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How Beloved Firefly Sequel Film Serenity Slashed Its Budget from $100 Million to $39 Million

The Firefly sequel film went full guerrilla-filmmaking to get its budget to the point it could land a green light.

By Trent Moore

When the sci-fi series Firefly was axed before its first season had even finished airing, the creative team went into desperation mode to try and find a way to wrap up the space cowboy adventure in a satisfying way for fans. That scramble ended with the sequel film Serenity — but the journey to make it happen was a wild one.

Created by Buffy and Angel mastermind Joss Whedon (back when he was at the peak of his TV hit-making powers, long before hostile and inappropriate workplace allegations surfaced around the director), Firefly and Serenity starred a who’s who of future stars: Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres, future Resident Alien star Alan Tudyk, Morena Baccarin, Jewel Staite, Summer Glau, Adam Baldwin, and a whole lot more.

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The show and movie were set on the outskirts of space, following a rag-tag crew of outlaws as they tried to make their way in a solar system quickly being unified under a shady, oppressive regime. The show quickly became a critical hit and fan favorite, though ratings were so-so and the plug was pulled. The ending left a lot of questions unanswered, so Whedon & Co. started shopping anything from a new season, to TV movie, to a feature film to any studio that would listen.

He caught a sympathetic ear at Universal Pictures, which signed on to develop and eventually green-lit the Firefly sequel movie. After development under the code name “The Kitchen Sink,” it would come to be known as Serenity (the film is airing next week on SYFY, check out the schedule for details).

The only problem? The projected budget was coming in at around $100 million, and the studio was reportedly not looking to spend nearly that much for a movie based on a failed sci-fi TV show that was unceremoniously cancelled after 11 of its 14 episodes had aired. So the creators vowed to cut that estimate in half by employing pretty much every trick in the book, all while still shooting the film in Los Angeles, California and not relocating filming internationally.

By the time production wrapped, they’d slashed that $100 million estimate to a lean $39 million total budget.

How They Cut the Budget for Serenity

In a 2005 interview with the Los Angeles Times, the effects crew and film’s creators opened up about the ways they shaved tens of millions off the film’s cost. Basically, they shot it like a TV show, creating only what was necessary and meticulously storyboarding things out so no resources were wasted.

One of the movie’s most ambitious set pieces, a wild chase scene early in the film, was projected to be one of the costliest segments in the film. So instead of trying to build out a massive CGI chase, they built a trailer with a cantilevered arm big enough to hold the on-screen hovercraft and actors. Then they just shot the scene on Templin Highway around Santa Clarita. For the Reaver vehicle chasing the crew, they hacked an old pick-up truck together with some CGI overlays for final effects. In the end, a scene expected to take 30 days was finished up in five.

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To create the spaceship models in the space-set scenes, they used a common cost-cutting approach called “kit bashing,” where you combine several different ship models and kits and mix them all together to create something new. It’s a cheap alternative to full-on spaceship design, and it saved time and money for plenty of those space scenes.

They even had to rebuild the Serenity ship itself for sets, using old blueprints and DVD screen grabs for reference, a process they knocked out in a brief 14 weeks and under budget. All the explosions and pyrotechnics in the film were also done on a tight schedule, filmed across three nights at Mystery Mesa near Valencia. Traditionally, that level of sci-fi action pyro work for a blockbuster movie would’ve taken around two weeks.

When all was finished, the entire film was originally estimated to take 80 days to shoot — and they managed to wrap Serenity in under 50 days. Serenity was a critical hit and beloved by fans, and performed solidly at the box office, especially considering its tight budget.

Serenity airs Thursday, Jan. 18 at 9 a.m. ET, and Friday, Jan. 19 at 3:30 a.m. ET on SYFY. You can also pick up the film from Universal Pictures Home Entertainment right here.