Image credit: Reel Water Productions
As the sun sets, a chalky moon rises and looms large behind the lonesome tangerine-nuanced peaks in America’s Yosemite National Park. There is an utmost stillness permeating the atmosphere and even the horizon seems to await for something extraordinary to happen. From afar, you spot a silhouette, swiftly climbing the rocks and, seconds later, as if being struck in a trance, delicately tiptoeing a highline suspended above the peak.
Instrumental in this breathtakingly adrenaline-pumping cum visual inspiring scene was adventurer and filmmaker Bryan Smith. Calm and with surgical precision, Smith and his team captured this wondrous moment on camera, as part of the documentary The Man Who Can Fly, which featured adventurer Dean Potter wingsuiting, BASE jumping, and free soloing in Yosemite’s El Capitan.
But this isn’t Smith’s only amazing work. The award-winner filmmaker and owner of Reel Water Productions paddled and filmed in difficult rivers all over the world, from Peru to India to Ecuador and across North America, climbed dominating mountains, navigated remote ice-climbing routes in Canada’s British Columbia and captured explorer George Kourounis’ plunge in the blazing craters of Turkmenistan. In 2010, Smith also earned a National Geographic grant for his work in Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula – one of the most untouched and extreme territories in the world.
His work has appeared at various film festivals across the world including the celebrated Banff and Telluride Mountain Film Festivals. In the past years, thanks to his knack for storytelling and deep roots in adventure filmmaking, Smith also developed a strong reputation in both TV documentary and commercial cinematography and worked as a field producer and director of photography for National Geographic Television on shows including Alaska Wing Men, Explorer, Nat Geo Amazing and Monster Fish.
In Singapore earlier this month for the National Geographic Live series, the brazen adventurer talked in-depth with Quotient about storytelling, adrenaline, and what extremes he won’t go to.
Quotient: What or who inspires you to continue adventure filmmaking, and why?
Smith: I’m always interested in the idea of unknown outcomes, of adventures or film projects where it’s not 100% guaranteed that you’re going to succeed. I think that’s what’s really interesting about adventure and exploration — there’s that element of the unknown. That’s really important for all of us — for travellers, for filmmakers, for adventurers — because it keeps everything exciting. You feel alive; you don’t know exactly what’s going to happen. That’s a big hook for me — continuing to be able to have that feeling of the unknown.
What are some of the toughest challenges you’ve had to overcome? In a risky situation, do you still have the unflinching instinct to keep the video rolling?
All of the challenges revolve around environments. Having to deal with minus 35-degree Celsius for three weeks in a row is something you have to persevere through. Other things are just extreme locations where it’s really difficult to get to.
When people look in from the outside, they see huge risk takers and say “wow, it must be crazy living on the edge”, but these are environments that before we even start filming in, we are comfortable in. Hanging off a rope to shoot climbing is something I am okay with. It doesn’t freak me out. You have to be able to stay calm to film in those environments because you want to keep the camera rolling; you want to keep the camera steady — you have to be able to document that moment. It’s not as if every fleeting moment is chaos. It’s actually a very calm and collective thing that comes with experience. So when something does happen, you have to relax and use your natural instinct, take a deep breath and sort of work through it.
What is the biggest misconception people — even your friends and family — have about what you do?
The biggest misconception is that what I am doing is more dangerous and risky than people think because they don’t have the experience in that part. If someone looks at whitewater kayaking, for example, and think it’s crazy, they don’t realise that I and other people that I’m with, have a decade worth of experience operating in that environment. So I think that the biggest misconception is that we go to these places and we don’t have the skills to be there and we’re just taking a huge risk. The reality is that we spend — not just a couple of weeks before the shoot — but we spend a lifetime gaining experience in those environments and from making decisions when we are faced with those risky situations.
If you weren’t an extreme filmmaker, what would you be?
I’m not very good at it, but I think I’d probably try to be a writer as I love telling stories. A complete opposite is that as a kid I always wanted to be a Formula 1 driver. I would love to drive a Formula 1 car. I would also love to learn how to fly helicopters.
You often say “extreme is whatever is scary for you.” On the home or personal front, what’s extreme for you?
Things such as accounting — things that people probably think are mundane and boring but I find incredibly stressful. On the family front, I think that raising a kid is extreme. I have a 5-year-old son and it’s not easy. It’s really challenging as it’s hard to reason with kids this age; they are their own individuals. In my work I’m used to breaking everything down, but on the home and family front, it’s a way more emotional and subjective way of life.
How important is it for a child to be exposed to outdoor adventure from an early age? What’s the biggest adventure you’ve had with your son?
I think it’s really important to expose kids to outdoors because they are naturally curious and they want to explore, and a lot of times they don’t have that opportunity. They need to be able to take on new things and see new places and have those experiences. A lot of times, parents are over-protective and they don’t really allow many activities but kids are naturally curious. They’re a sponge for all that information. If you expose your kids to adventure and outdoors, then that is the setup for, hopefully, making them care about the world around them. This kind of sets the stage for them to realise that there is more to the planet than just our little world as human beings.
We live in a town called Squamish in Canada and my son is often exposed to adventures. We ski a lot; he’s really good on his bike and we’ve been taking him canoeing, but we also want to introduce him to kayaking. But I think extreme is whatever it is to him. It’s all those little challenges along the way. It might not be a huge jump but with every little step, you can push yourself beyond what you already know.
Is there anything you wouldn’t want to try?
I’m not really interested in trying BASE jumping or wingsuit flying. I’ve seen a lot of great legends not coming back from jumps, so for me these sports are off-limits.
What’s on your travel bucket list?
Africa is pretty high on my list. I’ve never been to Africa. I grew up looking at National Geographic magazines in my grandma’s house and I’ve seen all the images of animals from Africa, so one day I would really love to do something there.