Filming on the edge with Bryan Smith

A scene from NOK. Photo: Bryan Smith

Bryan Smith is a filmmaker who truly goes the distance to make his films.

He’s followed wingsuit flyers, mountain climbers, white-water kayakers and other explorers and extreme adventurers into the wild places and come back with amazing images and great stories.

His company Reel Water Productions has been around the world chasing these dragons. And now he’s headed to Ottawa to talk about it all at the National Arts Centre on Nov. 19. His talk is part of a National Geographic speaker series.

Smith comes by his career out of his own passion for white water kayaking.

“I got into this through adventure first,” he said from his home in Squamish, B.C. “I was always a skier and loved doing thing out-of-doors, but white-water kayaking was my passion in my 20s.

“That’s when I first picked up a camera as well. I was paddling rivers and was kind of overwhelmed. I wanted to share those experiences with other people because I realized I was seeing deep down into river canyons that no one else could see. I felt I needed to start capturing this stuff.”

The film Locked In, shot in Papua New Guinea, was one of the most complex of Bryan Smith’s career. Photo: Ben Marr

So he got himself a cheap camcorder from Walmart and started figuring out how to make films. This was before GoPro cameras. In those days, and still today, he carried the camera in a dry bag inside the kayak and would film at places on a river where he could get out and shoot.

“I look at the type of filmmaking that we do today and there are two key areas. You need to be technically savvy and to be able to operate cameras and have a good eye. Second, you need to actually be able to be physically present in those environments.”

Early on Smith was blogging and posting short little videos online.

“I realized it was something I really enjoyed doing even though I sucked at first. Everyone thinks you can just pick up a camera and just film. There’s obviously a lot more to it.”

A couple of people he respected did say that he had a good eye. They urged him to stick with it, and he did. But he soon realized that if he wanted to be a filmmaker, he needed a niche.

Ascending a summit with Gavin McClurg and David Turner while shooting the film North of Known. Photo: Bryan Smith

“There were a lot of people making white-water films at the time and they were better than I was. But I saw there was no one making films in the sea kayaking space.”

As a sponsored kayaker, Smith had relationships with companies.

“I approached them with an idea about making a sea kayaking film, something extreme. Everyone was interested. They said it was a huge market and no one was filming it.”

He made one film off the coast of Vancouver Island and Washington state called Pacific Horizons and sold DVDs — Remember them? That was followed by a similar film called Eastern Horizons filmed off the Atlantic coast of North America.

That got him launched and his career has grown, substantially, from there.

Bryan Smith’s Reel Water on location. Photo: Pablo Durana

He says that when he surveys his career as a filmmaker two projects stand out.

The first is called The Kamchatka Project, about Russia’s pristine Kamchatka Penninsula. The film was his first major National Geographic project.

“I had been persistent with them for a couple of years and learning about what it would take to get a bigger project off the ground with them. I was also getting a lot of Nos.” But he realized the kind of pitch that would convince National Geographic would have to be big and unique and mysterious.

“Kamchatka was the type of story that could work for National Geographic. It’s one of the last truly wild places on earth. There is a great salmon and bear story. At same time, no one had ever taken white-water kayaks there.”

Bryan Smith. Photo: Mike Mckay

When Smith and his crew went to Kamchatka it was a more open time. Under the Soviets, the place was a no go zone. And today it is becoming more restricted again.

But the National Geographic card opens a lot of doors.

“There is no place in the world like it. It really is an incredibly wild landscape. I thought I had seen wilderness before but in Kamchatka you can fly for hours and not see a road.”

The second major film is called The Man Who Can Fly. It became an hour long special for the National Geographic channel. The film follows wingsuit flyer Dean Potter as he prepared to jump off a 9,000 foot mountain. Potter has since died in a wingsuit accident.

This film changed Smith’s career. Once it was finished, he said, he realized that he was a filmmaker.

“Now people are calling me and asking me to do things for them.” He started getting “tons of calls from National Geographic, Red Bull and Discovery asking me to do stuff.”

Smith has really watched the evolution of extreme filmmaking. He says he knows the danger.

“Definitely things can become too extreme pretty quickly.

“The only real failure is if someone doesn’t come home or is severely injured. You can’t completely eliminate the risk, but in 10-plus years of doing this work we have an insane track record of not a lot of stuff going wrong out there.

“That might be failure in some eyes but everyone came home at the end of the day. Safety is our No. 1 priority. Nothing matters is it’s not safe.

Still, the parameters of safety for Smith are relative. He knows “some people may look at it from the outside and say that’s not safe.”

That’s a misconception, he believes. People may look at the “adventure and expedition space from the outside and believe that it’s crazy. But if you look at Will Gadd climbing a frozen Niagara Falls, he has 20-plus years experience climbing ice. He has, if you will, a PhD in ice-climbing. He knows how to assess risk.

“People don’t say that about heart surgeons. They are considered trained professionals who know what they are doing.”

Smith has had difficult shoots including one memorable one in Papua New Guinea.

“We went with a team of kayakers. It was scary, in part, because it was really remote. And the river being attempted was beyond anything I would ever think about kayaking in my prime.

“But biggest challenge was that we ended up in the middle of a tribal dispute over who owned the land.”

Smith and the team had negotiated access with one of the tribes and “when we started filming the other tribe showed up. It was really intense to be in such a remote place in a situation where we had absolutely no control.”

The people were suspicious and even though it never felt like violence was going to break out, there wasn’t a lot of trust.

“The people don’t use money; they don’t know what film is and every time they have dealt with a white person, the white person has taken something without permission.”

It felt like film wasn’t going to get done, he said. “But in the end if you don’t give up, it eventually gets done.” The lessons learned filming Locked In has come to govern his career.

These days Smith is in post-production on projects and also working on a major project for the CBC about wild weather in Canada that will be used to mark the 50th anniversary of The Nature of Things in 2020.

While Smith is often out there with adventurers and extreme sports enthusiasts, he’s not all that interested in trying — say — wingsuit flying. That’s a bit beyond his threshold. “All the athletes, who do that, die,” he said. But he is intrigued to try para-gliding.

In town: The National Geographic Live Speaker Series presents Bryan Smith, Extreme Filmmaker in the Babs Asper Theatre at the NAC on Nov. 19 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.