Serenity's Intense Action Scenes Had To Rely On Actors Over CGI

The Joss Whedon TV series "Firefly" ran for a single season on Fox. It never really had a chance for a successful run on network television; the episodes were run out of order, and three were left unaired. Despite this, enough people loved the show and bought the DVD box set that Universal Pictures gave a green light to a follow-up film, "Serenity." 

"Firefly" is set hundreds of years in the future, in a world where humans had to leave Earth and colonize space. Powerful people run the more advanced planets, but those who wanted their freedom, fought (and lost) a war over it. Those rebels are now scattered through the wilderness of space, settling into a sort of wild west existence. The series tells the tale of a small band of people including two former military fighters-turned-smugglers, a pilot, a criminal, a Shepard (a religious figure like a pastor), a Companion (a sex worker in the vein of a well-connected courtesan), a young woman who had her brain altered to keep government secrets, and her brother, a doctor who tries his best to protect her. 

Fan devotion aside, "Firefly" wasn't a hit on Fox, and the film sequel was never going to get a huge budget. That meant the actors had to do a lot of their own fighting, as they couldn't afford to digitally create these scenes with so little money for VFX. In an interview with How Stuff Works, Whedon and some of the cast members talked about the training, and what it was like to do a lot of their own fight scenes. 

'I can kill you with my brain'

Summer Glau plays River Tam, the young woman with an altered brain who has unnatural mental and physical powers. River's fight scenes are epic, and Glau had to do most of them herself.

Luckily, Glau was already athletic, having been a dancer since childhood. In fact, before "Firefly," Glau appeared in an episode of another Whedon series, "Angel," where she played a prima ballerina. In the interview, Whedon spoke about how important that was in terms of her fight scenes, saying, "What Summer Glau can do with her feet, money can't buy." 

However, ballet and fight scenes aren't the same things and training was required. Glau had the muscles, but this was different than a pas de deux or a regular workout. She said, "I was used to training and going to the gym, but this is completely differently muscle memory. I had to completely retrain my body, and it took three months, all day, every day. But the swords and blade work, the guns and the daggers, I did myself. I felt every punch and kick." The site points out that she did all but two fight sequences herself. 

Her co-star Nathan Fillion, who plays Serenity Captain Malcolm Reynolds, said that the whole cast trained, but not as much as Glau did. He joked that he called the training the "Fight Like a Girl Club," and that he'd finish for the day, and she'd still be there, "fighting against nine guys." A lot of the plot of "Serenity" focuses on River, what's happened to her, and why, so she did carry a lot more on her shoulders than the rest of the cast in terms of physical prowess. 

'I hit it every time'

Revisiting the film, you can see how much Glau took on. The other cast members had a lot to contend with as well though, as people who trained as actors and not stunt performers. Even more difficult to deal with is that they didn't know who would be using which weapons early on, according to Sean Maher who plays River's brother, Dr. Simon Tam. He said that all the actors had to be familiar with any weapon they might end up fighting with. 

One of the weapons they trained on was a huge gun, which Jewel Staite who plays the ship mechanic Kaylee Frye had issues with. She said, "This one gun was so heavy that every time I shot, it would ricochet and I'd get burns all over my legs." Morena Baccarin, who plays Companion Inara Serra had to take on archery. From what she says, it appears that no one trusted Baccarin's acquired prowess with the bow and arrows, despite how well she did. "Everyone put on goggles and hard hats. but they gave me an X to hit, and I hit it every time." 

So many films use CGI to make the actors look like they're doing more than they are, but in "Serenity," you can feel how much physical work the actors are putting in. Though the work of creator Joss Whedon is being re-examined because of recent revelations, and changes in the cultural landscape, "Firefly" and "Serenity" are still beloved by fans. Knowing how much work was put in by the actors is just one more reason to appreciate this futuristic tale.