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New Software Lets You Become a Do-It-Yourself Movie Star

You wouldn’t believe how often greenscreen effects show up in movies these days. Heard of it? That’s where, while filming, the actors perform in front of a wall (or an entire set) that’s been painted solid bright green. Only in their heads do they see outer space, or ancient Rome, or the Matrix. Later, software replaces every speck of green in that footage with preselected background video. The result: The actors look as if they’ve been in the Matrix all along.

Director John Moore, actor Bruce Willis and actor Jai Courtney attend the dedication and unveiling of a new soundstage mural celebrating 25 years of 'Die Hard' at Fox Studio Lot.
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Director John Moore, actor Bruce Willis and actor Jai Courtney attend the dedication and unveiling of a new soundstage mural celebrating 25 years of 'Die Hard' at Fox Studio Lot.

A greenscreen is really handy if, say, you’re “The Daily Show” and want your fake correspondent to appear as if he’s in Baghdad or Times Square. But until now, most normal people have never even considered getting a greenscreen apparatus for their homes.

A company called Yoostar thinks it’s found a reason for you to get interested in greenscreen technology. For $170, the company offers a kit containing a six-foot green cloth; a collapsible, X-shaped frame that stretches the cloth taut and keeps it vertical (called a quadpod — instead of tripod, get it?); a nice Web camera with stereo microphones, also suitable for Skype or other video programs; a remote control; and a software DVD.

The DVD contains the key to all of this: clips from famous movies, in which one actor or the other has been painstakingly painted out. The idea, of course, is that you can take the actors’ places, saying all their lines, emoting their emotions and, in effect, co-starring with famous real actors.

For example, one clip shows John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd jumping into a car in a clip from “The Blues Brothers.” You can take the Belushi role and converse with Aykroyd; you can take the Aykroyd role and talk to Belushi; or you and a buddy can play both parts. The greenscreen behind you eliminates your actual surroundings, and the Yoostar software makes it look as if you’re actually sitting there in the Blues Brothers’ car.

The equipment is beautifully made. Everything has a slightly rubberized coating, which makes it feel cool and grippy. The video and audio quality are terrific.

The software has 14 movie clips to choose from, most 20 to 60 seconds long. After viewing the original scene a couple of times, you choose which actor’s performance you want to replace. A diagram appears on the Windows PC screen, showing how you’re supposed to sit and where to position the PC’s monitor. (Mac software is in the works, says the company.)

When you finally click Record, Yoostar asks you to step out entirely of the frame for a moment. At this point, it takes a silent picture of the empty greenscreen; that snapshot will help it extract you from the green background later.

Finally, you click Record again. The original movie scene plays, but now you’re in the scene, too, acting with the co-star from the original movie. You can respond with the original dialogue, make up entirely new lines or just giggle incoherently.

When the scene is over, you can watch the resulting video, delete it, save it, or click Try Again. You’ll almost always want Try Again after the first rough stumble through a scene.

When it’s all over, you can post the resulting scene to Yoostar.com for your adoring fans to enjoy.

It sure sounds like a lot of fun, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, it’s not. For two broad reasons.

First, greenscreen setups aren’t easy. They’re fussy. They have to be lighted perfectly and evenly. One little shadow or wrinkle, one stray sunbeam from a window, and your onscreen persona leaves a bizarre “shadow” of green pixels wherever it moves. Getting the distances right (camera to you, you to greenscreen) and getting the lighting right (on you, on the greenscreen) is a hassle.

Second, although the Yoostar kit is already on sale, it’s by no means ready for prime time. The software is a disaster.

It crashes constantly. Playback scroll bars don’t work. Cuts from one camera angle to another include one empty frame where you’re supposed to be, creating a blink of emptiness that destroys the illusion. A bizarre empty green window sometimes appears on the screen after a “take,” making it impossible to review your recording. Sometimes no audio gets recorded. Sometimes the camera shows only a still frame, and has to be unplugged and replugged.

The onscreen instructions tell you to press the round red Record button on the remote — but there isn’t one. (The remote has only an O.K. button, a dot button, a Play button and four arrow buttons that don’t do anything at all.) It’s nice that you can start and stop recording using the remote, so you don’t have to keep running over to the PC — but you can’t activate the Delete, Save and Try Again buttons using the remote, so you have to keep running over to the PC anyway.

The software floats in a rectangle on your screen, leaving huge black margins all around — and rather obnoxiously hiding your Windows Start menu and taskbar.

The company acknowledges most of the bugs, calls it the usual 1.0 bumpy road, and says that bug-fix patches are coming soon.

David Pogue is a columnist for the New York Times and contributor to CNBC. He can be emailed at: pogue@nytimes.com.