From NFL camera operating to The Americans – DP Joseph Bradley Smith shares his cinematography story
The Americans is a two-time Golden Globe-nominated hit TV show following two Russian spies posing as an American family during the Cold War. After camera operating on scores of episodes in the early seasons, Joseph Bradley Smith ascended to the cinematographer position for the most recent season and here tells Mandy News all about his career trajectory, the challenges of shooting The Americans and more.
Joseph, please tell us a little bit about how you started working with the camera and how that led to a career as a DP?
I grew up in North Carolina, US. Growing up in the country, I didn’t have too many friends living around me, but my grandparents had a Super 8 camera which I was infatuated with.
I always wanted them to put up the movie screen and I'd follow my grandfather as he walked around and shot movies. Finally, when I was about nine years old, they gave me that camera with some film and I was able to start shooting. I'd invite friends over to the house and make little movies. My parents saw that I had a great interest in it, so when I was 12 (to put it in a time frame I was born in 1970 so this is about 1982), my parents got me one of the early VHS home camcorders.
That was all it took; I was just shooting, shooting, shooting on VHS, doing wildlife photography on the farm. At weekends I'd invite friends over to the house to make short films, spoofs on the television shows of the time, like Miami Vice, and the movie Top Gun. Honestly, I'm not doing anything at all different now from when I was nine years old.
So basically it was growing up in rural Carolina, being somewhat bored on a farm, infatuated with art photography and motion picture film. It became an after school activity more than a hobby, something I did almost every day after school.
How did that actually take you into a career in film?
I don't know if you're familiar with NFL Films? We have the National Football League (American Football). There's a group of cinematographers who have been involved with the NFL since the late 1950s and early 1960s: a company called NFL Films. Just Google 'NFL Films'. If you go to my website you can see my 16mm footage of American football. Basically it was all slow motion, 120 frames.
I would watch the live broadcast of the game with my father on a Sunday and there was a very specific aesthetic look to live broadcast video television. On Thursdays, NFL Films would shoot 16mm film at the game and by Thursday night they would edit a program together and you could watch film of the game, cut together in slow motion 16mm film.
I remember asking my dad what the difference was between the live broadcast and what I was watching and he said “Well live broadcast is video and what we're watching right now is motion picture film.” I was like “Wow! I like the look of motion picture film.”
Some people paint with oils, some people paint with watercolours and I just really, really loved the look of motion picture film and the quality that it picked up. The way it transcribed an image and represented an image from what I saw with my eyes to something we could see later.
Out of college, I got a job at a local television station in North Carolina where I was making very cheesy television commercials, which led to me shooting a saltwater fishing show. I was out in the water for two years, off the coast of North Carolina, with the camera on my shoulder.
From there I started shooting short films in Wilmington, North Carolina, where there was a film industry at the time. Somebody saw one of my films and wanted me to shoot drag racing, so I bought a very nice Arriflex SR2 16mm camera package and started shooting drag racing and all sorts of motorcycle and auto racing. And that led me to an actual audition to try out with the company that attracted me to film in the first place, NFL Films.
That took me up to the northern United States, New Jersey, and not only was I doing sports cinematography for the NFL, I was also shooting high-end national TV commercials and developing my director of photography skills.
A movie came along in ’98 or '99 called The Replacements with Keanu Reeves. It's a football film and they needed someone to shoot the football sequences. About four of the NFL Film cinematographers and I went and shot all the football sequences for that film and that's what introduced me to working with actors and true narrative.
From there I went to work on a TV show for the same reason, a show called Friday Night Lights which is a very popular television show in the United States. I shot the football sequences for those and once again, that exposed me to actors and dealing with narrative.
That's all I'd wanted to do, dating back to being nine years old and inviting people to spend the night at my house so I could make short films.
So to make a long story short, I wanted to dedicate the rest of my career and the rest of my life to being a cinematographer. I knew that I had to camera operate in New York to build the confidence of producers and directors to hire me as a DP.
I operated on shows like HBO's The Leftovers where I worked with some very, very talented directors and filmmakers. I was exposed to Peter Berg, who is a very talented filmmaker and was able to shoot handheld sequences with him. My training with NFL Films and all the hand-held work that I did led me into a very successful career as a handheld narrative operator.
Then I bumped up to operating on The Americans where I shot an episode for season 4. Then, for seasons 5 and 6, I was an alternating director of photography.
From there I went on to shoot four episodes of Quantico and I'm currently shooting a show in New York called Manifest which airs later in the fall.
So I didn't just stumble across this. From age nine, I had that Super 8 film camera in my hand and there was no doubt what I wanted to do. I guess some people can sing, some people can dance. I can't do any of those, I just felt comfortable about cinematography.
We were going to ask how you became a cinematographer on The Americans and you’ve answered it – but if there's any more about that please go ahead.
There is one specific person I would like to mention. As a camera operator on The Leftovers, we had a lot of creative freedom with what we did. Since we were handheld, our objective as a camera operator was to tell the story and to tell the story differently almost on every take.
One of the directors of the episodes was Daniel Sackheim, who came to direct an episode and happened to be the executive producer/director on The Americans. He was in New York doing an episode of The Leftovers and liked the creative decisions I made as a storyteller, so he called me up after his episode was over and wanted me to operate on The Americans and bring that type of storytelling into his show.
I started shooting the tandems and a splinter units. I'd been doing the cinematography on a lot of second units, for The Affair and The Leftovers.
So I was DPing all along but The Americans is the show that really gave me my break of DPing tandem units and I have to thank Daniel Sackheim for that.
Getting into the more technical aspects of The Americans. What was The Americans shot on and what is your favourite kit to shoot on at the moment?
There are so many cameras out there now, but I have to say that I am very, very partial to the Arri Alexa and its colour space. The way that sensor represents contrast, captures colour, the contrast of the colour, the way the colours roll off and the way the colours transition into one another. I prefer the Alexa at this point.
If someone came to me and said “Hey, would you shoot The Americans on 16mm?” I would love to. Even on 35mm I would have loved to, but today, the way that things are processed and turned around, the dailies in the middle of the night... it's such a quick turnaround. I understand the need for digital cinematography, I think that it does look beautiful as a medium and I think it's a good medium to tell a story with.
You talked about being brought from The Leftovers to The Americans, based on the way that you tell narrative story, but do you modify the way that you shoot for different productions or do you carry that one theme all the way through?
Yes and I've heard other cinematographers say that a lot. I would like to consider myself as not having a style. I'd like to consider myself a completely blank slate when I get the script and read it.
I'm definitely not a DP that gets a style in my head first. I had a different style on The Americans than I used on Quantico, which is different from the style I'm using currently on this show called Manifest.
It starts with the story and the way the writers of that story want to portray it.
What advice do you have for camera operators and cinematographers coming up through the industry now?
The first thing I'd like to say is that there is a very, very solid, consistent path and there's a very, very black and white line, and you're either above that line or below that line.
To me there are the people who stop and there are the people who keep going – that's the only difference to me. I feel like everybody in this industry has sense and intelligence about them, so it comes down to the people that stop and the people that continue forward.
Everybody should take their career in five year increments and not get too frustrated with how things are going over one year, two years, three years, four years. Really break it up into five year increments, have goals and work through those five year periods. I think that helps.
I was actually telling a young intern the very same thing yesterday. What makes somebody successful is just not giving up; always studying and always trying to do the best job that you can, on every job that you do. Don't stop and, eventually, you could be 27 and get there, or 37 or 54, but you get there. As long as you don't stop, you're going to get to where you want to go in this business. If you really want to do it you have to do it.
They say in New York you have to be in it to win it and that's true. You have to put yourself in a position to be in it and you have to be dedicated to it. You just have to not give up and settle for something. If you're not in a place where you want to be, keep pushing, keep trying.