When I connected with Dennis Smith, ASC, he was flying his mother, age 84, to Provo, Utah, to visit family, including her 10-month-old great-granddaughter, whom she would be seeing for the first time. Dennis says that getting his pilot’s license at age 59 was like going back to medical school. “It’s so learning-intensive. Eighty percent of what you learn is not necessary to fly an airplane, but you need to know it in order to pass the written test, the verbal interview and the practical flying test. Flying is a freedom that has shrunk my world. My wife has relatives up in the Bay Area, and we’ll hop in the plane and get there in 90 minutes instead of doing a five-hour drive; we’ll have lunch, visit for the day and come back. I can fly to San Luis Obispo or Rancho Murrieta and have breakfast with a friend. It’s spiritually freeing to break the bounds of gravity and get up there where you can clear your head and leave everything behind.”
Dennis’ first aircraft was a two-seater called an RV-6A, which he says is the most popular home-built experimental aircraft. (He did not build it.) With a cruising speed of 180 mph, the craft is capable of loops and rolls and spins. Then, Dennis upgraded to a Cirrus SR-22, which “is like a Cadillac Escalade with wings,” he says. “It has very sophisticated instrumentation similar to that of a Boeing 777. There’s a rocket-assisted parachute for emergency landings!”
Dennis grew up in California surfing, skiing and motorcycling. At age 18, he started skydiving, and he eventually made 125 jumps, so he was not unfamiliar with the wild blue yonder. He considered getting his pilot’s license back then. “But at 21, I got married and starting having kids,” he says. “The next thing you know, I had a career going.
“About six years ago, my youngest son started flying helicopters,” Dennis continues. “It was something I’d always wanted to do, so I dedicated myself to it. For eight months, when I wasn’t working, I ate, slept and drank flying.”
Dennis’ filmmaking experience includes credits as a camera operator, cinematographer and director. He shot more than a hundred episodes of the hit series The Practice, and he has directed more than 50 episodes of NCIS.
“I always feel that once you’re a cinematographer, you’ll always have that eye and sensibility,” he observes. “You know immediately that you should start the day shooting here and end over there because the light’s going to be good. Thinking like a cinematographer has really helped me with blocking and camera choreography. Having made many mistakes, and having learned how to shoot my way out of them, helps me stay out of trouble blocking-wise. I always say you’re only as good as the cumulative number of mistakes you’ve made and learned from.”
Since he made the transition to director almost 20 years ago, Dennis has only returned to the camera to shoot a couple of short passion projects with his wife, who is an actor. “Once I switched hats, it wasn’t like I was dying to go back,” he says. “I still love to operate the camera. I still love to light the set. I think I know when someone’s lighting themselves into trouble, or when two too many lights are turned on, or when something’s taking a little too long. But in directing, I’m still exercising that creative muscle, just in a different way. If I were doing something that wasn’t filmmaking, maybe I’d miss being a cinematographer, but as a director I’m still thinking about visual storytelling.
“Connie Hall [ASC] said that if you can watch a movie with the sound off and still understand what’s going on emotionally, then the filmmakers have been successful. I’m still of that mindset, and I’m still getting the creative energy I need. And I’m very lucky because on the shows I do, they give me a lot of freedom.”