Examining Serenity’s Introductory Shot

Joss Whedon's Serenity movie opens with a stunning opening shot. We take a look at it in more detail...

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

It’s now been almost 15 years since we saw the crew of Serenity fly off into the ‘verse for the last time. Yet the appeal of the show has not diminished, nor has it seem to have aged. Part of the reason is the love and care poured into each moment by creator Joss Whedon & co, both on the short-lived TV show Firefly, and its big-screen adaptation, Serenity.

Introducing a cast of nine established characters to an (almost) entirely new audience was never going to be an easy task. It would take something special to pull it off successfully, or else risk getting bogged down in a swamp of character introductions (a fate which has befallen any number of ensemble movies in the past).

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In the end, writer/director Joss Whedon (making his feature-length directorial debut here) opted for a single-shot lasting approximately four-and-a-half minutes, which simultaneously gives us insight into the characters, the ship, and provides a sense of familiarity with the place they call home.

It is a great, and often under-appreciated shot, providing a powerful lesson in economic story-telling, and highlighting the value of using the right technique for the task at hand.

How it was done: the tech/shooting

For the tech-heads, the sequence was shot using a PRO rig, with a Panavision XL camera system, 400ft mag, and a mid-range lightweight zoom. It was also shot on 35mm film.

This steadicam rig was operated by Mark Emery Moore, who had previously worked on films such as Reservoir Dogs, Outbreak, Starship Troopers, and most recently San Andreas, amongst many others.

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“Joss was constantly challenging me on this movie,” said Moore, adding that the writer/director admitted at the wrap party that he “didn’t think the ship tour shot could be done, mostly because of the small hatchways, staircases.”

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So, it is unsurprising to learn that the shot took a lot of planning. So much so, that Whedon knew a particular wall would have to be removed to get the final shot on the gangway which brings us to the end of the sequence. He was actually already so familiar with the layout following the TV show, that the wall-removal was actually written into the script.

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A careful examination of the scene will highlight a series of slight camera zooms, happening throughout. These were done by hand, “more from an aesthetic perspective” than a technical one. This consisted of Moore “reaching up and squeezing in or out a few mils”, with Peter Green (the first camera assistant) responsible for ensuring everything was in focus.

How it was done: the cut

Although ostensibly a single-shot, the sequence does actually contain one cut. You’ll notice that when Mal and Simon are having their walk and talk, they head down a corridor, where the camera does a quick pan to Simon. It is a bit of a strange, blurry move, and here is where the bodies are buried. But, there is a very good reason for this.

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Even though each of the sets were designed and built contiguously, it was not possible to build one set on top of the other. This meant that they had to be built side-by-side, making the hidden cut necessary in order to fulfil Whedon’s vision of an unbroken introduction to the crew and the ship. Everything before is shot on one set, everything else, on the other set.

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In order to make this transition as smooth as possible, the same hallway in which the cut takes place, was actually built on both sets.

Why it was done: safety

There were a number of reasons why it was felt a single-shot was appropriate at this point. It was not, according to Whedon, them “trying to do a shot that says ‘Oh, look what we can do with a steadi-cam” (but also, look what they can do with a steadi-cam!) The reason was that he wanted “to give a sense of safety in space.”

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This is the first time we are reintroduced to the ship and the entire crew, and comes after an audacious triple-leveled expositional opening which takes the form of “a man watching a video of a girl having a dream” (Inception eat your heart out!).

The shot was intended “[f]irst of all to make people feel safe.” The Serenity theme was intended to be “very mournful and very home-made” in contrast to the more “electronic” music that came before. “This,” said Whedon, “is when you know you’re home.”

Why it was done: reintroduction

But of course, the movie had to appeal to a wider audience than just those who were already intimately familiar with the cast and crew. Even those who had seen it in the original run might need a refresher, not to mention those coming into it cold. So, while the first reason for the shot was to provide a sense of safety, the second was “to show the layout of the ship,” which was considered the tenth character (trivia: River Tam’s feet were considered the eleventh character).

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Whedon felt it was important “to give people a real sense of where they are by going through the entire ship room by room. And of course meeting every character.”

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This was complicated by the fact that all the characters already knew one another, meaning they had to be introduced to the audience, without having the characters introduced to one another.

This was no easy task. “Structurally, that’s a nightmare”, said Whedon, citing this as one of the reasons he found it “a very difficult screenplay to write.” Indeed, an earlier version script (the ‘kitchen sink’ draft) had run to 190 pages long. Applying the screenwriting rule of thumb that ‘1 page = 1 minute’, this would have resulted in a run-time of over three hours.

Of course, there are a legion of Firefly fans (‘Browncoats’) who would salivate at the mere thought of such an epic (the final cut came in at a little less than two hours), but your casual movie goer? Probably not so much.

Why it was done: the walk and talk

With so many characters to introduce, this was a highly efficient way of showing everyone in their natural habitats, as well as their relationships to Mal, the captain and main protagonist.

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As we are reintroduced, we find his ship is falling apart, both literally, and metaphorically, while certain doom seems imminent. Wash in the cockpit, surrounded by his toy dinosaurs with a less than deferential way of speaking to to the captain, shows this is a very different bunch than the highly-organized and technologically-advanced Alliance we saw earlier.

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Then we begin the tour. First Jayne, the image of him holding enough guns to supply a small army, tells us everything we need to know, before he confirms the disorganised nature of the team and their adventures. Then Zoe whizzes past, demonstrating a familiar, yet respectful relationship with Mal. The only crew-member to call him “sir” and also not afraid to criticise the big, gun-toting lug.

Then we’re off to the engine room to meet Kaylee, who greets us with an energetic, yet positive response to Mal’s concerns about imminent death, before Simon literally blocks Mal’s path. It is the only time on this walk-and-talk that Mal’s forward momentum is halted by anything other than his own choosing. But he doesn’t let Simon stand in his way for long, and goes straight back to doing what he wants. This is actually a neat reflection of the conversation the actually have (Simon trying to stop him taking River on the coming mission, and Mal just doing it anyway).

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Then finally, above it all, connected to everything, but separated from it all, is River, lying on the gangway.

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End scene.

So it is, that in less than five minutes and one single shot (well, sort of), the audience is introduced to a whole team, their personalities, relationships and attitudes. No fat, no repetition, and no confusion.

It’s deceptively simple (and apparently, most people didn’t actually notice) and sets us up perfectly for the adventure we’re all about to go on.