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Bryan Smith Talks Extreme Filmmaking

In an NG Live! event at National Geographic's D.C. headquarters, kayaker and videographer Bryan Smith shares the endurance trials and the adrenaline rush of out-there adventure filmmaking.

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By Valentine Quadrat

With his arms outstretched, Robin Avery takes another barefooted step across a highline in Squamish, British Colombia. A camera pan-out encapsulates the reality of the situation: The 130-foot rope on which he walks extends between two sheer cliffs more than 2,300 feet in the air.

When he reaches the other side, Robin turns to Bryan Smith and exclaims: "You just have to try it, man!"

"Nah," Bryan says, "I'm the camera guy."

What is it like to be the person behind the lens capturing moments of adrenaline rush set in the tracks and courses of nature's wild? Award-winning filmmaker and National Geographic Amazing series Director of Photography Bryan Smith brought the audience behind the scenes of "Extreme Filmmaking" at his NG Live! presentation here at National Geographic headquarters this fall.

Bryan's whitewater kayaking roots compelled him to bring a camera aboard as a means of sharing the intensity of the sport and the "absolutely stunning locations" he paddles with others. He experiments with new technology, such as a Phantom camera that shoots 1,000 frames per second, or develops his own. After six months of trial and error, he invented a cable cam capable of flying above an athlete at upwards of seventy miles an hour. Such a perspective takes "extreme adventure to the next level for viewers," bringing them through the water, down the mountain, and into the action.

In extreme environments, as the equipment gets bigger, the "suffering co-efficient" also increases. Whether he is 150 feet up in a tree or clinging to the side of a precipice with a backpack as large as himself, hauling equipment is "brutal." Nevertheless, an important part of filmmaking for him involves "learning how to suffer." The "suffering coefficient ... rewards you more often than you think", says Bryan, and has given him the mental and physical preparedness to "think straight," pull out a camera, and do what he needs to do.

With a grant from National Geographic's Expeditions Council, Bryan recently traveled to Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula, "arguably one of the wildest places left on Earth." The remote and rugged peninsula has only one major highway, and "for every road missing, there is a mosquito." Although this "land of volcanoes and rivers" looks like a short hop from Alaska, Bryan had to fly from Seattle to New York to Moscow to Kamchatka across 17 time zones, "shuffling fifteen baggages of gear through the airport system."

Bryan's team headed into the wilderness bent on collecting scientific data and conducting salmon conservation research. They also hoped to find challenging whitewater during a five-day first-descent kayak journey on a Kamchatka river from source to sea. He and his fellow kayakers were, he says, "like kids in a candy store."

Upon reaching a waterfall, the team would decide whether or not to tackle the drop. As cameraman, Bryan always had the convenient excuse of first sitting back to ensure he could obtain a good shot while others blazed ahead. When passing on a waterfall means a portage through thick vegetation over ominous bear tracks from the world's densest population of brown bears, suddenly "the 60-foot waterfall starts to look appealing."

Returning from such expeditions, Bryan explains, he'll sometimes get asked if it's "boring to be behind the camera." His answer: No. When Robin Avery attempted the highline 2,300-feet in the air, for example, Bryan had headphones on and could hear his colleague's choppy intake and release of breathe. It is "almost like I am there with him. It is the next best thing." You "feel the energy and mental stamina," the concentration, the management of fear, and the heightened senses of the athlete who is "tuned in so acutely."

For Bryan, extreme is a relative word. It is "whatever is scary for you," and in extreme filmmaking, cameraman joins athlete in testing the limits of human endurance.

Read about Bryan Smith's Kamchatka expedition on the National Geographic Adventure Blog and on National Geographic BlogWild. Find other National Geographic Live! events.

Photo of Bryan Smith and a fellow kayaker running a British Columbia river by Todd Gilman

Valentine Quadrat is Standards & Practices Coordinator for the National Geographic Channels. She received her B.A. in Government, secondary field (minor) in Italian and citations in French and Czech at Harvard. Prior to joining the National Geographic team, Valentine traveled to Sweden and Finland as researcher-writer for Let's Go Publications and interned through the State Department at the U.S. Embassy in Rome. She also danced with a professional ballet company, climbed Mt. Fuji, and jumped from the world's tallest bungee platform in Macau, China.

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