In the world of movies, it’s always hard to tell what it real and what is vividly imaginative. Green screen technology has only made the differentiation between reality and make-believe that much harder. With green screen a director can transport us anywhere—from the earth’s depths to places found only in dreams. These films have left the old and expensive trappings of furnished sets and the like behind for chroma-key-painted modular cyclorama walls. Here’s a list of major films that have been shot entirely on green screen. It’s not comprehensive and probably never could be as more and more films are produced and filmed in front of massive green-tinted sets.
How do you best represent an exotically beautiful yet dangerous alien world inhabited by elegant and serpentine 10-foot-tall blue-skinned creatures known as Na’vi? Green screen, of course! James Cameron produced and directed his 2009 blockbuster entirely on green screen sets, with actors Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana wearing motion-capture suits to play the roles of Jake Sully and Neytiri in Na’vi form, respectively. A smash hit, Avatar remains one of the biggest and most profitable films of all time, though critical assessments found the movie more interesting technically than as a piece of storytelling. Regardless, a sequel is in the works and due to be released sometime in 2022.
Oz the Great and Powerful
Does a great and universally beloved film really need a prequel after 80 years? Disney thought so, enabling Sam Raimi of the Spider-Man and Evil Dead series of films to create a back story for 1939’s The Wizard of Oz about the titular wizard and how he came to the land “over the rainbow” to become the wizard sought out by Dorothy and her friends. Critical response wasn’t so kind, but credit is due, as green screen and computer-generated imagery (CGI) allowed the Land of Oz to be fully realized as a not-quite-real place inhabited by Munchkins, China-doll people, flying monkeys, wicked and good witches, and so much more. Star power is provided by actors James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Zach Braff (in CGI monkey form), and Michelle Williams, though the clunky storyline might leave the viewer ready to click their heels and say there’s no place like home.
Star Wars: The Revenge of the Sith
It’s hard to remember a time when Star Wars wasn’t a part of the American landscape, but it’s true. In 1999, the last we’d seen of Luke, Leia, Han, and Darth Vader was 16 years before with 1983’s Return of the Jedi. When The Phantom Menace turned up in 1999, it started an avalanche of Star Wars properties, and there’s no end in sight. The prequels were received with mixed feelings, but they did offer two decades worth of technology that gives George Lucas and his collaborators the ability to make more impressive and believable special effects. The Revenge of the Sith went all-in with green screen, dealing out impressive lightsaber battles, outer space dogfights, and more.
If you ever wanted to see George Clooney and Sandra Bullock floating in space, then director Alfonso Cuarón’s 2013 survival epic Gravity was made for you. Green screen and wirework allowed Bullock to spend the film’s 91-minute running time trying to return to the earth while free from the title’s effects. The plot is a typical and satisfying pulse-pounding thriller involving Bullock hopping from spacecraft to spacecraft after a bad space accident, seeking safe passage through the earth’s atmosphere. The green screen allows gorgeous and heart-stopping images of our astronaut leaping, soaring, and tumbling through space. If you were lucky enough to see the film in the theaters where it featured the bonus of 3D technology, the effects were even more impressive. Again, another instance where the “fakeness” of green screens made it all seem very real.
One of the biggest of the major films that have been shot entirely on green screen, 2018’s Aquaman seemed predestined to fail. Featuring one of DC Comics’ less impressive superheroes (Arthur Curry, who needs to stay hydrated to fight crime and, beyond being strong and fast, mostly has the power to telepathically ask fish to help him out), few thought it would be as big a deal as the Batman, Wonder Woman, and Superman franchises had been. Thanks to a combination of humor, stunning green screen and CGI effects of underwater life and battles, and the charisma and charm of star Jason Momoa, Aquaman went on to break box office records, making over $1.148 billion over its budget of around $200 million.
The Great Gatsby
Based on the novel of the same name by lauded Jazz Age author F. Scott Fitzgerald, 2013’s The Great Gatsby was the fourth version of the book and had a tough act to follow with the critically and popularly successful 1974 version that featured acting legends Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. The latest The Great Gatsby was directed by Baz Luhrmann, who is known for his flashy reinterpretations of older properties like Romeo and Juliet and Moulin Rouge. Green screen allowed Luhrmann the latitude and cost-savings to recreate the Roaring 20s and all its glamor and ostentatiousness, showcasing the titular Gatsby’s over-the-top parties and stunts.
Green screen has definitely been a friend of the comic book world. Most superhero flicks feature a bit of green screen here and there, and sometimes everywhere, as the Justice League and Avengers and their respective individual members battle the bad guys. But those movies were about making comic books look real, whereas Sin City was about sustaining reality without losing the feeling and unreality of the comic book page. Sin City is based on a series by comics creator Frank Miller, who reinterpreted Batman, Daredevil, and several other favorite superheroes, and whose ideas continue to be plumbed by comic books, TV shows, and films. Green screen and CGI permit the hard-bitten, two-fisted, film noir quality of the original Sin City comic to shine and shadow through.