Reed Smoot, ASC, recently checked in from his home in Utah, where he was prepping the series Granite Flats. He had recently returned from China, where he shot a series of public-service spots for the Foundation for a Better Life, a campaign backed by Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz. The foundation has promoted classic values and virtues in the United States for years, sometimes with the help of celebrities, and Reed says it is now expanding its campaign to China.
“I’ve had the privilege of working on those spots over the last 10 or 12 years,” says Reed. “They selected three of the more popular spots we did in the U.S. and adapted them to Chinese culture, and we spent a week in Shanghai shooting those commercials.”
Reed had been to China several times before, twice for Imax shoots. Three years ago, the project was a 3-D Imax film about the Daming Palace for a cultural heritage park. And in 2000, he shot a scripted film financed by Imax about a 1930s expedition to study giant pandas.
“I have been really fortunate in the last 40-odd years to be able to divide my time among a variety of interesting projects — documentaries, Imax films, features, commercials and other things,” says Reed. “I never really wanted to do just one thing; I’ve always enjoyed the ability and the flexibility to go from one format and one genre to the next. It keeps it fresh and interesting. But it can be a challenge because in our industry, the natural tendency is to classify you, put you in a category.”
I asked Reed about the technological evolution in the Imax world.
“The thing we’re trying to hold onto in the large-format world is the ability to deliver a product that measures up to the promise of the format,” he says. “It’s getting more and more challenging because we’re losing some of the technologies that originally distinguished Imax — specifically, the 15/70 [15-perf 70mm] release print. Fortunately, we’re still able to shoot 65mm, and Kodak is supporting us for the foreseeable future. But in terms of the whole workflow, we’re down to one lab, FotoKem in Burbank, which supports us wonderfully."
“The last three Imax films I’ve shot have involved a mix of film and digital,” he says. “For aerials and wide panoramas, we used film, which still is the superior acquisition format in terms of delivering an image that justifies the [Imax] screen, and then we supported that with digital, which has opened up some other opportunities.
“For example, a couple years ago we shot Jerusalem 3-D, which will open in L.A. next year,” continues Reed. “It’s a pretty terrific Imax film that we shot over a period of a year or so, and digital cameras gave us the flexibility to work with Steadicam and immerse ourselves in the [action]. For the wide aerials, we shot 65mm. We used a similar blend for a film we did on the Panama Canal last year; we used Sony F65s on the Steadicam, and we shot 65mm for aerials and wider shots.”
Reed’s embrace of newer technologies is driven by his desire for better visual storytelling. “Cinematographers are faced with the continuing evolution of the media we use,” he observes. “In the case of Jerusalem, digital really assisted in our storytelling, but the director and I agreed that whenever possible, we’d maintain the quality of large format as much as we could—in other words, use the highest-resolution format possible. A 60-by-80-foot screen makes a certain promise to an audience that they’re going to see something that’s worth the fuss. That’s a challenge, it really is.”
His latest project, Granite Flats, is a cable series shooting in Salt Lake City, so Reed will be able to stay close to home. The story takes place in a small Colorado town during the Cold War. Between now and the end of the year, Reed will shoot eight episodes in a row, and he plans to use Arri Alexas.
In January, he will return to China to shoot a 3-D Imax project about the Loess Plateau, a massive geological formation where the oldest remnants of Chinese civilization are being uncovered. “It will be another tremendous adventure, another chance to immerse myself in a subject I probably wouldn’t encounter as a Hollywood filmmaker,” says Reed.
“Imax has taken me all over the world, and it has been a wonderful continuing education in the application and adaptation of storytelling principles to the large format.”