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FireflySerenity Is Hard Work - Report Of The Straits Times Set Visit
By Ong Sor Fern
Tuesday 17 August 2004, by Webmaster
On a holiday to Los Angeles, I visited the set of Joss Whedon’s latest project, and came away with admiration for the real people behind the glamorous make-believe world.
THE glamour and myth of Hollywood, with a capital H, is as palpable a presence hanging over the City of Angels as the perpetual smog.
The aura lends Los Angeles a peculiar sheen of the unreal, as if everyone and everything belonged on a movie set where things take on meaning only at a director’s yell of ’Action!’.
I experienced the thin gap between the real and the make-believe at first hand recently on holiday there.
A friend wrangled a visit to the set at Universal Studios where Joss Whedon, the creator of the hit television series Buffy The Vampire Slayer, was shooting his latest project.
The movie Serenity is a spin-off of Whedon’s pet project Firefly. That TV series lasted a mere 11 episodes on the Fox network in 2002 before it was cancelled. It never made it to Singapore.
Being an avid Whedon fan, I had bought the DVD box set and fallen in love with its witty blend of space opera and western genres.
So the opportunity to see the set was the equivalent of visiting the mothership.
I got to walk through the sets and do the groupie thing by taking a picture in the cockpit of the spaceship set.
I even swiped a small stack of decorative stickers, which served as signage on a recently dismantled set, as souvenirs.
I also got to meet some of the cast members, who were shooting the breeze in a quiet corner of the soundstage as the stunt coordinator worked out an elaborate fight sequence in a bar set full of extras.
Best of all, I got to watch dailies. These are reels of film shot every day on the set - the raw material which will be edited into the finished movie.
This was the first time I have been privy to a film as a work in progress and I was enthralled.
By most accounts, watching dailies can be a tedious process. It means watching all the component bits of a scene, over and over again.
If the scene is long or has multiple characters, there is plenty of ’coverage’. The scene is shot countless times from different points of view.
By the end of the two-hour session, I had practically memorised the dialogue of one scene, complete with incomprehensible techno-babble and convoluted plot exposition.
But I lucked out. That scene covered a crucial plot point which, to a fan like me, was like manna from heaven. I had got a sneak peek at the story, even before the film had been completed.
Getting to see the nuts and bolts of a production also gave me new appreciation of the backbreaking work that goes into a movie.
The sets were full of intriguing details that would likely never be noticed in the finished film.
One whisky bottle on the bar set, for example, had this label: ’Established 2349. Earth That Was. Old Earth Style Kentucky Bourbon.’
Equal care had been taken in designing the fake dollar bills which were placed on the countertop.
The loving attention to such small props was a startling contrast to the unsentimental de struction of the sets once a scene is completed.
The cockpit set - as well as the set for the dailies I had watched - was already being torn apart with cool efficiency.
This strange dichotomy is mirrored in the shooting experience for actors and extras, where the glamour of the biz is countered by the mundane routine of the actual work.
For the extras, the day was probably a case of hurry-up-and-wait. Dressed to the nines in intricate headgear and costumes, they had to sit tight on the set while stuntmen figured out the choreography.
The dailies were ample proof that actors have to work really hard for a living. For that one short scene I saw, which would probably last barely five minutes on screen, the eight-member cast had to shoot about 20 takes from different angles and perspectives.
And most of that involved reaction shots. Imagine trying to react surprised, anguished or horrified 20 times over and making it fresh and believable each time.
From this close-up perspective, Hollywood resembled a sweatshop more than a dream factory.
But learning about the process deepened my admiration for the real people behind the pop culture ephemera we consume every day.
And now I just can’t wait to watch the movie.
Serenity is due to be released in April next year. (2005)