Firefly: DP David Boyd ASC Recalls Shooting The Cult Classic
COW Library : Cinematography : David Boyd, ASC : Firefly: DP David Boyd ASC Recalls Shooting The Cult Classic
Cinematographer David Boyd, A.S.C. is also director David Boyd. He has directed seven episodes each of Friday Night Lights and Men of a Certain Age, and, last season, after shooting the first season and a half of The Walking Dead, David directed an episode of the show before handing over the cinematograher's reins to Rohn Schmidt in order to direct and shoot the feature film Home Run, which will have its theatrical debut in April 2013.
He's just wrapped up directing episode 313 of The Walking Dead and reports the show is still done the way he conceived of it, lightweight and nimble, and with an emphasis on seeing the performances. "All of us, cast and crew, know and love each other, we've all been through so much together in the first two seasons, coming back to it was like I'd never left."
The popular AMC series continues to be shot in Super16mm, which Boyd says is "less expensive even than digital, and is creatively better in that the cameras move around more easily, are lighter and better fit the needs of modern production. Focus Pullers can do their very difficult jobs with less effort, camera operators put the optical viewfinders to good use, and actors appreciate how easily on-set adjustments can be accomplished. These cameras make everyone smile."
Firefly met a far different fate, however: canceled after only 11 of its 14 episodes had aired. To say that the show's popularity has grown since then is an understatement. Fan demand led to a Firefly feature film (Serenity), and a Comic-Con 2012 Firefly reunion panel saw fans camping out overnight for entry into the standing-room only 5000-seat hall.
"I've done things I may be more happy or proud about with regard to creativity," says David. "I did a short titled Two Soldiers, which won an Academy Award. But when people get wind of the fact that I shot Firefly, they're in awe."
On the 10th anniversary of Firefly, David talks to Creative COW about shooting Firefly, the show's remarkable life since its premature cancellation, and its passionate fans.
Joss had just completed the season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) and had made a lot of money for the network and studio. Firefly was a project close to his heart, he's wanted to do it for a long time, and I think they gave him the green light for Firefly as thanks. I also think they pretty much knew at the outset they'd yank it mid-season.
I'm convinced I got the job because I quoted a line out of The Searchers, the 1956 John Wayne movie. I had come in for an interview. I think I was talking about the fact that once I decide once I decided upon a photographic approach, I don't waver. I'll go straight ahead, total commitment, live or die by it. I started to say a John Wayne line from the movie -- "As sure as the turning of the earth" -- and we both ended up finishing the line at the same time.
Adam Baldwin as Jayne Cobb, episode The Message. Click images for larger views.
I took the project because I was interested in this fantastic premise that this band of people, brought together by Mal Reynolds, are just trying to get by, dealing with their pasts, making moves for a nice future on their own. It's a timeless story. They need each other to survive. Then there are the Reavers and the Alliance! I have to say I'm still more afraid of Reavers than any zombie.
Joss wanted the look to be as real-life as possible. I remember having seen the film Outland, and having responded how true it was to human behavior, and thought to take some of that approach into Firefly. Outland was done in the early 1980s, starred Sean Connery as a policeman on a space station, and was basically High Noon in space. It was so well done conceptually, and I got a lot of what I did on Firefly from it, especially the feeling of the physical limits of shipboard life and the idea that light, much more than other projects, has to be motivated by a believable source.
And so I designed the lighting into the ship. We locked ourselves inside it, as if in space, and made the lighting come from the ship's machinery. The cargo bay, for example, was lit by lights that could be photographed and that looked like lights that were installed by the designers of the ship. Everything I put into the ship had to be a believable source. On the bridge we had the chance to bring light in from outside, especially when flying in atmosphere, and so we flew 18K lamps around on the ends of crane arms to simulate the rolls and turns of the ship's flight. That was lots of fun.
The Firefly class transport ship "Serenity"
We also made most of the lighting practical, which was powered to switches that actors could use. There's nothing more believable than an actor hitting a switch and a true light turning on! On the first day we shot in the cockpit I realized I hadn't fully thought through how I was going to get credible light onto actors' faces. I frantically ran down to the galley and grabbed some square aluminum hotplates which were part of the set dressing down there, and I taped them down on the cockpit dashboard and aimed the existing lights into them, and that turned into how we lit those scenes in the cockpit. It was sheer desperation that did it.
One of the dilemas that David faced was creating credible cockpit instrument panel lighting, which needed to hit the actors' faces with a soft, luminous glow as if coming directly from the panel.
The first time we shot in the galley I realized we needed a light in the center of the table that we could photograph and would actually do the work of lighting the actors. I scrambled into the set dresser's lockup and found some sushi warmers, wired them together and put some hot light bulbs inside. Sometimes I think about how practical that was and where it is today! Hope it didn't get thrown in some dumpster on the last day of shooting.
The Serenity's "Galley" table and chairs with the sushi warmer lighting.
The production designer Carey Meyer was so great. He figured out ways to get motion picture lights into the set also. For example, a lot of times the floor was a grate and if we put lights underneath it or outside, it comes into the set looking like it's coming from inside the spaceship.
For the big battle scene in the pilot, I wracked my brain about what we could do to make it as cinematic as possible. I found these World War II self-contained searchlights in a parking lot in the San Fernando Valley. They were these giant carbon-arc generator-powered things. I put those out there on location, and that turned a simple idea into something that looks pretty fantastic. The setup was geographically big and it took a lot of planning to pull off.
Lights from the Battle of Serenity Valley from the pilot episode. All screencaps are courtesy firefly.wikia.com and fanpop.com/clubs/firefly.
We shot on three stages on the Fox lot and had about two location days per episode as I remember. One stage held the infirmary and giant cargo bay section of the ship, another had the upper section that contained the bridge all the way through the galley into the engine room. The third stage had the swing sets, the ones that were built for specific episodes and, once shot, went away fast.
It was quite an undertaking. We shot this on 35mm, with two cameras all the time, handheld most of the time. I used wide focal lengths to create some claustrophobia and confinement. With two cameras all the time, we tried to do as much coverage as we could at the same time so each moment could be cut with another. We made it as raw as possible.
Summer Glau as River Tam. Often, lighting would shine through grates in the spaceship walls and floors.
This is where it paid off having the spaceship lit so we could more or less travel anywhere, from the bridge to the engine room in the same shot. My A Camera Operator, Allen Easton and I would talk before the shot and decide where we'd hide each camera from the other.
It was a whole different world outside when we visited the different planets. The cargo bay would drop open on stage, and we made each scripted locale right there. We designed it so we could land on planets with sun or snow or whatever. That was very important. The main bulk of the work went into the planets we landed on. Some of the locations were in Valencia and we had a port set exterior in Long Beach where we piled up shipping containers and had a big bazaar -- that was great fun. I wanted each of these planets and places to have their own personality. Sometimes I put electrical scrims in front of the lenses so they'd scar an image that would give it a distinctive look. Joss gave me a lot of leeway in making each location distinctive and unique.
The biggest challenge on the show was that I had to be prepared to do anything at any time -- nighttime, daytime, sun, snow, space, weightlessness. It's a marvelous thing to think about and it took a lot of planning and anticipation on a TV schedule.
I was very surprised when the show was cancelled, although I don't think Joss was surprised. They had given him the show as a thank you for making Buffy, and my guess is whoever cancelled it had already decided to pull it mid-season. But it was still a huge disappointment. We all knew we were making a great thing happen, and I think history has proven that. I had a great experience recently that shows just that. I live near Cal Tech, which has a public lecture series. They showed a videotaped interview of a guy from JPL who had just landed the Mars Rover. He's sitting at his desk and on the wall behind him is a Firefly poster. He landed a Rover on Mars and that's the show he liked.
The cast and crew of Firefly was a happy group. It was a wonderful adventure creatively for everyone, top to bottom, and a wonderful opportunity to do different things. It wasn't like a Knots Landing, that's the same every episode. On every episode, there was a new planet to explore and something novel to think about and make happen.
Mal and Wash (Alan Tudyk) captured in the episode The Train Job
The cast was simply phenomenal in all respects. They were totally happy and wonderful people. Nathan Fillion (who played Captain Malcolm "Mal" Reynolds) is a wonderful person to be around and has a great sense of humor. The camera operator Allen Easton was also a reserve Santa Monica policeman. Nathan got wind of the fact he was a policeman and when Allen would ask him to reposition himself to make the shot a little better, Nathan would mutter, "Cop" under his breath. Allen was the guy who needed to be slowed down from time to time, and Nathan was the one to do it.
What's surprising to me now is that it's the 22 year olds who consider Firefly to be the best thing I've been involved in, even more than Get Low or Deadwood or The Walking Dead! They must be finding it and watching it, and it's amazing to me. I've done things I may be more happy or proud about with regard to creativity -- I did a short titled Two Soldiers, which won an Academy Award. But when they get wind of the fact that I shot Firefly, they're in awe. They want to talk about Joss Whedon and the making of Firefly.
The Walking Dead Episode 102, lensed by David Boyd. In this scene, Glenn (Steven Yeun) and Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) must slay the Zombie - always by a blow to the head - (spoiler alert.... ) after they had covered themselves in zombie gore to try to pass through the zombie march, unnoticed. Unfortunately, the rain washed away the bloody goo, and zombies were able to pick up their tasty human scent. Photo credit: Scott Garfield/Courtesy of AMC.
Having been a part of Firefly is a special thing and I'm so happy to have done it. I learned an awful lot and the experience turned me into half of what I am today as a DP and director. I saw something come from nothing to full fruition, which is a great thing to participate in. Joss imagined it, wrote it, brought it to life. He put me in there and I learned plenty and had lots of fun doing it.