Green Screen Technology: Former President Barack Obama is out promoting his new memoir, A Promised Land. But press tours in the age of COVID look a little different. In a recent interview with Oprah Winfrey for her Apple TV+ series The Oprah Conversation, the former President and the iconic host appear to be sitting across from each other in a cozy living room. In opposing armchairs, the two sit beside a crackling fire, and chat as if they are together in Oprah’s living room. But looks can be deceiving.
In fact, they were actually on opposite coasts, with Obama speaking from a studio in Washington DC and Oprah in her home in California. Due to coronavirus restrictions, the interview had to occur remotely. But with a little tech magic, the two were able to pull-off an intimate-feeling conversation.
Together and Apart
“Through the miracle of technology, we get to be face-to-face in the same room, and we don’t have to wear a mask,” Oprah says in the episode’s opening minutes. Meanwhile, Obama, who sat in front of a green screen in Washington, laughs that “we have a fire going, apparently,” in reference to the crackling fireplace that was technologically projected behind him.
Oprah is famous for her intimate conversations with some of the world’s most influential people. As such, it was important for her to recreate some in-person ambience, even if the pandemic wouldn’t allow it. “Nothing compares to being in person,” she said, “but this was the next best thing.”
But the Oprah/Obama interview was not the first to employ such futuristic technology in the coronavirus age. The TV mogul admits that she was inspired by the first episode of Drew Barrymore’s innovative new talk show. In its premiere, guest Cameron Diaz seemed to be sitting in a chair right by host Barrymore, except they were not really in the same room. The realness of the green screen technology assured Oprah that she could continue filming her intimate chats, even if she couldn’t truly host her guests.
Oprah’s team took a number of measures to make the conversation appear as authentic as possible. First, they placed a monitor directly at each person’s eye level, so it would look like they were actually making eye contact. Oprah has lamented that virtual chatting can make conversations feel less organic, as nonverbal cues like facial expressions are harder to discern. The large HD monitors, however, gave her a more lifelike view of the former president’s face, making the conversation feel more natural.
“Certainly it’s far better being person,” Oprah explained, “but this was as close as you can get, because you are looking at the other person’s body language. Rather than looking directly into the lens, you’re looking at the person’s full body, their facial expressions, their movement. Everything.”
Additionally, to ensure that the final image truly appeared to be a singular living room, producers placed matching furniture on both sets with “extremely precise” measurements. Both camera crews used the same cameras, lenses, lighting, and audio equipment to ensure perfect synchrony. Furthermore, Obama was told not to wear any green or white articles of clothing because they disappear in front of the green screen.
Ultimately, the stitched-together interview could not have appeared more real. Perhaps the only giveaway that the two were not really in the same room is that they both raised their voices slightly as if talking on the phone. Still, it was pretty remarkable. And it set a new standard for virtual production values.