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Film Theory

A Study of Joss Whedon’s Serenity by Stefanie Wee


500 years from now, the Earth is a shell of a planet, and humans its castaway children,

carrying with them all the baggage of civilization. People now live across hundreds of

planets and moons in a new star system – they are pioneers trying to find a place for

themselves in a harsh frontier environment: Serenity itself is the name of the beat-up

spaceship our main protaganists live in. This is the vision of the future that we see in

Serenity (2005).

Various stylistic elements such as camera angles and techniques, lighting choices, shot

compositions, set design and colour schemes in Joss Whedon's Serenity are important

in establishing the writer/director's vision of the future, the genesis of the narrative and

the development of characters. As Serenity was based on the television series Firefly,

the back-story and characters were already well-established in the minds of many fans.

Instead of relying solely on narrative structure, the cinematography and mise-en-scene

played a large role in introducing and establishing these factors. The scenes are marked

by a strong sense of mood, a result of the location, the design elements of the frame, the

lighting, and cinematography. This persuasion of mood “sets the emotional tone and

guides our [the audience's] reactions towards the story, action and characters” (The Art

of Technique, 1996, p. 71).

Setting: The ship Serenity

There are several locations in Serenity,

the most important ones being the


running from hot warm tones in the engine room to even tones (the dining and cargo room) to very cold blue tones at the front (the bridge and infirmary). 1) firefly.” We can observe from the long take that the ship's set was contiguous so that the action could run continuously from one part of the ship to another. and it is built in a shape of a (Fig. The spaceship Serenity (Fig. Each room has its own character and looks like it actually belongs to its occupant. “the audience becomes highly familiar with the set . starting with the cockpit (or “bridge”). p. and are introduced to various characters along the way. Barnwell (2004.spaceship Serenity itself. and Mr. it looks lived-in. gaining an awareness of the geography of the space [and] understanding how the different rooms link together. the planets Haven and Miranda. Each room in the ship possesses a different color scheme. Universe's ion cloud moon. nor does it look sleek and futuristic. through the front hall to the dining area. 1) operates as the 11th main character. broken down and clunky – but it has personality. We are introduced to its interiors in a glorious five-minute long take after the opening credits. Instead. trailing behind the ship's captain. We go from room to room. It looks very different from what the audience would expect of a spaceship – it does not sport a weapon or a shield. to the engine room and the infirmary. Joss Whedon stated that he was “obsessed with the messiness of it” and wanted the ship to have a real sense of textured reality where the audience knew that the characters lived. The decision to build the set at full-scale was essential as it gave a sense of familiarity and realism that was important to the existing fanbase to make them feel like they were coming home. and also to express upon the newer viewers that Serenity is indeed a character in itself. ate and slept on the ship. 26) suggested that when used consistently. This is in direct contrast to the sterile and uniform sets 2 .

breaking up the colors. and this “creates a greater sense of depth and helps viewers distinguish one space from the next. earthiness. props and design of the set of Serenity establishes the movie's genesis and separates it from other Sci-Fi films. the ship's doctor. 2006. which is bathed in cool blue and grey. signifying how people in space accumulate as many things as they can to make themselves feel at home. 2005) that Serenity refuses to embrace. She is about emotional warmth. and it has been rusted up to look warm and brown. A prominent critic of Sci-Fi movies noted that movies such as Star Trek and Star Wars “convey a fundamental sort of optimism about humanity's future” (Westfahl. Serenity's young engineer. 2003). the colors.we often see in science-fiction movies. This is in contrast to the infirmary. The décor of the ship is cluttered.”(Argy. The colors represent the different characters in the show. the engine room belongs to Kaylee. 135) that is linked to Simon's masculinity and modernity that separates him from the other earthy characters. and this idealogy is displayed prominently in the introduction to the spaceship where design choices have been made to “deliberately subvert audience's expectations and highlight certain concepts” (Barnwell. sexuality and optimism. 35) as well as reflect the narrative. 3 . p. Thus. The layout of the set allows the viewer to see from part of the ship into others. and these colors evoke “a sense of emotional detachment or distance. 2006. by establishing the world of Serenity away from the “purple and stately” stereotypical science-fiction environment that distances viewers. p. of the domination of reason over emotion” (Allen. This cold space belongs to Simon. creating a sense of comforting community in space. and not alienation. For example. Allen also commented that “ the distinction between cool colors and warm colors draws upon the emotional valency that is attached to color in Western culture”.

2006. In reference to Hitchcock's North by Northwest. The director makes use of colour psychology to “direct the theatergoer's imagination and interest” by “subtly conveying dramatic moods and impressions to the audience. and whites right down to the character and organization of the clothing worn by extras. 26). we see River being tortured in an institutional blue room. The landscape and scenes set in Alliance planets (Fig. (Fig. 3) In Miranda (Fig. there is a blinding blue light that covers 4 . action and dialog may convey” (Kalmus. and are always bathed in cool blue: In the cold open of the movie (Fig. The (Fig. and “outer-rim” planets which resemble the American Old West. p. Texture and Design in other locations and scenes The audience is transported to several different planets in Serenity. Allen (2006) points out these colors represent “an image of the new world order. 3). green. 4). a planet where the Alliance experimented with the population to make them more controllable. symbolizing the cold steel demeanor of the Alliance. These planets are divided into two categories: The “central planets” which are ruled by the totalitarian Alliance government. 2) planets are coloured accordingly.Color. an order controlled by the impersonal and calculating machinations of most male agents in blue suits”. making them more receptive to whatever emotional effect the scenes. The Alliance planets featured in the movie look comtemporary and utopian. with an opposition between cool colors (Alliance planets) and earth tones (Outer-rim planets). 2a) are dominated by cool blues.

These images of modernity are juxtaposed with grey corpses of the population that was experimented on. old-fashioned feel to them. filled with warm earth tones such as tan. 135) to the characters. or that their knowledge that they use to "improve" the nature of humanity is evil. 5) are hot and deserty. Everything is too sharp and bright. Planets such as Haven (Fig. making the scene crisper and more crystalline (Wightman. 2004. no place for people to be themselves. by filming these scenes at a lower shutter speed. 328) that is fitting for the scene. 6) 5 . and there are no shadows to hide in. p. and dark green. it achieved a similar “strobing effect” as the one in Saving Private Ryan and Gladiator.the whole planet. p. and this “lack of depth perception brings a very welcome element of unreality” (Arnheim. brown. 5) sustenance” (Allen. with the light blown out completely. enlightened society. These colors are commonly associated with a sense of emotional warmth and suggests that these planets “provide safe haven and emotional (Fig. 6) and Lilac have a homemade. The Outer-rim planets (Fig. and this evokes the wider connotations of Serenity that debates whether the Alliance is a benign. The scenes here are overexposed slightly. There is no realistic texture to this planet: we associate it with the cold rationality and emotionally deadening regime of the Alliance. Furthermore. 4) effect gives the idea that the planet Miranda represents the insane optimism of the Alliance – it is too bright and perfect. (Fig. and this contributes to the film's connections between the Old West and the future. This visual (Fig. 2006. 2001).

this color associations are inverted in the case of our two main characters. and is so active both “in its motion and the threat it poses to the character” that it becomes “not only another character. 136) points out how males in movies are “usually dressed in a cool. as well as her ravaged 6 . suggesting her emotional detachment and coldness. they represent the Alliance even though they are on the run from it. electronic and very cold: The use of color timing turned any hint of warm colors such as red into cool purples to represent stateliness and the lack of life and emotion. Simon and River are always kept in an Alliance color scheme of blues and purples – unlike Mal. p. Allen (2006. The set where the final fighting scene between Mal and the Operative is held – where we see a huge moving mechanical structure looming below Mal that he could potentially fall into and die – is another good example of how the director has made the sets active characters of the movie: This set has a sense of real danger. earthy and homemade. a space that immediately appears very different from Serenity – it is modern.” (Barnwell. Mal and River. but a major antagonist.while Mal (and the rest of the crew) is brown.Other notable sets are: The Operative’s Alliance spaceship. rational color to represent a rigid masculinity as compared to a warmer. and River is dressed in blues. p. 26). 2004. Costumes and Colors Costumes can play “important motivic and causal roles in narratives” (Bordwell & Thompson. well-meaning person the Alliance is. 2008. emotionally sensitive. Simon is a perfectly handsome. whom with Simon is always conflicting. intuitive feminity.” However. brilliant. greys and other cool colors. 122) and the director uses costumes to effectively characterize and distinguish characters from each other. Mal wears redemptive earth tones that articulate his groundedness. p.

The use of red at the discovery of a dead Shepherd Book (Fig.psychological state of mind. the intense red that covers the character Wash recalls to mind a strong feeling of danger and warning – and rightly so. 8. In River's dream sequences and in a scene where she watches a video containing a subliminal message 7 . Color Psychology Besides employing color psychology in the set designs and costumes. In Fig. but also effectively “carry strong emotional associations that can be employed in drama to great effect” (Mamer. as he is soon killed in this scene.137) to act as a warning system and to indicate (Fig. 8) Lighting Designs in Various Scene Examples There are several examples in Serenity where lighting is not only used to create the overall composition of a shot. the barbaric Reavers. 7) progressively greater degrees of danger. p. 2000). draws associations between the Alliance and their accidental creation. (Fig. Serenity draws upon “deeply embedded cultural associations that draw on the relationship between red and blood” (Allen. These costumes guide our understanding of the characters. 2006. 7). killed by the Alliance. It also explicitly relates her to death in the forms of the grey corpses found in Miranda.

10) and a surrounding family. the light has been taken off Simon while he is surrounded by the other characters. a single light placed underneath the actors. 9). leave their expressions nearly invisible. This intentional artificial lighting and its desaturation with white has a great deal to do with the emotional associations with the character. 5 shows Mal lit against the fire. 11). River's underlit face is distorted. 9) then digitally applied to the rest of the scene to continue to add to her sense of disassociation and alienation. We see a dark figure (Fig. 2008). 11) often in shadow. creepy and other-worldly. all the natural light in the room has been taken out. In the scene in Fig. suggesting that he is the one who has brought the family into danger. and there is a wonderful use of negative space. in this case. and the harsh blue light from the television screen is cast on her face. dark colors and 8 . Again. while Simon is (Fig.(Fig. 10. This unrealistic lighting is (Fig. and emphasizing his disconnection from all of them. minimal lighting is used here. This creates a chiaroscuro effect. the low-key lighting. Aforementioned Fig. where there are extremely dark and light regions within an image (Bordwell & Thompson. and he is both literally and figuratively “in the dark”. In an exchange between River and Simon (Fig.

p. In one of the final scenes of the movie. 5 Repeated) (Aguilar. many of the characters have been killed or are close to being killed.to bright high-key illumination on River (Fig. and to build up anxiety and mood.1986. the scenes go from low-key lighting – Fig. The soft light here allows the audience to “not [be] conscious of the light being there” (Fig. emphasizing the scene's warmness. It also gives the human skin an incredible soft texture. 14). intense and heroic. as we (Fig. There is no frontal lighting on his face. 13) in a matter of seconds as she realises that she is the crew's only hope of survival. 12) and (Fig.shadows. 13) cut to an overexposed shot of River that makes her look unnatural. It accentuates a change of mood in the scene. keeping him in darkness. but instead the light is kept on both sides of him. 12 which depicts the scene with a sense of danger and a feeling of not knowing what will happen next -.93). we see the defeated character of the Operative (Fig. It separates Mal and Shepherd Book from the background. At the end of the movie. from hopeless to almost glamourous. and brings the eye to what is important. 9 .

build mystery. 14) signifies that he has completely lost himself and his faith in his belief system. quality and color (Malkiewicz. There is lack of wide shots. 15) “confines the audience's view of a screen to pique curiousity. intensity. 81) 10 . p. 1986). 1996. and instead an emphasis on medium or close-up shots that bracket the human action. 1996. These disturbingly unbalanced compositions are visually interesting and command the audience's attention. interaction and emotion that separates Serenity from other sci-fi movies. Fig. (Douglass & Harnden. which (Fig. but the type of lighting is chosen on how well it will tell the story through the use of angles. From these examples. a certain detachment and withdrawal from the action” (Douglass & Harnden. or add suspense”. The camera is commonly pushed to the side in scenes involving River. which would have given “an audience a sense of distance. Its stylistic appeal comes from its imperfections - the framing is flawed at times.He is gone – he is a shadow and the lighting (Fig. p. adding to the lived-in texture of the film. 15 is an unbalanced close-up of River's face. Using the Camera for Interpretation I : Camera Placement There are rarely any establishing master shots in Serenity . 79). in order to get intimate shots as the camera moves from one space in the set to another.most of the shots are blocked and shot with a wide lens. we can see that the lighting in Serenity not just creates a great many moods.

However. The angle is disorientating. which throws us off about her character. before we discover River's fighting abilities. psychologically (Fig. the shots of her shift from high to exremely low- angles (Fig. The camera angles in Serenity are powerful elements in creation of mood and characterization. while at the same time making her appear small and vulnerable. mirroring his changing state of mind. making them feel rather threatened and intrusive by standing in her path. 17) (Fig. A shift of angles in which we perceive characters also occurs in a scene with Mal. In the beginning of the movie. 17) to mirror the shift in her power. In these shots of her. we see her as a psychologically disturbed but benign character – and she is often shot in high overhead shots. 16) disturbed and unpredictable. once we discover she possesses incredible fighting skills. the audience is put at her eye- level. We first see him in a very 11 . with her commonly lying upside down. The lack of compositional balance in her scenes put us in her frame of mind – inconsistent.

instead. After a few moments. The director also make lens choices to emphasise the comfort and familiarity of space. he makes up his mind and strides out confidently to his crew. This suggests defeat and amplifies his despair. This sells the connection between the outside and inside of the ship. the character of Mal is written and shot a Western character. once again giving the audience the feel they are there. Camera angles in the show also help establishing the ship’s spatial elements. forcing him to give up. instead of using a long lens that would have compressed everything into a glamourous flattened head shot. there is a high-angle overhead shot of the ship's transport mule crashing into Serenity. Jayne is shot with a 14 lens to give a sense of space around the him. 20. 18). In one of the first few battles. 12 . (Fig. 18) and (Fig. where he is shot from a low angle to represent (Fig. 20) Genre conventions: The Western Shot In accordance with the Old West feel of the outer rim planets. which is that life is hard out in the Rim planets where the law is often useless and occasionally dangerous. surrounded by monitors that are all switched on around him. In the low-angle shot in Fig. 19) his renewal of mind and decision to stand up for himself and his beliefs.deliberate overhead shot (Fig. He is literally surrounded by the Operative in frames. there is a classic frontier paradigm. This plays into the genesis of the narrative where the future is not all about modernity and electronics.

instead of science-fiction that distances its audience. The aforementioned long take used in the beginning of the film is a good example. 22) Using the Camera for Interpretation II: Camera Movement This is the most important stylistic choice Serenity employs to establish a specific vision of the future. This directorial choice not only helps introduce all the characters and what these characters do. Besides using colors to display Western conventions. The gun-pulling frame (Fig. but also establishes a sense of safety in space and a familiarity with the layout of Serenity. 21) Other typical western shots include a heroic shot of Mal's silhouette against light (Fig. In another unique shot. the director uses a Steadicam to achieve a roller-coaster shot 13 . (Fig. 22). 21) is almost arch in its Westernness. and the lack of a single cut for five minutes means that we are not cutting in between performances and disorientating viewers. but instead letting things unfold with a veracity that the audience doesn't even notice. (Fig. It gives the audience a real sense of where they are. and a Western stand-off in between Mal and the Operative is shot with a wide lense to get as much distance in between them as possible. aid in the audience's understanding of the narrative and introduce and develop the characters. Serenity includes many typical Western shots.

everything that is done photographically is intended to 14 . rack focuses and zooms which are usually taboos in visual effects are used to give the (Fig. lens flair. These '70s Western zooms. This increases the urgency of his purpose and the coherence of his plan. 23) uncomfortable. 24) audience the feeling that they are right there and experiencing it. To keep the mood creepy and to keep the camera alive. In Miranda. we have a shot where the camera goes around River in perfect circles (Fig. It has a great elegance to it and puts the audience in River's mindset. When the crew discovers the crashed spaceship. In another scene. The use of movement here sets the viewer off without calling too much attention to the scene. the camera is never kept static. the CGI shots of Serenity (Fig. it follows the characters around. thus we feel the motion around and behind her more than we usually would. 24) tailspinning and crashing have a handheld feel to it. labyrinthe-like feeling. there is an immediacy to it: The use of a handheld camera. we follow Mal in another long take after he has decided on an action plan. There is a shot in this scene where the camera operator is late in catching the action – and then there is a sudden zoom out where we see Serenity falling to the ground. bumps and imperfect framing are also applied throughout the film . and this makes us feel (Fig. lens flares. 23). resulting in a unknowable. and out of control. In the space battle. misframes. This scene is shot with a smaller shutter speed to make it look crisp. This hits home the idea that they are completely out of power.that flows from River's face to the floor.

enclosed space of a spaceship.). The Art of Technique: An Aesthetic Approach to Film and Video Production.reflect life in the small. 322-331). Strategy of Lighting. even though it does not make logical sense. In Malkiewicz. R. R. or to put across the feeling of being there. A. In Vacche. Along with set design and lighting choices. (1996).S. L. Arnheim. (2004). The two spot lights waving around her gives a very expressionistic feel which feels right for what she is going through. Production Design: Architects of the Screen. 83-98). Film Lighting: Talks with Hollywood's Cinematographers and Gaffers (pp.D. Film Theory and Criticism (pp. Barnwell. Summary We can see from these examples that Serenity makes use of very unique camera angles. 131-144). R. London: Wallflower. In Braudy. & Cohen. Color: The Film Reader (pp.P. 15 . (Eds. K. New York: Oxford University Press.). Film and Reality. the audience is able to interpret the mood that the director wants to put across. (1986). Bibliography Aguilar. (2004). M. & Price. as compared to the generic Science Fiction conventions. movement and imperfect shot compositions to create a sense of familiarity and realism.. New York: Routledge. (Eds. & Harnden. (2006). Boston: Allyn and Bacon. Hitchcock's Color Designs. The spectacular battle scene at the end is one long take filmed with fast movement of the camera circling River as she fights. New York: Fireside. J. Douglas. G. Allen. (Eds). B. J.

10]. B. (2000).). New York: Fireside. (2006). 13-23). M. Movie Camera .M. S.).CA: Wadsworth/ Thomson Learning. Wightman. 105-117). (1986). (2001). & Price. Message posted to http://photo.a single effective shutter speed? [Msg. Universal Studios. Mamer. Color: The Film Reader (pp. On Color.D. 83-98). N. 16 . Color: The Film Reader (pp. Film Production Technique: Creating the Accomplished Image. In Vacche. (2006). A. Belmont. & Price. A. Malkiewicz. B. New York: Routledge. In Vacche. (Eds. Color Consciousness. (Eds. Kalmus.D. B. K. Film Lighting: Talks with Hollywood's Cinematographers and Gaffers (pp. New York: Routledge.Eisenstein.net/bboard/q-and-a-fetch-msg?msg_id=0007ii Filmography Joss Whedon (2005) Serenity.

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