Once the set is lit, Boyd likes to give actors the latitude to move where they want to, in essence allowing them to light themselves. "On other shows, there’s a big premium on where actors go, but on Firefly we give them free rein. It’s interesting to see who responds to it." Once the performers realize how much freedom they have, they begin acting like people and doing something different during each take. Whedon finds this a very effective way to work. "It enables me to be more improvisational," he says. "It’s film as a completely different experience. I think that this is what we should be looking for in TV – not just to keep costs down, but to make the process more exciting for the actors and to keep the energy up."

Each episode of Firefly shoots for eight days, one of which may be shot away from the soundstages. "Locations are planets," explains Boyd. According to Meyer, the show uses a lot of Western towns and old vehicles to depict alien worlds. "We’re mixing the past, present and future into one [era]," he says. "It’s really the only way we can create a world like this and make it cost-effective." He and Boyd have also discussed ways to change the color of the sky to make it seem otherworldly; their tricks include skip-bleach processing and uncommon ways of lighting outdoors. "We did a day-exterior sequence with an 80A filter and tungsten-balanced film where we flew a solid overhead to cut out skylight and sunlight and lit underneath it with full CTO on tungsten lights. The effect was distinctive – ‘normal’ skin tones in the foreground against a very cold background.

"We’ve constructed a blue skylight of coop lights and Space Lights," he continues. "In most cases, we have an 84K sun – a pack of Mollinos and Maxi-Brutes. It rides along on a big scissorlift, and we gel it with half CTO and Hampshire. Our color timer at Riot, Mike Schneider, says he routinely matches our real day-exterior light to our artificial light because that’s what looks best."

Many of the environments for other worlds are further developed by the visual-effects team. "[The effects] allow us to travel to many different places," says Boyd. "They're really essential to the telling of the story." The pilot featured about 130 effects shots, and Persisere estimates that each subsequent episode has had 30-50. He says that he and the 18 effects artists who work on the show strive to carry Boyd’s intentionally rough camera style into the effects shots; this was initially a bit of a struggle for artists accustomed to fine-tuning and perfecting every shot. "Once we understood that the camerawork wasn't going to be perfect, we started to study imperfect footage," says Peristere. By watching NASCAR and Grand Prix races and shots of other live events, they learned to let spaceships get a little ahead of the camera, then have the camera catch up. In addition, the focus is sometimes imperfect, or the effects shots are framed so that the action is off to one side.

The computer graphics for the show are done in NewTek Lightwave 3-D from animatic to finish, with pre-comps done in Adobe After Effects and final compositing done in Discreet Combustion and Flame. Peristere chose Lightwave because he’s especially impressed by the program’s renderer. "It's able to interpret light, refracted light and reflected light better than most off-the-shelf software," he says. "It’s also about three to five times faster than other comparable renderers, which allows us to try more scenarios and thus evaluate the best approach for any given scene." With a slower renderer, he says, the effects artists wouldn’t have had the opportunity to test many of the techniques that they’ve found to be successful.

In laying out their animatics, the effects artists delineate foregrounds, midgrounds and backgrounds by making them different colors, so it’s easy to understand what will be photographed on set and what will be created digitally. "Visual effects is a production process and has to be planned in its early stages, along with the script," says Peristere. "Only then will it move the story forward. It's no longer a fix-it-in-post society, especially on a show like this, where the effects are so integrated."

Once Boyd and Peristere understand what’s being conveyed in the story, they begin talking about how the cinematography and the virtual cinematography can come together. "What does the scene require of us to make a really beautiful photograph?" asks Peristere. He and the artists study Boyd’s images the way they would a painting. "We pay very close attention to directional light, ambient light and fill light, and we work backward to mimic those scenarios."

Whedon is convinced that Boyd’s work will have a big impact on the future of TV. "I’ve worked with really great cinematographers, but David is doing something I haven’t seen anyone else do," he maintains. "He’s trusting light in a way that no other cinematographer I’ve worked with has." Boyd says he is grateful for the opportunity to work on Firefly. "It allows me to learn, and I hope that's something I never stop doing. When I start to feel competent on every level, it will be time to get out of the way."



Panaflex Gold II

Mark II Super Speed lenses

Kodak EXR 500T 5298, EXR 200T 5293

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© 2003 American Cinematographer.