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) can even fully extend his claws, the speedster already makes quick work of the enemies. For the sequence, Peters was filmed running in place, allowing him to act out all of Quicksilver’s antics to a “T.” Later, the VFX team added in loads of CGI props, from bullets to frying pans, all of which had to be choreographed perfectly.
All Those Fight Sequences in 300: Rise of an Empire
“This. Is. Sparta!” And by “Sparta,” we mean the land of green screens. In 300: Rise of an Empire, the film keeps the stylistic flair of its predecessor — as well as what can best be described as a filter those who are new to Instagram run all their posts through.
Jokes aside, Rise of an Empire is a visual treat. This battle on a ship takes place in a green room where prop masters built only the ship’s flooring. You’ll notice the green “X’s” on the ground, which helped actors hit their marks, and VFX artists removed that pesky tape in post-production.
THAT Final Battle in Avengers: Endgame — Before
A 21 film lead-up meant that the anticipation for Avengers: Endgame was high — dangerously high. We all knew it would end in a climactic battle, but, somehow, the folks behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe exceeded our wildest expectations.
Throngs of recognizable characters from the last decade of films filled the screen in the final face-off against Thanos (Josh Brolin). Getting all the characters together took a lot of wizardry — both in terms of the film’s actual plot and in terms of the actual VFX processes behind the scenes.
THAT Final Battle in Avengers: Endgame — After
One of the most exciting shots shows Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie, a character introduced in Thor: Ragnarok, on her trusty winged steed. In reality, that horse was just a saddle-like structure that allowed for a bit of movement, supported by some folks dressed in green suits.
Other characters as well as the Doctor Strange portal effect and the sun-punctured sky behind Valkyrie and her cohorts were all added, thanks to the help of a trusty green screen. In fact, all of the Avengers assembled in a giant green room and just executed a lot of cool fight choreography. The VFX team transformed that gaping room into a battlefield for the ages.
Luke Skywalker’s Robotic Hand in Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi
In Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back, Luke Skywalker loses his hand during a lightsaber duel with Darth Vader. In that same iconic scene, the Sith Lord also reveals that he’s Luke’s father. In many ways, Luke’s on-screen portrayal changed from that point forward.
Although he’s fitted with a robotic hand and a skin-graft in the original films, Luke becomes less interested in hiding his metal phalanges in Episode VIII. In order to capture the look and movement of the hand just right, VFX artists fitted Mark Hamill’s joints with these crafty green bands.
Office Lion in The Wolf of Wall Street
Martin Scorsese’s 2013 dark comedy crime film The Wolf of Wall Street is based on Jordan Belfort’s memoir of the same name. In it, Belfort recounts his career as a New York City stockbroker and the ways in which his firm, Stratton Oakmont, engaged in debauchery, corruption and fraud.
The Oscar-nominated film became Scorsese’s highest-grossing film, but it wasn’t without controversy. Unlike Life of Pi‘s tiger, the lion that padded around the depraved office was the real deal, which drew complaints. While shooting, a handler walked the leashed lion around an empty office. Later, the handler was edited out, and the office employees were added in.
The (Film-Long) Car Chase in Mad Max: Fury Road
Technically, Mad Max: Fury Road is kind of the anti-green screen movie. Director George Miller has stated that 90% of the effects in his post-apocalyptic masterpiece are practical. With droves of modified hot rods, loads of camera rigs and more than 150 stunt performers, Fury Road was filmed on location in Australia.
“As far as I know, the only VFX on our costumes was the green glove [Charlize Theron] wore to hide her arm,” said costume designer Jenny Beavan. “And they also took out wires from the [stunt] harnesses.” Due to the harsh filming conditions, VFX were mostly used to alter the time of day, terrain and weather effects.
Jar Jar Binks in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace
Clumsy but well-intentioned, Jar Jar Binks tried to bring some levity to the prequel films, but for many viewers, he wasn’t lovable at all. Nonetheless, bringing the Gungan to life — CGI tongue and all — was a real feat for the ILM VFX team.
Ahmed Best, who provided Jar Jar’s voice and motion capture performance, had a fun time filming Episode I, even with the Jar Jar maquette on his head. Although fans’ unwarranted dislike led to some dark times in Best’s life, he could take solace in the fact that at least his face wasn’t associated with the much-hated character.
The Android in Ex Machina
Like Mad Max: Fury Road, Ex Machina defines our typical VFX expectations. In this psychological sci-fi thriller from writer/director Alex Garland, a programmer (Domhnall Gleeson) is invited by his CEO (Oscar Isaac) to administer the Turing test to an intelligent robot (Alicia Vikander) to determine her level of humanity.
Made with a budget of just $15 million, Ex Machina ended up winning the Oscar for Best Visual Effects. Impressively, during filming, the crew didn’t use any green screen or tracking markers. Instead, scenes were filmed both with and without Vikander, allowing post-production teams to digitally paint out the parts of her that the android body wouldn’t need.
Carol Danvers’ Flight in Captain Marvel and Avengers: Endgame
In 2019, Captain Marvel became the first female-led superhero film to pass the billion-dollar mark. Although Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel (a.k.a. Carol Danvers) doesn’t require the makeup that other non-human characters require, she still gets her fair share of VFX support.
For one thing, the flying sequences are all done against green screens, with Larson hooked up to various rigs and wires that allow her to perform acrobatic stunts — or be “puppeteered” by the trusty stunt team. In some sequences, Larson’s hair is even digitally added in to give it all those floaty, glowing effects.
Wonderland and Its Inhabitants in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland
Tim Burton’s 2010 Alice in Wonderland kicked off quite a few trends. First, it helped usher in the age of darker, gritty reboots. Second, it kick-started a trend of live-action fantasy films being greenlit by Disney. Third, it cemented Burton’s commitment to making entire fantasy worlds using CGI and green screen effects.
While certain elements of the set were created by designers, most characters and backdrops were dreamed up entirely in post-production. Instead, filmmakers crafted some pretty inventive green screen and mo-cap suits, including the thin-legged, bulbous suits seen here, which were used for Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum.
All Those Gritty Fight Sequences in Superman v Batman: Dawn of Justice
It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s — a lot of green screens. Superman has been around for quite some time, and back in the day, those Christopher Reeve films featured some pretty obvious composite backgrounds — a.k.a. flying Kal-El and Lois Lane were essentially pasted over background footage.
Now, much like Captain Marvel, Superman’s power of flight happens courtesy of some inventive rigs and cables and CGI backgrounds. In Superman v Batman: Dawn of Justice, fans can catch a whole lot of flying fun and some great fight scenes, most of which were shot against green screen backgrounds before being transformed into gritty, dark setpieces.
Kylo Ren and Luke Skywalker’s Duel in Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi
Rian Johnson’s entry in the Star Wars sequel trilogy brought some of the saga’s most thrilling setpieces to life. From Admiral Holdo’s (Laura Dern) sacrificial starship maneuver to Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Kylo Ren’s (Adam Driver) lightsaber battle team-up, The Last Jedi is full of flair.
When Kylo Ren faces off against his uncle and former Jedi Master, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), on the red salt planet of Crait, the snow-like salt is a practical effect — while the rest of the planet is rendered in post. Unlike the Star Wars prequels, which saw actors using wooden dowels as sabers, the sequel trilogies upgraded things a bit.