Education, Pro Tips

TVs, Phones, Computers: How to Shoot Screens for Graphics Integration


Audra Coulombe is the Marketing Manager for The Molecule, a VFX, Motion Graphics, and VR company located in New York and Los Angeles.

One of the first things that visual effects artists learn is how to integrate footage into an empty TV screen, smartphone display, or other kind of monitor. It’s a “frequent flyer” type of shot for many VFX companies around the world.

To a newcomer, this might sound surprising — after all, why can’t you just shoot a scene involving a TV, smartphone, or tablet with the screen playing the content you want? As Molecule producer Ezra Christian explains, “Nine times out of ten, the reason is to give you more flexibility in post-production. If you shoot the scene practically, it can either be harder to replace and/or justify the expense to replace the content if the cut changes or the creative dictates a change.”
Pond5 has already featured a number of posts on the benefits of adding awesome graphics to screens. What this post will discuss is how to actually film these screens so that you get a great result in post.

Scenario 1: The Screen in Your Shot Is Not Obscured

This one is easy: turn the screen off. That’s it! This scenario is the easiest to set up, and covers most cases.

It also provides useful reflections that your VFX team can maintain, which will help your shot look more realistic. Below, you can see how the reflections on the monitor in the shot on the left are maintained in the finished shot on the right:

Scene from HBO's Ballers

Scene from HBO’s Ballers

Pro-tip: You can move the camera when doing this, as long as the four corners of the screen remain in-frame.

Scenario 2: Actors or Objects Are Obscuring Your Screen

If anything is obscuring your screen at all, you must create separation between the foreground object and the screen. Okay… so, separation: what does that mean? Well, that depends on what is obscuring the screen.

Many teams create separation by making their screen blue or green. This is a great solution, but you must pay special attention to the color of the obscuring object.

For example, if your actor is wearing a blue shirt, you will not have great separation by making your screen blue. Or if you have a green plant obscuring the screen, it’s not a good idea to choose green as your monitor’s color.

Scene from CBS' Bull

Scene from CBS’ Bull

You could also leave your screen black, but you must ensure that your lighting leaves a clear distinction between your foreground object and the screen itself.

Scene from HBO's Ballers

Scene from HBO’s Ballers

Scenario 3: The Screen Goes Off-Camera

Some folks are very generous with their tracking-marker usage in screen-replacement situations. It’s a nice thought, and we in post-production really appreciate that you’re thinking ahead!

However, in our opinion at The Molecule, this scenario is the only time you should ever (ever) use tracking markers for screen replacements.

If you pan away from the screen, zoom in to a point where the screen’s corners can no longer be detected, or the screen disappears from the shot in any other way, then you must use tracking markers. In the following case, the laptop closes, thereby requiring the screen to have tracking markers for replacement:

Scene from Showtime's The Affair

Scene from Showtime’s The Affair

Scenario 4: Cellphones, Tablets, Smartwatches

Good news! The rules from the above three scenarios all mostly apply here, even if your actor is swiping the screen. (Really, we suggest that you don’t use tracking markers in this case, unless your screen exits the shot.)

The important point to remember is this: a wide (not narrow) focal depth is best for this kind of shot. You want the entire screen to remain in focus for the duration of the shot, so that whatever is on the screen is readable by the viewer.

Scene from NBC's Shades of Blue

Scene from NBC’s Shades of Blue

Pro-tip: In all cases, the brightness of the screen should be between 25-50 when you look at the scopes.

Related Post 5 Ways Screen and Motion Graphics Can Enhance Your Work

We don’t want to suggest that monitors can’t be filmed with the desired footage playing while you’re shooting. You absolutely can shoot scenes this way. But if you’re ever unsure of what to include in a monitor, or if there could be potential legal issues with the content you intend to show — or if there is even a slight chance that the contents might change later on — it’s best to follow the tips above.

It also means that you can hold off until the final stages to choose what to put in the monitor, so for you indecisive folks out there, this is a great solution. Plus, it’s much easier for a VFX team to work with properly shot monitor footage, which will save you time and money in post. “Don’t know what to shoot? Leave it blank, and we’ll fill it in!” says Molecule Compositing Supervisor Rick Shick.

Have any questions? Feel free to leave them in the comments!