Mr. Smith Goes to Hollywood
Siena Heights Graduate Enjoys Distinguished Career as Director of Photography
Darryl E. Smith casts a long shadow standing 6 feet, 8 inches tall. However, that shadow pales in comparison to the one he has cast as a director of photography in Hollywood.
The 1985 Siena Heights graduate has an impressive list of credits and clients, including MTV, Disney, Coca-Cola, CBS, the NFL Network and HBO. The owner of his own production company, Darryl E. Smith Productions, for the past 14 years, he said his path to success was a winding one. And his starting point was Siena Heights University.
Originally recruited to play basketball at Siena by former coach Ben Braun, Smith said Siena Heights was the only school that showed interest in him as a student—not just as a basketball player.
“(Coach Braun) basically recruited me on my interests instead of what they needed,” said Smith, who planned to study biology at Siena Heights. “He was guaranteeing my mom that I would graduate. He said, ‘Basketball is important, but so is education.’ I played basketball to get an education.”
And Smith was well on his way to a biology degree when a teammate asked him to participate in a campus theater production his junior year. He called that experience a “pivotal point” in his life.
Acting was OK, but it was behind the scenes that intrigued Smith. He began working with former theater professor Doug Miller on set building and lighting. It was then that the literal “light bulb” went on for Smith.
“We lit a couple of small lab theater plays, then Tennessee Williams’ play ‘The Glass Menagerie,’” Smith recalled. “(Miller) allowed me to implement an idea. There was a symbol on top of the statue, and he allowed me to put a light up through it. At a certain time in the play when someone went to reach for (the statue), I pulled the lever and the light streamed out. And the whole crowd went ‘Oooohhhh.’ The hair stood up on my arms, and that was it. After that, I was over there (at the theater department) the whole time.”
In fact, he spent many nights rewiring old VCR machines and other video equipment for the department, and then decided to spend his summers volunteering to work for video departments at places like the University of Michigan and the Michigan Department of Education.
By then, he wasn’t just interested in cinematography, he wanted a degree to show for it. Problem: Siena Heights didn’t have a concentration in that area at the time.
No problem: Working with faculty, he created his own degree path.
“With Ben Braun’s help, I called a meeting with the dean of students, the dean of the college and Sister (Eileen) Rice,” Smith said. “And everybody came. I presented my proposal, and said ‘This is what I wanted to do.’ … They allowed me to pretty much re-write my own curriculum.”
Graduating with a degree in theater/speech communications with a concentration in television and film, Smith got a job as a production assistant with WGTE, the public television station in Toledo, Ohio. Within two months, he was filming programs for the station, and “everything took off from there.”
Soon, he was filming and lighting commercials as a freelancer, and then went to work as the creative director for Koontz Advertising, which had him working with companies such as Owens Corning, Libby Glass and Owens-Illinois. He eventually moved back to his native Detroit, taking on clients such as Ford and Kmart, and had built a solid career path there.
But then the Hollywood bug bit.
He was constantly watching television shows and trying to figure how scenes and the actors were lit.
“I was drawing lighting plots and figuring out where (the lighting) they were on the TV show,” Smith said.
After watching an episode of “Growing Pains” and stumped on how one of the main characters were lit, he decided to write the show’s director of photography to ask how it was done.
“He wrote me back,” Smith said. “He actually called, and we spoke. He asked me if I ever had been to California. I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘If you ever come to visit, look me up.’”
Smith took him up on the offer, and flew out to Los Angeles and visited that director.
“I stayed on the set the whole week,” Smith said.
During that time, they were shooting a scene with a car and were having trouble with reflection. The director asked Smith for his opinion.
“You couldn’t work in Detroit if you couldn’t light a car,” Smith said. “And I could light a car. … I made a suggestion, and he took me in front of all these Hollywood producers and said, ‘We’re going to do that.’ They did exactly what I said. He came back and said ‘I should move out (to Hollywood).’ ”
Smith didn’t realize that his director friend also happened to be the president of the camera union. Three years later, Smith revisited his friend, earned his union membership, and he was in Hollywood to stay.
Nearly 25 years later, Smith is a fixture in the industry. He was the director of photography for the popular “MTV Cribs” show that ran from 2000-2011.
“It’s one of the milestones of my career,” Smith said of the show. “I took it over from the pilot, and we took the pilot and escalated it.”
His other claim to fame is lighting beautiful women such as Elizabeth Taylor, Cher, Halle Berry and Jennifer Lopez.
“It kind of what I do,” he said. “I’m very blessed to do it, and Siena kind of helped me start it.”
When the lights go out, there’s still plenty of work to be done, Smith said.
“As director of photography, it’s not a photographer,” Smith said of his job title. “It’s a cinematographer that controls not only the lighting of the program and the angles, but it controls the cameras, all the lenses, crew and electricity.”
He said the days are long—very long.
“Most of my days are a minimum 12 hours,” Smith said. “I’ve been blessed to work on a lot of shows and behind-the-scenes specials.”
He’s worked on outtakes for the Grammys, handled audio for the ESPY Awards and shoots player featurettes for the NFL Network. He recently completed working on two pilot shows, and recently work on “The Voice” television show.
His advice for others wanting to follow his career path?
“It’s highly competitive, so be willing to work for free,” Smith said. “If you really want to work with somebody, be willing to make their life easier. … The best thing you can do is anticipate. Don’t keep asking, ‘Can I have a job?’ Anticipate. Clean a lens. Set up a tripod. It’s those anticipation moments that means you are paying attention. And if you can anticipate, then you have a shot at getting in.”
And he said there are plenty of opportunities in his career field.
“Don’t walk away from a movie at the end of it. Read all those credits,” Smith said. “All those credits are nothing but jobs. For every one person who’s up there (on the screen), there’s three people who didn’t get a credit.
“It’s been a great career.”