Firefly Fan Films on Fan Film Follies

Firefly fan films have been bubbling under the surface of the more recognizable franchise films for a while, now. A number of projects, which have been simmering for literally years, look to be coming to fruition over the next year or so.

“What’s Firefly?” you ask. Think Science-fiction western. I don’t mean western-influenced, like Roddenberry’s “wagon train to the stars”. I mean like a real western, with horses and homespun clothes and slug-throwers and settlers and losers of a big civil war looking for a new life. But its science-fiction, with spaceships and terraforming and anti-grav chandeliers and an occasional laser and it takes place 500 years in the future. And that’s not even the best part. Firefly’s about pirates and smugglers and whores and preachers and gunslingers and bounty-hunters and crooks and cannibals and a girl who’s a “reader” because the government was doing surgery on her brain. Did I mention the characters tend to cuss in Chinese?

Chances are, if you are reading Fan Film Follies, you're familiar with genre films in general.

So, in turn, you’ve probably at least heard of Joss Whedon's foray into science-fiction; the ill-handled and oft-canceled series, “Firefly”, and it’s cinematic offspring, “Serenity”. Or…maybe not. I wasn’t aware of the Firefly/Serenity 'verse (Whedon for “universe”) until I saw the “Serenity” DVD in January, 2006. My viewing reaction was something akin to “Holy WOW! And there's a TV series this came from?!” I ordered the Firefly DVD box set and once I got it, ended up watching until I JUST couldn't stay awake any longer.

Much as I loved this Firefly/Serenity thing, I just assumed everyone would feel the same way.

I’m finding now, tho', that Firefly is a hit-or-miss deal. Those that don’t like it, really don’t get what the fuss is about. Them as like it, tend to love it. I find that Firefly fans tend to identify with the characters and, perhaps more important, with the hard-scrabble world Joss Whedon invented for those characters to inhabit. Firefly fan films are an outgrowth of that feeling, that desire to inhabit the Firefly 'verse a little longer.

There are currently six finished Firefly fan films, two in various stages of production and a couple more that are stalled.

Firefly fan films can be broken into two production types and three story-telling categories.

The production types would be:

1. The group of friends who have some costumes and props, a video camera, a short story to tell, and a few weekends to make a film. With the editing tools available to a home computer user, these “home movies” do a nice job of telling their story.

2. The full-on, write a script, build elaborate sets, incorporate special effects, upgraded camera and sound equipment, search for talent for in-front-of and behind the camera, make a feature length film.

The three story categories, as I see them, are:

1. Fan-made and acted stories featuring the original crew from “Firefly”.

2. Stories about other characters in the 'verse, but the characters and story circumstances mimic the original show. Older ship, crew as found family, hard-scrabble life, rebel past, character with an opposite sex name, folks got secrets, etc.

3. Stories in the 'verse, but featuring characters in occupations and situations outside the “run down transport” milieu.

A quick rundown of the Firefly Fan Films looks a little like this:


The first FFF was a parody. Basically a home movie shot in an abandoned building with little or no props and costumes to speak of. The characters are parody counterparts of the original crew. After the first ten minute spoof, Mosquito switched to a webcomic format.

“Faith of a Man”

A monologue that has Mal explaining how battle affects men. One person playing the original Captain Mal Reynolds character in a “close-enough” costume.

“Into The Black”

This was the first attempt at a full-on feature length Firefly Fan Film. “Into The Black” is a story that mimic's the original crew of Firefly. Money and circumstances conspired to put this film on the back burner and “Into The Black” fell into limbo for several years. Their web page came down shortly after they announced the resumption of production, but hopefully they will finish and release their film.

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Another full-on, feature length film. Also stalled. Or maybe “slowed” would be a better word. In my opinion, “Bellflower” has the highest production values of all the Firefly Fan Films. And since all those costs are borne by the film's makers, “Bellflower's” progress ebbs and flows based on the pace of those makers' real lives. The Bellflower is an outer Rim mail ship with the story mimicking elements of the original Firefly show. “Bellflower” is currently in post-production.

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“Big Iron”

The story of a 'verse character who interacts with the crew of Mal Reynold's Serenity. This is a home movie level production whose last login on their Myspace page was in March of 2009.

“Browncoats: Redemption”

This is the first full-on feature to be finished. The co-creators of “Browncoats: Redemption” had the original idea of making their film an approved not-for-profit charitable organization. On the plus side, they could collect donations of cash, goods and services to make their movie, and they can sell DVD's of their completed film without fear of receiving a cease-and-desist notice from the Intellectual Property owners of FOX and Universal. The downside is that there was no room for failure once the filmmakers made themselves accountable to other folks. “Browncoats: Redemption” set a release date for 2010 DragonCon, which gave them a little less than two years from concept to finished film.

Sounds like a lot of time to put ninety minutes on film, (or digital video), but for a part time undertaking with volunteer crews and actors, that is really pushing. A large part of any fan film is locating and coordinating resources. “Browncoats: Redemption” made use of donated locations, borrowed props and costumes, catch-as-catch-can cameos and a ten day shooting schedule to finish their film on time.

Some of the flaws in the film are the result of first-time filmmaker inexperience, and some, like inconsistencies in the sound, are the result of pushing to make the deadline.

“Browncoats: Redemption is another take on the older ship, crew as found family, hard-scrabble life, character with an opposite sex name, folks got secrets, etc.

“Courage: The Web Series”

Another, older ship, crew as found family, hard-scrabble life, character with an opposite sex name, folks got secrets, etc. Courage flamed to life with cinematic aspirations, decent film equipment, and no budget or filmmaking sensibilities.

Courage aired a five minute first episode that suffered from too many flaws to encourage future production. So, Courage has ceased to be, and even the five minute episode has been taken down. On the plus side, Courage brought forward some excellent talent that has moved on to other projects.

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Another completed fan film by a western US group going by Illusionext. In a home movie style production using the Firefly series characters; Mal, Jayne and River go on a job. This three-and-one-half minute story is what it is; a simple story filmed simply. But it is well done and the sound quality, while not theatrical, IS consistent; something some of the higher aspiring films didn't achieve. The camera work and editing also does a fine job of advancing the story; better, once again, than some of the work done by groups with access to better equipment.

The Illusionext group have moved on to their next project.

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“Freedom: The Series”

This started as a Firefly/Serenity 'verse web series, but it was just recently announced that Illusionext is taking the story out of the 'verse for fear of IP infringement problems. Although I understand the motivation, I wonder if taking the story out of the 'verse will also take away the audience. In my area, a group wanted to do a Star Trek film, but created their own universe for, I think, the same reasons.

Dark Operations

Double-edged sword. They have more freedom to tell their story, but fewer people are willing to emotionally invest in an amateur production.

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“The Game”

Another home movie style video that just sort of popped out of nowhere from a group of high-school aged Browncoats in New Jersey. The story involves fan actors playing the original Firefly characters. Like “Reaverized”, it is what it is. Some of the camera work, editing and acting is very good, some not so much. But “The Game” is a very watchable fifteen minutes.

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“The Bonnie-Jenn Chronicles: The Ruins of Du-Khang”

Was originally “Firefly: The Ruins of Du-Khang”, but word is they were required to remove “Firefly” from the title.

“The Ruins of Du-Khang” is about an older ship, but the crew dynamic is quite different than the original crew from Firefly. The production values aspire to a higher end feature film, but “The Ruins of Du-Khang” bounces between higher end elements, (equipment, locations, fight choreography), and some aspects that aren't even on par with the home movie productions, (some sets, effects, costumes and story clarity).

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And finally,

“Fool Me Twice”

This was to be my entry into the Firefly Fan Film community. Meant to be a simple, but higher end short film, this tale of an Alliance sergeant re-examining his life at the end of his career, is little more than a script and a collection of props and costumes.

Well, maybe someday…

All of the Firefly/Serenity fan films are very uneven. I feel each of them have their moments of excellence, and they each have those clunker elements that relegate them to amateur, fan film status. At their best, I'd say the Firefly Fan Films are better than some of the SciFi channel movies I've seen.

The resources available to fan filmmakers are as, or more, limiting than training or creativity.

“Bellflower” has built detailed sets in 360 degrees over as long as it took to get the look they wanted. Based on their trailers, “Bellflower” created extremely realistic looking environments for minimal amounts of money.

“Into The Black” also built detailed, full sets, so I'll be interested to see how they work in servicing the story.

“Browncoats: Redemption” has approached set building more like a low-budget movie or TV production, using two-sided or simplified background elements to meet a rigid schedule.

That had an effect on the flexibility of available camera angles and scene set ups, but “Browncoats: Redemption” made a wise choice relative to their resources and goals.

“Courage: The Series” was planning to use green-screen sets to meet their production schedule. We will not find out how THAT would have panned out.

“Reaverized”, The Game” and “The Ruins of Du-Khang” are relying on existing locations and obviously low-budget set dressing.

Likewise, Firefly Fan Film special effects are all over the board. Most of the FFF are using computer graphics; The Ruins of Du-Khang is doing model-work. The computer graphics run the gamut from obvious personal computer level modeling in “The Game”, to donated CGI supplied by NEOfx to “Browncoats: Redemption”.

Whether it is cardboard instrument panels or home computer spaceships, suspension of disbelief must come from a fan audience willing to support the efforts of fellow fans. If an audience member is disappointed by the effects in a film budgeted at millions, how critical will his/her eye be for a film made with hundreds or thousands of dollars to work with? And how reasonable is it to have Hollywood expectations for backyard productions?

I don't like to comment on the acting in fan films, because good bad or indifferent, I don't believe any of the folks who donated their time to such productions want to do a less than excellent job. Once again, Hollywood has resources that fan films do not. ANYONE who finishes an amateur film deserves credit for pulling together so many elements with little or nothing to work with.

I prefer to enjoy the creative efforts of fan filmmakers within the context of their limitations

My final observation is that the Firefly fan films made so far aren't expanding the Firefly world.

The stories of “Reaverized” and “The Game” can be told without the Firefly characters. Another minute or two of dialog could have defined new 'verse characters as hunters, smugglers, ranchers, etc.

The new faces could have gone with new 'verse characters, rather than re-imaginings of the already excellent original portrayal by the “Firefly” actors. I'm sort of thrown off when “not-the-people-I-know” play characters I think of as certain actors. I'm curious to know if most folks prefer seeing re-imaginings of established characters, or the introduction of new characters to the 'verse? Maybe I'm the only fan of the 'verse who wants to see OTHER stories in the 'verse.

At this point, every Firefly fan film, (even the ones that introduce new characters), mimics the show, most nearly beat for beat. There are many other Firefly 'verse stories to tell. Story arcs exploring the reach and machinations of Blue Sun, tales of Companions and politics, dissatisfactions within the Alliance; the Firefly 'verse is rich with story ideas beyond a simple “peril-of-the-week-for-the-crew”.

Stories about cops and robbers and Companions and politics and business could all be shot with costumes and props. The efforts could be put into the tales themselves and creating new 'versey vistas. Building spaceship sets is expensive. NOT taking the “an older ship…with a ragtag crew…secrets…rebel past…etc., etc” path would be more of an exercise in personal creativity than mimicking Firefly's story parameters and then trying to make it feel different. While that may be what Firefly was “about” for some or many Browncoats; for me, Joss Whedon's Firefly 'verse was so much more. With official studio participation seemingly over, it is up to the fans to grow the 'verse.

My Firefly/Serenity Collection

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