Earning critical acclaim but not enough of a Nielsen rating to support its cost, the sci-fi western "Firefly" lasted less than a season on Fox back in 2003. That would have been it, were it not for the show's tenacious creator, Joss Whedon, who refused to take cancellation for an answer.
Despite discouraging words from all sides, "I was not done telling this story," says the man behind the successful "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Angel" TV franchises. As it turned out, loyal fans of the series -- dubbed the Browncoats after the garment worn by "Serenity" captain Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) -- weren't done either. A groundswell of grassroots support kept Whedon's dream alive. Sales topping 200,000 copies of the DVD box set made Universal Pictures take notice and greenlight a film version as Whedon's feature directorial debut, with the entire TV cast intact.
The story, which takes place several months after the last episode in the series, was the easy part. Though including nine "Firefly" characters plus two new ones (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor and David Krumholtz) was a challenge for Whedon, it wasn't as complex as opening up the action for the big screen, making it fun and accessible to unfamiliar viewers while pleasing the faithful, and doing it all for under $45 million. We spoke to Joss Whedon and other members of the cast and crew of "Serenity" to learn how they did it.
In this article, we'll look at the special effects that went into making "Serenity" real, as well as weapons, armor, costumes and characters.
The First Battle: The Mule vs. the Reavers
Whedon was nothing if not prepared going in. "Joss has it so completely formed on the page for you and in his mind," says Adam Baldwin, who plays mercenary Jayne. "We had two weeks of rehearsal before we started filming. We focused a lot on the main dialogue scenes early on, but we also focused on the mule chase scene, which we did on location. The weather cooperated and we were able to get all that stuff in. Once we got to the studio, we were home free. It felt like we were right back workshopping our little TV show on these giant Universal soundstages."
That chase scene, involving the "Serenity" crew and a ship of cannibalistic Reavers, was the responsibility of Loni Peristere, the visual effects supervisor and second unit director on the film. "They're in a hovercraft, being chased down by a scary-looking Reaver ship that's firing sawblades and harpoons," describes Peristere, a self-proclaimed "graduate of Joss Whedon University." He worked with the director on "Buffy," "Angel" and "Firefly" and is now a partner at Zoic Studios, a visual effects house.
"On a big budget feature we'd use a lot of green screen and digital doubles, but we didn't have that kind of money on this movie," notes Peristere. "So we found a way to photograph it and use as little digital effects as we could and still make the sequence feel contemporary, interesting and fast-paced. We engineered a rig that could suspend the flying craft 15 feet adjacent to a tow vehicle. We had two giant steel arms that we floated the hovercraft on so that it could be suspended over real terrain and towed safely up to 45 miles an hour," he explains.
Set dressers brought in trees and brush to cover the highway ledge, and cameras were mounted on the tow rig and a following car to capture the sequence. "That was the most fun I've had working in my entire life," says Baldwin of the scene, which required some post-production effects work.
"We had to match and replace the road and terrain and the rest of the world that you see when you widen the lens," says Peristere. "We took detailed measurements of the road and replaced that road with a computer generated terrain system that used elements from the scene to mimic what was on the screen. We photographed the plants, made them in 3-D and we imported them into our terrain program. Then, for 99.9 percent of the shots that feature the Reaver ship that did not have actors hanging out the windows, we put that entirely in 3-D."
The battles in "Serenity" get bigger as the movie goes on. Read on to learn about how the effects team made ten ships into fifty for the climactic last battle.
The Last Battle: Serenity vs. the Reavers
The big battle later in the film involved 200 different spacecraft and posed a different sort of challenge. "Reaver ships are cobbled together and no two look alike," explains Peristere. "We had to be creative. We took parts off ships and reapplied them in different ways and shapes, with digital tool kits. We made ten ships look like 50."
Having the camera take a single point of view for that sequence also saved some cash. "In traditional coverage in CG, you might have 10-12 different angles of the battle, but we had what we called our virtual dogfight camera," Peristere says. "We had our animators pretend they were a chase plane following Serenity and their goal was to keep Serenity in frame as best as they could while missiles, vehicles and obstacles get in the way. As a result, we have a frenetic, high-energy chase that's quite unique in terms of visual effects style."
Peristere says the roughly 432 effects shots in "Serenity" doubled their original calculation, but did not break the allocated $7 million budget. "We constantly shifted money around and changed the complexity with Joss so that we could accommodate the best movie for the money that we had. We moved a lot of money around to make things work. Joss wasn't devastated when he had to lose a shot as long as it told the story."
Whedon's TV background helped him "know what you can have and what you can't, and never being indulgent. You choose your battles, and you shoot just what you need. I don't build a wall if I'm not going to see it. I know exactly what my perspective is before I shoot. Plus," he continues, "I had actors who had been workshopping the characters for a year and a half. So we were really able to save an enormous amount of time and just put every dollar on the screen. And none of us were working for a lot of money so there was zero overhead."
But "Serenity" isn't limited to Reavers and space battles. Next, we'll look at the training and costuming that went into making the movie's characters real.
Characters and Costumes
The Asian influences in "Firefly" carry over to "Serenity." "Joss feels like if you were to look at the world like a giant cultural pie, Asia is very important and that if you were to advance civilization by 500 years, that's going to be the predominant culture," says Peristere. "It's looking at what scientists and sociologists are forecasting and putting that into this world. Also it's pretty, intricate and beautiful, the art and culture. It brings a nice sort of tone to the space that we're in."
Whedon stresses, however, that "Serenity" is less about visuals than character -- and what the actors playing them can do. "What Summer Glau can do with her feet, money can't buy," he says, referencing the ballet-trained actress' transformation into the lethal fighting machine that is the telepathic River Tam.
"I was used to training and going to the gym, but this is completely different muscle memory. I had to completely retrain my body, and it took three months, all day, every day," says Glau, who did all but two sequences herself. "But all the swords and blade work, the guns and the daggers, I did myself. I felt every punch and kick," she notes.
Her co-stars trained too, albeit less intensively than Glau, in what Fillion says the cast affectionately called "Fight Like a Girl Club." "I'd be done and Summer was still there, fighting against nine guys," he says admiringly.
Weapons were another major part of the action mix. "They weren't sure who would be shooting what so they had us get familiar with everything that could possibly work its way into the script," says Sean Maher, who plays Dr. Simon Tam. Jewel Staite (ship's mechanic Kaylee) adds, "This one gun was so heavy that every time I shot, it would ricochet and I'd get burns all over my legs." Baccarin had to learn archery for the movie. "I really took to it. But when the time came to shoot, they were like, 'all right, let's clear the set.' Everybody put on goggles and hard hats. But they gave me an X to hit, and I hit it every time."
Reprising their roles took less effort. "We'd already established these characters and relationships," notes Gina Torres, who plays Zoe. "For me, the hard thing was getting into those damn pants."
Incidentally, all the costumes were remade for the movie. "This time my pants had pockets, which they didn't in the series. I had a place to put my script sides," says Fillion, who relishes playing the darker side of Malcolm. "He's a cranky, mean guy but I like him because he fights all the time -- fights he knows he's not going to win. He doesn't fight knowing he's the champion and is going to kick everybody's a**. He fights because he's got anger inside him and he needs an outlet."
He and his co-stars stayed in close touch since the end of "Firefly," and appreciated the chance to reunite and finish what they'd started. "We got canceled so quickly that there was no closure, so being able to play these characters again felt very gratifying," explains Staite.
Next, we'll look at plans for the future of "Serenity."
The Future of "Serenity"
Asked to account for the untimely demise of "Firefly," those involved blame ratings, the clash of art and finance, shifting timeslots and scheduling against post-season baseball. Whedon is particularly blunt. "Fox wasn't interested and had no intention of airing the show. Why go through nine months of labor so you can strangle your baby?" he asks.
Fans kept Whedon's baby alive by spreading the word, buying the DVDs and flocking to a series of early screenings around the country. "They're incredibly loyal," says Baldwin, also praising Whedon for never giving up on the project. "I couldn't let it go," says the director. "I had a story to tell with these people, and Universal got it and nurtured what I was doing. I do feel a certain measure of vindication, but I don't measure the movie by it. It's important for me to remember that the history of the movie is not the movie itself. Anybody who doesn't know how we struggled to get it out there has to enjoy it too," he reminds.
The cast is signed for two sequels, which they and Whedon would gladly make. "There are more stories to tell with these characters, so if the opportunity came up, I'd jump. We had a lot of fun and I think it translates on screen. I believe that if people see it, they will like it," says the director. He wouldn't rule out another TV version either, but adds "though I don't know who owns the TV rights."
Whedon is currently writing the script for the upcoming "Wonder Woman" movie. "And no, it's not cast," he adds. Peristere, while directing commercials and involved at Zoic with TV series including "CSI", "Battlestar Galactica" and "Prison Break," hopes to re-team with Whedon. "I'm 100 percent committed to anything and everything that Joss would ever ask of me," he says.
For lots more information on "Serenity" and related topics, check out the links on the next page.