Wednesday, April 19, 2006

It's official - the magic's gone.

One of my DVD rentals was the TV show Firefly.

It's a good show, but while watching it, all I could think was "Damn, I feel sorry for the poor bastards that had to work on that thing".

On a TV show, you have standing sets, swing sets, and locations.

Standing sets stay the same episode after episode - once the lights are rigged they don't move around (much - unless you're the victim of an excessively cost-cutting producer who forces you to pull the lights out of one standing set and put them in another each time you move), and all we really have to do is move around the 'floor units' (lights that are on stands and not hung in the rig) each time we shoot the set.

A swing set is a set that's only there for a short time as it's only going to be used in one episode. On a TV show, every time you see a place just once, that's a swing set. Watching Firefly, I noticed that over half of each episode seems to have been swing sets (alien spaceship, ballroom, bar interior, bad guy's office, etc..).

A swing set has to built, dressed and lit before it can be shot - that requires a lot of man-hours even if there's a rigging crew, and once it's ready to go the lighting always has to be tweaked, set pieces have to be changed, etc... Needless to say quite a bit of this tweaking takes place with the producers standing there, yelling about how we're not working fast enough.

Oh, and you'd think it would take less time to build and light a really small but complex set - like the interior of a spaceship with teeny little cubbyholes everywhere, wouldn't you? You'd be wrong. Sometimes the teeny cubbyhole-laden sets are the worst.

Here are my thoughts on shooting in those little western town sets (all the backwater towns on Firefly seem to be western-themed).

The magic's been gone for a while (I know too much - so I notice things like boom mic shadows, lighting mis-matches, sound glitches and actors looking in the wrong direction on a reverse angle), but the fact that I was sitting on my couch thinking about how badly the crew must have gotten spanked instead of rooting for our intrepid heros as they escape just in time really brought it home.

I wonder if this is how magicians feel when they watch a magic show.

Poor bastards.


Dave2 said...

I'm the same way when looking at photos in magazines and such... all I can see is the retouching and all the Photoshop tricks that digital artists and set stylists use to make the "magic" happen.

The biggest shocker is to spend time on a food shoot. You'd be surprised at the stuff they do to food in order to make it photograph the way people think it should look!

mediabrain said...

Ditto for stand-up comedy. As a comedy writer / performer, I rarely laugh out loud when watching other comedians. I may think that the point of view that they have or the twist they put on a comedy bit was interesting. Often though I'm thinking hmmmm...wonder why he didn't go that way or okay here comes the really obvious punchline.

As for movies, while I know a fair bit about the film making process,the story or acting has to be quite bad before I start fixating on things like mismatched lighting and reverse angles that are slightly off.

The only exception I can remember is many years ago being blown away by an amazing camera move in Summer of 42. As a student filmmaker I couldn't help notice how technically perfect the shot was and it took me right out of the story. I spent the rest of the movie admiring the technical aspects and had to sit through another screening just to catch the story.

Anonymous said...

You ought to check out the movie and TV bloopers at There probably are a lot of things that you would see, given your professional background, but which ordinary fans would never notice.
Re the prior comment about food shoots: one thing I've heard, but find a little hard to believe, is that many food items are sprayed with baby oil so as to appear shinier and fresher. Is that really true?

Iron Rails & Iron Weights

Anonymous said...

I totally get your point, but am bummed that Firefly had to be the example in this case.

I'm not a sci-fi person at all and wouldn’t have known about the show if it hadn’t been for an article I read (la times) about the making of the Serenity (the film that came after the series) and how Whedon saved $$ by keeping the shoot local. The article got me to rent the film and I loved it so much that I immediately rented the series; which kicks ass!


Anonymous said...

Everbody's got their things. I'm a horseperson so it drives me insane when I see barely-trained actors bouncing and slamming around on the poor horses' kidneys, hands flying all over the place. Can't they hire actors who can actually ride?

sigh9 said...

Me too - 'cept for me it's fake blood and unrealistic medical jargon.

My father's a medic as well, I always used to laugh at his shouting at the TV in the middle of any random hospital drama. Now I find myself doing exactly the same. "No, the cannula goes in the other way, you moron"

My disbelief is usually suspended like a donkey but this always brings me crashing down.

Except for the genius that is Firefly, the doc and I even share first names. He may be slightly better looking.

Anonymous said...

From the DVD commentary both the Serenity ship sets were designed to be self lit. mostly using a hand-held camera lead to fast shooting.