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Firefly, Snap Zooms, and Joss Whedon’s Influence on Man of Steel

One of the most surprising things about Man of Steel is its almost complete lack of slow-motion shots. Stylistically, director Zack Snyder is known for his overuse of the technique — think battle scenes in 300, Watchmen, and Sucker Punch — which is why its complete absence from his latest film is as jarring as it is welcome. But he, and many recent action blockbuster directors, have glommed onto a new camera move: the snap zoom. As a result, Snyder and Man of Steel owe a huge debt to the man who popularized this technique, Joss Whedon.

What is a snap zoom? It’s when the camera — often assuming a shaky, handheld, found-footage feel — holds briefly on a shot before rapidly zooming in. It’s a fast and dirty move that often bridges long distances. It can be seen in the first Man of Steel trailer around the one-minute mark, right before Superman breaks the sound barrier:

Action filmmaking trends come and go. (Pour one out for "bullet time," everyone.) Currently we're in an era standing on the shoulders of Whedon. Known for his sharp dialogue and genre-bending stories, Whedon established a zoom technique in Firefly that continues to be emulated. George Lucas’s Star Wars prequels, many “found footage” horror films, last summer's Battleship, this summer's Star Trek Into Darkness, and even Monsters University — all have employed an effect first realized on TV.

Working with cinematographer David Boyd on the show about space cowboys living on the fringe and flying by the seat of their pants, Whedon aimed to match his show’s grit with a shooting style that would bring a sense of imperfection to the sci-fi setting. The plan went beyond "shaky cam" — lights would be placed to purposely create lens flares (hello, J.J. Abrams!), shot composition would be routinely off-balanced, and actors could drift offscreen and reappear thanks to the claustrophobic interior of the spaceship set. But the team broke new ground when the action jumped outside the ship. Boyd captured the "Serenity" flying through space like he was manning a news camera, the goal to just get anything on tape for use later. Although the shots were precisely constructed in postproduction using computer graphics, they felt spontaneous. (Click here to view some examples of the technique as it was used in Firefly.)

Boyd tells Vulture that it was their way to turn Firefly into dramatically honest television. "Joss, because he's about the smartest, most intuitive and wickedly creative person on the planet, made sure the visual effects fell into the same photographic approach he and I had worked out," Boyd explains. "I loved it on Firefly because it's 'accidental,' and therefore truthful. And we did it on purpose!" To the viewer, it feels improvised — an image caught on the fly. He cites famed documentarians D.A. Pennebaker, Richard Leacock, and Frederick Wiseman as the reason why an audience inherently trusts this kind of shot. In the sixties and seventies, the trio utilized lightweight camera technology to establish the handheld movement known as "Direct Cinema.” A "vérité" style allowed those watching to become further immersed in what was happening onscreen. This paved the way for cinematographers like Haskell Wexler to adapt the documentary style for fiction. Like Wexler's iconic film Medium Cool, Boyd wanted Firefly's photography to be "open to explore, curious," even in its sci-fi setting.

Of course, zooms weren't new to the action-adventure genre when Boyd grafted them on to Firefly. They've been used and abused by exploitation cinema since the emergence of the term. Director Irvin Kershner planted at least one small snap zoom in The Empire Strikes Back's Hoth battle scene (see it here at around 3:30). And, perhaps more fitting for Whedon's space Western, they were essential to the filmmaking of Sergio Leone, who used them to enliven characters in his desolate landscapes. Whedon did the same for a ship drifting in space. It was a jolt of cinematic energy on the small screen. So when the show premiered in 2002, the impact of the tiny special effect was felt. Firefly was abruptly canceled after eleven low-rated episodes, but the snap zoom would inevitably live on, a torch carried by another sci-fi phenomenon: Battlestar Galactica. (Click here to view some examples of the technique as used in BSG.)

Battlestar had the luxury of expansive space battles to show off the snap zoom's true potential. Without a huge Hollywood budget behind its CG dogfights, the show relied on Firefly’s fast and messy aesthetic. The show had few qualms with lifting the style straight from Whedon and Boyd's work — they even hired Firefly's FX team, Zoic Studios, to reproduce the technique, albeit with a more action-oriented result in mind. The explosive zoom became linked to Battlestar and helped the show compete in the minds of viewers who expected Star Wars–level grandeur from their futuristic flybys.

After Battlestar, the snap zoom spread like wildfire. Boyd admits he "brought portions of this photographic lineage on to Deadwood, Friday Night Lights, and to some extent The Walking Dead," while Whedon continued the style in Serenity, his big-screen version of Firefly, and 2012's The Avengers. Now it's everywhere. Check out this scene from Star Trek Into Darkness, a film by J.J. Abrams, whose collaborator Drew Goddard also used the snap zoom in Cloverfield.

Man of Steel isn't the first time Zack Snyder has turned to the CG zoom effect. In 300, he coupled a variation of the shot with his now-notorious speed ramping (slow, then fast, then slow again) technique. There it acted as a punchy cue for the slow motion, making no attempt to simulate the actual focusing delays of a real camera. In Man of Steel, Snyder embraces the Firefly methodology, doing away with what had become his signature move to add a pinch of "realism."

Every special effect is at risk of saturation. Thanks to a reliance on the Firefly innovation, Man of Steel could be a tipping point for the snap zoom. It’s all over the film, from its opening scenes on Krypton to the climactic battle in Metropolis. What once worked to immerse the audience on television is now a go-to maneuver for gargantuan blockbusters. Snyder is a master of action, capable of conjuring a CG typhoon of elaborate camera movements and hypercrisp destruction. Continuously falling back on to the snap zoom — which, with every reproduction by a top-notch special effects house, loses a bit of Boyd's "accidental" integrity — winds up feeling cheap. Sparsely used in Whedon's character-driven Avengers, the snap zoom has its advantages, functioning as an extension of the characters as they watch otherworldy adversaries descend into the skyline of Manhattan. In Man of Steel's quest for "epic" status, it feels more like a ploy for realism than a thoughtful choice. If Snyder wanted to make it work, he needed to take cues from Avengers and, more so, Firefly — start with great, real people, then shoot them as such. Superman isn’t man enough for the snap zoom.

Photo: Warner Bros and Marvel