Green screen: getting worse, or just easier to notice?

In keeping with my usual practice of focusing on the most trivial details of an otherwise interesting TV program, I wanted to discuss about 45 seconds of footage in the pilot of Nashville, almost universally considered one of the most promising drama pilots of the season.

Well, okay, first a bit about Nashville. ABC obviously has a lot of hopes for it – the network deliberately ran back-to-back new episodes of Modern Family last night so the new show could have the best possible lead-in. The pilot, while filled with exposition and other forms of pilot shorthand (always necessary to set up every relationship and conflict in a few seconds) was quite juicy, sort of a combination of the ABC soap form with the epic, politics-infused style of The Good Wife. Like Smash last season, it’s an attempt to build a large-scale cable-style series but with at least some characters who are basically good, and therefore more accessible to a large audience than the average cable character.

Whether it takes off like The Good Wife or goes downhill like Smash will depend a lot on future episodes, and particularly whether it can do a good job balancing the political aspects of the story – which look to be more heavily emphasized in the next two episodes – with the show business backstage stuff. But it does start with one advantage over Smash: while that show made virtually everyone a good person at heart (except one minor character that nobody liked), Nashville is founded on a more solid, classic All About Eve foundation with one “good” character and one “bad” character at the centre of the action. The Hayden Panettiere character is not all bad, and her backstory with her mother is going to be expanded on in the weeks to come. But by opposing the basically good Connie Britton with the basically mean Hayden Panettiere, the show does establish a basic rooting interest that a lot of shows simply don’t have.

Anyway, back to the trivial detail. In the pilot of Nashville there’s this scene where Connie Britton is driving her daughters in a car, and finds to her horror that they are fans of Hayden Panettiere’s music. (These kids today, following these manufactured pop idols.) This is a pilot, remember, where the budget is higher, there’s more money and time for location shooting, and everything looks slicker than in the series that follows. But the scene in the car looks like a classic rear-projection automobile scene that could have been done in the ’50s, with the blurry backgrounds and the angles that make the car look very much like a couple of chairs propped up on a soundstage. (I suppose there’s always the chance that it could turn out to be a real car, but it sure didn’t look real.)

Was this a problem? No. Blurry rear-projection is just one of those things you accept; if you’re worried about that, then the show already has bigger problems. So this isn’t about Nashville specifically. But like the infamous boat scene in the pilot of Ringer last year, it left me scratching my head about why green-screen scenes look like this. TV has come so far technologically in so many ways, and that includes the use of CGI – you may remember the video from a few years back that showed how seamlessly TV shows use digital backgrounds to make locations look different or bigger. But when it comes to driving scenes, there are more of these ’50s-style shot now than there have been at any time since the days when The Dukes of Hazzard would cut in to the Duke Boys in front of rear-projection plates. So why would the technical standard of TV improve in so many areas, but decline in the one specific area of green screen projection?

The best answer I can give to my own question is that maybe the increased availability of green screen has made shows more willing to use it when they don’t necessarily need to. In Old Hollywood movies, a lot of scenes would be shot in front of plates either because it was easier, or could keep everyone in the studio where the producer could keep an eye on them, or just because they were shooting a lot of retakes after everyone came back from the location. The production style of modern TV sometimes seems similar. In an era of rising costs and tightening budgets, shows may be more inclined to keep shooting indoors where it’s possible, or where using a real car might complicate the schedule (for example, in a scene involving children, whose scenes are always hard to schedule).

The other possibility is that there’s just something about HD video shooting that makes moving backgrounds stick out more than they did a decade or so ago, when most shows used film. (I don’t know if shows today use real video for these backgrounds or if they create them digitally; if they’re digital, that might explain why they don’t look quite right.) Whatever the reason, it’s kind of a relief to realize that TV still hasn’t advanced to the point that every single bit of technological trickery can fool us. After all, if they ever reach that point, they’ll be able to progress to the next stage: digitally replacing the actors in front of the green screen.

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