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


ate and slept on the ship. and are introduced to various characters along the way. nor does it look sleek and futuristic. This is in direct contrast to the sterile and uniform sets 2 . to the engine room and the infirmary. The spaceship Serenity (Fig. It looks very different from what the audience would expect of a spaceship – it does not sport a weapon or a shield. We go from room to room. and Mr.spaceship Serenity itself. 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). We are introduced to its interiors in a glorious five-minute long take after the opening credits. broken down and clunky – but it has personality. Barnwell (2004. 1) firefly. gaining an awareness of the geography of the space [and] understanding how the different rooms link together. 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. 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. p. trailing behind the ship's captain. “the audience becomes highly familiar with the set . the planets Haven and Miranda. Universe's ion cloud moon. Instead. 1) operates as the 11th main character. through the front hall to the dining area. starting with the cockpit (or “bridge”). 26) suggested that when used consistently. Each room in the ship possesses a different color scheme.” 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 also to express upon the newer viewers that Serenity is indeed a character in itself. and it is built in a shape of a (Fig. it looks lived-in. Each room has its own character and looks like it actually belongs to its occupant.

by establishing the world of Serenity away from the “purple and stately” stereotypical science-fiction environment that distances viewers. 2006. 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”.we often see in science-fiction movies. 2003). This is in contrast to the infirmary. p. 135) that is linked to Simon's masculinity and modernity that separates him from the other earthy characters. For example. 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. 2005) that Serenity refuses to embrace. and it has been rusted up to look warm and brown. 2006. Thus. of the domination of reason over emotion” (Allen. earthiness. and these colors evoke “a sense of emotional detachment or distance. She is about emotional warmth. The décor of the ship is cluttered. and not alienation. which is bathed in cool blue and grey. This cold space belongs to Simon. the ship's doctor. signifying how people in space accumulate as many things as they can to make themselves feel at home. 3 . sexuality and optimism.”(Argy. the colors. The layout of the set allows the viewer to see from part of the ship into others. and this “creates a greater sense of depth and helps viewers distinguish one space from the next. The colors represent the different characters in the show. p. Serenity's young engineer. breaking up the colors. 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. 35) as well as reflect the narrative. creating a sense of comforting community in space. the engine room belongs to Kaylee. props and design of the set of Serenity establishes the movie's genesis and separates it from other Sci-Fi films.

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

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

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. well-meaning person the Alliance is.while Mal (and the rest of the crew) is brown. but a major antagonist. greys and other cool colors. a space that immediately appears very different from Serenity – it is modern. Simon and River are always kept in an Alliance color scheme of blues and purples – unlike Mal. p. 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. as well as her ravaged 6 . intuitive feminity. 122) and the director uses costumes to effectively characterize and distinguish characters from each other. 2004.” However. brilliant.” (Barnwell. 26). whom with Simon is always conflicting. p. p. Mal and River. 136) points out how males in movies are “usually dressed in a cool. suggesting her emotional detachment and coldness. Costumes and Colors Costumes can play “important motivic and causal roles in narratives” (Bordwell & Thompson. Mal wears redemptive earth tones that articulate his groundedness. and is so active both “in its motion and the threat it poses to the character” that it becomes “not only another character.Other notable sets are: The Operative’s Alliance spaceship. and River is dressed in blues. this color associations are inverted in the case of our two main characters. they represent the Alliance even though they are on the run from it. earthy and homemade. Allen (2006. rational color to represent a rigid masculinity as compared to a warmer. Simon is a perfectly handsome. emotionally sensitive. 2008.

psychological state of mind. the barbaric Reavers. killed by the Alliance. 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. It also explicitly relates her to death in the forms of the grey corpses found in Miranda. as he is soon killed in this scene. In River's dream sequences and in a scene where she watches a video containing a subliminal message 7 . The use of red at the discovery of a dead Shepherd Book (Fig. but also effectively “carry strong emotional associations that can be employed in drama to great effect” (Mamer. 8. In Fig. 7). 2006.137) to act as a warning system and to indicate (Fig. Color Psychology Besides employing color psychology in the set designs and costumes. the intense red that covers the character Wash recalls to mind a strong feeling of danger and warning – and rightly so. 2000). draws associations between the Alliance and their accidental creation. These costumes guide our understanding of the characters. p. 7) progressively greater degrees of danger. (Fig. Serenity draws upon “deeply embedded cultural associations that draw on the relationship between red and blood” (Allen.

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

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

From these examples. 1996. a certain detachment and withdrawal from the action” (Douglass & Harnden. The camera is commonly pushed to the side in scenes involving River. There is lack of wide shots.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. 14) signifies that he has completely lost himself and his faith in his belief system. 15 is an unbalanced close-up of River's face. build mystery. in order to get intimate shots as the camera moves from one space in the set to another. 1986). adding to the lived-in texture of the film. p. which (Fig. 1996. 15) “confines the audience's view of a screen to pique curiousity. but the type of lighting is chosen on how well it will tell the story through the use of angles. Its stylistic appeal comes from its imperfections the framing is flawed at times. interaction and emotion that separates Serenity from other sci-fi movies. 81) 10 .He is gone – he is a shadow and the lighting (Fig. 79). (Douglass & Harnden. or add suspense”. which would have given “an audience a sense of distance. These disturbingly unbalanced compositions are visually interesting and command the audience's attention. intensity. Fig. quality and color (Malkiewicz. Using the Camera for Interpretation I : Camera Placement There are rarely any establishing master shots in Serenity . and instead an emphasis on medium or close-up shots that bracket the human action. p.

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

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

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

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

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

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