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National Geographic Adventure Filmmaker Bryan Smith is More Afraid Than You Think

The man who started filmmaking with a camcorder from Walmart.

By Laetitia Laubscher
September 30, 2014
By Laetitia Laubscher
September 30, 2014

Bryan Smith is a self-taught American adventure filmmaker. About ten years ago he took his first camera, a camcorder from Walmart, along on a kayaking trip with friends. Since then he's worked around the world for National Geographic, made 49 Megawatts an award-winning conservation film, and started his own film production company Reel Water Productions.

Concrete Playground: You got into adventure filmmaking through your love of adventure, but what made you get into adventure?

Bryan Smith: I think I've always been an adventurer. Early on it was just sort of a hobby or activity, but then when I got into my early twenties and I got really wrapped up in whitewater kayaking there was certainly a hook on the adrenaline part of it. But I think it was also just always having a fascination of exploring the wild, and then realizing that you can do a lot on your feet, for sure, but kayaking just takes you back into environments and places that you can't see any other way. You know, you can't walk to those river gorges. Skiing much the same way, you know, you can't walk up a mountain in the winter, but when you put skins on your skis you can get up there and ski back down. All these different adventure sports are just tools to get you into the backcountry.

Concrete Playground: How young were you when you got into adventure sports?

Bryan Smith: Ah, you know, I started skiing when I was three years old in my parents' driveway. I've been skiing all my life. But kayaking didn't come into my life until I was in my early twenties, but I've always been doing one activity or the other – my dad pulled me into windsurfing in my early teens, and I've always ridden a mountain bike, so I guess I've had a very early start.

What have you learnt from the process of adventure filmmaking?

I mean, I think in a really simplistic and broad way, that story is key. That is what filmmaking revolves around, is telling a good story. So probably more than anything I keep learning that. You think, 'oh okay, that's a pretty simple rule' but the more involved you get in filmmaking the more you start focusing on that and the better you become as a storyteller. That is king, and weighs heavier than any skill you have, or any kind of cool camera technique that you have.

Anything else?

Patience is also a huge one. That's taken me a long time to learn, but I kind of have an ADD attitude to life, but I think filmmaking taught me that every once and a while you've got to be patient. If the light's not good and that's what you're really after, then wait for it. Don't rush. Maybe tomorrow the light will be better and you'll get that magic image. Being patient with the story and shots, and how everything comes together is big thing that I've learnt.I think another thing is that no film is ever perfect, but if you strive for perfection you can take things to places that are a lot better than you may have ever imagined. You have to be willing to let some stuff go, but at the same time if you let too much go it will never feel like a polished product. Great films are films that people have obsessed over for hours and hours and weeks on end. And if you let too many little details go it adds up to it not being very good.

You've said that suffering is a big part of getting the shot, what kind of suffering have you gone through to get the right footage?

It's a huge part of it, that suffering coefficient. We just did an ice climbing project this winter, and we spent three weeks day-in day-out in minus 35 degrees centigrade. You know, so just bitter cold, but the images we bought back were incredible. And you know, it goes both ways, we did a project for National Geographic last year in Turkmenistan desert, and there it was just blistering hot in the day and very cold at night. So it could be the temperature, but also for example you take the river environment, it's wet. So you're constantly fighting to keep stuff dry. Whether it's gear or personal equipment. None of those environments are easy. And beyond the environment it's also getting the shot. I think the easy shots are typically the shots that people have already done.

I think a big part of adventure filmmaking is to just suck it up, because if you do work hard for something different and unique it will probably pay off.

You started out just using a cheap camcorder on trips, and slowly upgrading your gear from there. Do you have essential gear for each trip?

Yeah, I mean we always have a huge arsenal of gear nowadays. We shoot a lot on red cameras – the exact same cameras that Peter Jackson shot The Hobbit with, actually.

How do you protect your gear, say while kayaking down a level 5 rapid?

In a river environment we use watershed dry bags, which are basically military-grade ziplock bags. They're not big and bulky like a pelican case, but they're still padded. 90% of the time the camera's in one of those bags, protected, but just sitting in-between my legs in the kayak. You know, you take a swim from your kayak, and that camera's going for a swim too.

But sometimes, even though a rapid is definitely in my wheelhouse, I would still walk around it because of the heavy gear I have in my kayak.

You talk a lot about fear in your work, and how it's actually a positive thing for you. What do you think the role of fear is for you?

People think we're fearless, but it's so far from the truth. We get the shit scared out of us all the time. But it's sort of my most essential tool. If I get scared, or fear starts to creep in, it's those moments where you actually start managing the risks of what's happening and think more detailed and get more focused on what's going on. I think when people who ignore fear and just throw it to the wind, that's when problems start to happen. Fear keeps your reasonable.

A lot of the time when I get scared of something my reaction is to not do it, but in these kinds of extreme environments it's just a constant evaluation process. It's not something you can decide the night before. I mean, we may have planned to do something the night before, but when we get there go about it differently – you know, walk around it, or use an extra set of ropes, whatever it takes to deal with the hazard.

In a Studio Q interview you said that adventure sport makes you feel alive, what about it exactly?

There's the adrenaline, the fear, and the uniqueness of any given situation that you're in. You are out there and amongst the environment and it's never the same. It's never the same. It's not like going to the office every morning and your desk is arranged in the same way, you're stepping into new environments all the time and there's all kinds of new risks – different coefficients that get thrown at you. And I think that makes you feel alive and real, because it's different every time.

Why do you make adventure films?

I think it's to inspire people about planet Earth. Taking people on these journeys we go on. It feels like if those kinds of places inspire me and the team I'm working with, then it would probably inspire bigger audiences. I think that really is what it boils down to.

Bryan Smith will be giving his National Geographic Live: Extreme Adventure on the Edge talk in Auckland on Wednesday, October 1 and Wellington on Thursday, October 2

Published on September 30, 2014 by Laetitia Laubscher


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