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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

spaceship Serenity itself, the planets Haven and Miranda, and Mr. Universe's ion cloud

moon. The spaceship Serenity (Fig. 1) operates as the 11th main character, and it is built

in a shape of a (Fig. 1) firefly. It looks very

different from what the audience would expect of a spaceship – it does not sport a

weapon or a shield, nor does it look sleek and futuristic. Instead, it looks lived-in, broken

down and clunky – but it has personality. 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, ate and slept on the ship.

We are introduced to its interiors in a glorious five-minute long take after the opening

credits. We go from room to room, trailing behind the ship's captain, starting with the

cockpit (or “bridge”), through the front hall to the dining area, to the engine room and the

infirmary, and are introduced to various characters along the way. Barnwell (2004, p.

26) suggested that when used consistently, “the audience becomes highly familiar with

the set , gaining an awareness of the geography of the space [and] understanding how

the different rooms link together.” 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. 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.

Each room in the ship possesses a different color scheme, 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). Each room has its own character and looks like it

actually belongs to its occupant. This is in direct contrast to the sterile and uniform sets

we often see in science-fiction movies. The colors represent the different characters in

the show. For example, the engine room belongs to Kaylee, Serenity's young engineer,

and it has been rusted up to look warm and brown. She is about emotional warmth,

earthiness, sexuality and optimism. This is in contrast to the infirmary, which is bathed in

cool blue and grey. This cold space belongs to Simon, the ship's doctor, and these

colors evoke “a sense of emotional detachment or distance, of the domination of reason

over emotion” (Allen, 2006, p. 135) that is linked to Simon's masculinity and modernity

that separates him from the other earthy characters. 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”.

The layout of the set allows the viewer to see from part of the ship into others, breaking

up the colors, and this “creates a greater sense of depth and helps viewers distinguish

one space from the next.”(Argy, 2003). The décor of the ship is cluttered; signifying how

people in space accumulate as many things as they can to make themselves feel at

home. Thus, the colors, props and design of the set of Serenity establishes the movie's

genesis and separates it from other Sci-Fi films. 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 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, 2006, p. 35) as well as reflect the narrative,

creating a sense of comforting community in space, and not alienation, by establishing

the world of Serenity away from the “purple and stately” stereotypical science-fiction

environment that distances viewers.

Color, Texture and Design in other locations and scenes

The audience is transported to several

different planets in Serenity. These planets are

divided into two categories: The “central

planets” which are ruled by the totalitarian

Alliance government, and “outer-rim” planets

which resemble the American Old West. The (Fig. 2)

planets are coloured accordingly, with an opposition between cool colors (Alliance

planets) and earth tones (Outer-rim planets). The landscape and scenes set in Alliance

planets (Fig. 2a) are dominated by cool blues, green, and whites right down to the

character and organization of the clothing worn by extras. In reference to Hitchcock's

North by Northwest, Allen (2006) points out these colors represent “an image of the new

world order, an order controlled by the impersonal and calculating machinations of most

male agents in blue suits”. 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, making them more receptive to whatever emotional effect

the scenes, action and dialog may convey” (Kalmus, 2006, p. 26).

The Alliance planets featured in the movie look

comtemporary and utopian, and are always bathed in

cool blue: In the cold open of the movie (Fig. 3), we

see River being tortured in an institutional blue room,

symbolizing the cold steel demeanor of the Alliance.

(Fig. 3)
In Miranda (Fig. 4), a planet where the Alliance

experimented with the population to make them more

controllable, there is a blinding blue light that covers

the whole planet. The scenes here are overexposed slightly, with the light blown out

completely. This visual (Fig. 4) effect gives the idea that the planet Miranda represents

the insane optimism of the Alliance – it is too bright and perfect, and there are no

shadows to hide in, no place for people to be themselves. Furthermore, by filming these

scenes at a lower shutter speed, it achieved a similar “strobing effect” as the one in

Saving Private Ryan and Gladiator, making the scene crisper and more crystalline

(Wightman, 2001). There is no realistic texture to this planet: we associate it with the

cold rationality and emotionally deadening regime of the Alliance. Everything is too sharp

and bright, and this “lack of depth perception brings a very welcome element of

unreality” (Arnheim, 2004, p. 328) that is fitting for the scene. These images of modernity

are juxtaposed with grey corpses of the population that was experimented on, and this

evokes the wider connotations of Serenity that debates whether the Alliance is a benign,

enlightened society, or that their knowledge that they use to "improve" the nature of

humanity is evil.

The Outer-rim planets (Fig. 5) are hot and deserty,

filled with warm earth tones such as tan, brown, and

dark green. These colors are commonly associated

with a sense of emotional warmth and suggests that

these planets “provide safe haven and emotional

(Fig. 5)

sustenance” (Allen, 2006, p. 135) to the characters.

Planets such as Haven (Fig. 6) and Lilac have a

homemade, old-fashioned feel to them, and this

contributes to the film's connections between the

Old West and the future.

(Fig. 6)

Other notable sets are: The Operative’s Alliance spaceship, a space that immediately

appears very different from Serenity – it is modern, 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. 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, and is so active both “in its motion and the threat it poses to

the character” that it becomes “not only another character, but a major antagonist.”

(Barnwell, 2004, p. 26).

Costumes and Colors

Costumes can play “important motivic and causal roles in narratives” (Bordwell &

Thompson, 2008, p. 122) and the director uses costumes to effectively characterize and

distinguish characters from each other. Simon and River are always kept in an Alliance

color scheme of blues and purples – unlike Mal, whom with Simon is always conflicting,

they represent the Alliance even though they are on the run from it. Simon is a perfectly

handsome, brilliant, well-meaning person the Alliance is,while Mal (and the rest of the

crew) is brown, earthy and homemade.

Allen (2006, p. 136) points out how males in movies are “usually dressed in a cool,

rational color to represent a rigid masculinity as compared to a warmer, emotionally

sensitive, intuitive feminity.” However, this color associations are inverted in the case of

our two main characters, Mal and River. Mal wears redemptive earth tones that

articulate his groundedness, and River is dressed in blues, greys and other cool colors,

suggesting her emotional detachment and coldness, as well as her ravaged

psychological state of mind. It also explicitly relates her to death in the forms of the grey

corpses found in Miranda. These costumes guide our understanding of the characters.

Color Psychology

Besides employing color psychology in the set

designs and costumes, Serenity draws upon “deeply

embedded cultural associations that draw on the

relationship between red and blood” (Allen, 2006,

p.137) to act as a warning system and to indicate (Fig. 7)

progressively greater degrees of danger. The use of red at the discovery of a dead

Shepherd Book (Fig. 7), killed by the Alliance, draws

associations between the Alliance and their

accidental creation, the barbaric Reavers.

In Fig. 8, the intense red that covers the character

Wash recalls to mind a strong feeling of danger and warning – and rightly so, as he is

soon killed in this scene.

(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, but also effectively “carry strong emotional associations

that can be employed in drama to great effect” (Mamer, 2000).

In River's dream sequences and in a scene where

she watches a video containing a subliminal message

(Fig. 9), all the natural light in the room has been taken out, and the harsh blue light from

the television screen is cast on her face. This unrealistic lighting is

(Fig. 9) then digitally applied to the rest of the scene to

continue to add to her sense of disassociation and alienation. This intentional artificial

lighting and its desaturation with white has a great deal to do with the emotional

associations with the character.

In the scene in Fig. 10, the light has been taken off

Simon while he is surrounded by the other characters.

This creates a chiaroscuro effect, where there are

extremely dark and light regions within an image

(Bordwell & Thompson, 2008). We see a dark figure

(Fig. 10) and a surrounding family, suggesting that he is the

one who has brought the family into danger, and emphasizing his disconnection from all

of them.

In an exchange between River and Simon (Fig. 11),

the low-key lighting, in this case, a single light

placed underneath the actors, leave their

expressions nearly invisible. River's underlit face is

distorted, creepy and other-worldly, while Simon is

(Fig. 11) often in shadow, and he is both literally and figuratively “in the dark”.

Aforementioned Fig. 5 shows Mal lit against the fire.

Again, minimal lighting is used here, and there is a

wonderful use of negative space, dark colors and

shadows. The soft light here allows the audience to “not [be] conscious of the light being


(Fig. 5 Repeated) (Aguilar,1986, p.93). It separates Mal and Shepherd

Book from the background, and brings the eye to what is important. It also gives the

human skin an incredible soft texture, emphasizing the scene's warmness.

In one of the final scenes of the movie, many of the

characters have been killed or are close to being

killed, and to build up anxiety and mood, 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 -- to bright high-key

illumination on River (Fig. 13) in a matter of seconds

as she realises that she is the crew's only hope of

survival. It accentuates a change of mood in the scene, from hopeless to almost

glamourous, as we (Fig. 12) and (Fig. 13) cut to an overexposed shot of River

that makes her look unnatural, intense and heroic.

At the end of the movie, we see the defeated

character of the Operative (Fig. 14). There is no

frontal lighting on his face, but instead the light is

kept on both sides of him, keeping him in darkness.

He is gone – he is a shadow and the lighting (Fig. 14)

signifies that he has completely lost himself and his faith in his belief system.

From these examples, we can see that the lighting in Serenity not just creates a great

many moods, but the type of lighting is chosen on how well it will tell the story through

the use of angles, intensity, quality and color (Malkiewicz, 1986).

Using the Camera for Interpretation I : Camera Placement

There are rarely any establishing master shots in Serenity - most of the shots are

blocked and shot with a wide lens, in order to get intimate shots as the camera moves

from one space in the set to another. Its stylistic appeal comes from its imperfections -

the framing is flawed at times, adding to the lived-in texture of the film. There is lack of

wide shots, which would have given “an audience a sense of distance, a certain

detachment and withdrawal from the action” (Douglass & Harnden, 1996, p. 79), and

instead an emphasis on medium or close-up shots that bracket the human action,

interaction and emotion that separates Serenity from other sci-fi movies.

The camera is commonly pushed to the side in

scenes involving River. These disturbingly

unbalanced compositions are visually interesting

and command the audience's attention. Fig. 15 is

an unbalanced close-up of River's face, which (Fig. 15)

“confines the audience's view of a screen to pique curiousity, build mystery, or

add suspense”. (Douglass & Harnden, 1996, p. 81)

In these shots of her, the audience is put at her eye-

level, making them feel rather threatened and

intrusive by standing in her path. The lack of

compositional balance in her scenes put us in her

frame of mind – inconsistent, psychologically (Fig. 16)

disturbed and unpredictable.

The camera angles in Serenity are powerful elements in creation of mood and

characterization. In the beginning of the movie, before we discover River's fighting

abilities, we see her as a psychologically disturbed but benign character – and she is

often shot in high overhead shots, with her

commonly lying upside down. The angle is

disorientating, which throws us off about her

character, while at the same time making her appear

small and vulnerable. However, once we discover

she possesses incredible fighting skills, the shots of her shift from high to exremely low-

angles (Fig. 17)

(Fig. 17) to mirror the shift in her power.

A shift of angles in which we perceive characters

also occurs in a scene with Mal, mirroring his

changing state of mind. We first see him in a very

deliberate overhead shot (Fig. 18), surrounded by monitors that are all switched on

around him. He is literally surrounded by the Operative in frames, forcing him to give up.

This suggests defeat and amplifies his despair. After a few moments, he makes up his

mind and strides out confidently to his crew, where he is shot from a low angle to

represent (Fig. 18) and (Fig. 19) his renewal of mind and decision to stand up

for himself and his beliefs.

Camera angles in the show also help establishing the ship’s spatial elements. In one of

the first few battles, there is a high-angle overhead shot of the ship's transport mule

crashing into Serenity. This sells the connection between the outside and inside of the

ship, once again giving the audience the feel they are there.

The director also make lens choices to emphasise

the comfort and familiarity of space. In the low-angle

shot in Fig. 20, instead of using a long lens that

would have compressed everything into a

glamourous flattened head shot, Jayne is shot with a

14 lens to give a sense of space around the him.

(Fig. 20)

Genre conventions: The Western Shot

In accordance with the Old West feel of the outer rim planets, the character of Mal is

written and shot a Western character. This plays into the genesis of the narrative where

the future is not all about modernity and electronics, instead, there is a classic frontier

paradigm, which is that life is hard out in the Rim planets where the law is often useless

and occasionally dangerous.

Besides using colors to display Western conventions,

Serenity includes many typical Western shots. The

gun-pulling frame (Fig. 21) is almost arch in its


(Fig. 21)

Other typical western shots include a heroic shot of

Mal's silhouette against light (Fig. 22), 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.
(Fig. 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.

The aforementioned long take used in the beginning of the film is a good example. This

directorial choice not only helps introduce all the characters and what these characters

do, but also establishes a sense of safety in space and a familiarity with the layout of

Serenity, 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. It gives the audience a real sense of

where they are, instead of science-fiction that distances its audience.

In another unique shot, the director uses a Steadicam to achieve a roller-coaster shot

that flows from River's face to the floor. It has a great elegance to it and puts the

audience in River's mindset. In another scene, we follow Mal in another long take after

he has decided on an action plan. This increases the urgency of his purpose and the

coherence of his plan.

In Miranda, we have a shot where the camera goes

around River in perfect circles (Fig. 23). This scene is

shot with a smaller shutter speed to make it look crisp,

thus we feel the motion around and behind her more

than we usually would, and this makes us feel (Fig. 23)

uncomfortable. The use of movement here sets the viewer off without calling too much

attention to the scene. When the crew discovers the crashed spaceship, the camera is

never kept static. To keep the mood creepy and to keep the camera alive, it follows the

characters around, resulting in a unknowable, labyrinthe-like feeling.

In the space battle, the CGI shots of Serenity (Fig. 24)

tailspinning and crashing have a handheld feel to it,

there is an immediacy to it: The use of a handheld

camera, lens flair, rack focuses and zooms which are

usually taboos in visual effects are used to give the (Fig. 24)

audience the feeling that they are right there and experiencing it. 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. This hits home the idea

that they are completely out of power, and out of control.

These '70s Western zooms, lens flares, misframes, bumps and imperfect framing are

also applied throughout the film - everything that is done photographically is intended to

reflect life in the small, enclosed space of a spaceship, or to put across the feeling of

being there. The spectacular battle scene at the end is one long take filmed with fast

movement of the camera circling River as she fights. The two spot lights waving around

her gives a very expressionistic feel which feels right for what she is going through, even

though it does not make logical sense.


We can see from these examples that Serenity makes use of very unique camera

angles, movement and imperfect shot compositions to create a sense of familiarity and

realism, as compared to the generic Science Fiction conventions. Along with set design

and lighting choices, the audience is able to interpret the mood that the director wants to

put across.


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