In the darkened theater auditorium, Harris Smith (’13) scanned the rolling credits. Under ‘Set Lighting Technicians’ for the Hollywood unit, his name prominently appeared. He leaned back in his seat and felt a sense of accomplishment. He had just attended a special 70mm IMAX screening for the most important film of his career so far: Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer.
The film, which details J. Robert Oppenheimer’s development of the atomic bomb, was released in July and has thus far grossed more than $700 million worldwide in box office revenue.
Smith got the call to work on the project out of the blue from fellow lighting technician Leigh Mierke, asking him to cover on set.
“I was nervous,” Smith said. “This was the equivalent of going to the major leagues. I’d been swinging AA and AAA for a long time — maybe a few dalliances in the show — but this was the major leagues.”
“They didn’t really know what to do with me [on set]. Leigh was core crew, but also a renaissance man, which are big shoes to fill. I realized that once I got on there, I was basically starting from scratch. I was back to being the new guy who didn’t know anything. So I had to humble myself and realize I had to make a … good first impression.”
Smith put in the work and soon earned the respect of his crew members and supervisors.
If you ask Smith what it was like working on the set, his eyes will light up and a big smile will form on his lips before his tongue fires off a slew of stories. In the exuberant telling of one of the tales, you’d get the impression Smith was Homer, resurrected from the dead, describing the trials and tribulations of Odysseus rather than the day-to-day grind working for perhaps the most important film director in Hollywood today.
Among these anecdotes Smith shares is that while shooting in the New Mexico desert, one of Nolan’s special camera lenses cracked. His team then raced to have its sibling lens — one of three allegedly in existence — delivered from Nolan’s home in London to the set within 24 hours to avoid shooting delays.
But as with most taller-than-life stories, this one remains an unsubstantiated rumor. Smith heard it from a fellow crew member who, in turn, heard it from another. And so on and so forth. With each iteration, more details become embellished. These include one of Nolan’s assistants buying separate first-class plane tickets solely for the camera lens case’s safety on the return flights as it traveled from London to New York City to Albuquerque, after which it was transported by private helicopter to the historic Project Trinity site. But such a story adds to the mystique of working with Nolan.
“It is true that when Nolan is on set you do not sit,” Smith clarified. “There are no chairs around. The thing is his energy is so contagious that you want to be there. You’re watching him work in real time and see his energy and excitement.”
Under visual effects supervisor Andrew Jackson (Mad Max: Fury Road), Smith assisted by adjusting lighting for sets and the actors. For example, he operated outdoor lighting equipment on a condor rig as Nolan filmed interior sequences where J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) is interrogated by Robert Robb (Jason Clarke) during an Atomic Energy Commission hearing regarding Oppenheimer’s security clearance renewal.
“There were a couple moments when we had to do some last-minute stuff in order to make Nolan happy,” Smith said. “During one of the pick-up shots, Hoyte Van Hoytema, the cinematographer, would tell you where he wanted the lights to go. And Nolan would be the person giving you the cues. There was this weird sense of dread because you didn’t want to be the person to mess up.”
Smith learned a lot about the production while working on set. “There was always a time to reflect, and it was during that time you learned things,” he explained. “You learned they made black and white 65mm IMAX film stock just for this movie. [IMAX] never made black and white before.”
“You learned that because we’re shooting on film and because it’s such a wide spread, you need a humongous amount of light in order to get it done — like 18ks of light — and those need to be balanced, they also need to be diffused. I also learned that with visual effects, if we wanted to make what looks like an atomic bomb on a small scale, we had to do a bunch of lighting tricks. We had to move things around, we had to adapt. We had to wear hearing protection when we put lead balls into a blender and made them move.”
Smith recalls how spellbinding the effects looked when Nolan would review the cuts on the monitor. Yet, Nolan would push the visual effects team to perfect the practical effects in order to make them believable since no CGI was used in the film.
As much as Smith enjoyed working on Oppenheimer, including getting to meet actor Matt Damon while prepping a light, the experience was a far cry from his humble beginnings in high school musical theater and as a Media Communications major at Point Loma Nazarene University.
“They offered a program that was Media Communications, which was basically learn it all: radio, tv, film. But the biggest thing that made me believe in working in the film industry were the study abroad opportunities available to us.”
Smith spent a semester abroad in London focused on completing Media Communications lower division courses. But the most meaningful opportunity was a semester-long internship with the Los Angeles Film Studies Center (LAFSC).
“Hollywood needs love. If you’re there showing love and being present, then you can be an example of God to people who don’t have a good example of God.”
“Doing LAFSC allows you to qualify for this minor, which is basically Film Studies,” he said. “LAFSC’s biggest thing is that not only are you working on film sets, but you’re also going to make a short film as well. And during that time period, you’re watching all kinds of movies and going to premieres.”
Smith also appreciated how LAFSC brought “a powerful Christian influence to a very secular industry.”
“Hollywood needs love,” he said. “If you’re there showing love and being present, then you can be an example of God to people who don’t have a good example of God.”
“That is LAFSC’s thing, to install not only peeps who know the industry and are well equipped to be successful, but also want others to know they are believers without shoving it down their throats. And to be open to the idea of seeing things that you wouldn’t think have a Christian influence, but have a positive ideology — finding the divine in the profane. That’s what I dug about it. Even in the most unusual places you can find beautiful God-driven revelations, whether intended or not.”
As an example, he cited the late William Friedkin’s films, especially The Exorcist, where the director would subconsciously explore themes of faith and skepticism.
Smith’s time spent at LAFSC was split between two days of classes and three days working on film sets per week. The process reminded him of the collaborative element of writing and directing skits in high school. It also taught him networking skills that have helped him make connections in the industry.
“The idea of working on set blew my mind,” Smith recalled. “You get to see the thing being made. You get to watch the collaboration, the bringing of people together.”
The first film Smith worked on was Short Term 12 (2013), directed by PLNU alumnus Destin Daniel Cretton (’01). The story follows a pair of residential treatment facility staff members (Brie Larson and John Gallagher Jr.) as they care for their teenage patients and navigate their romantic relationship. The film also starred Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody) and Kaitlyn Dever (Booksmart) in early career roles. Since then, Cretton has gone on to direct acclaimed films like Just Mercy (2019), Marvel Studios’ Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021) and two episodes of the Disney+ series American Born Chinese (2023).
“I was very blessed to be a production assistant intern on the movie Short Term 12,” Smith said. “I was the lowest of the low. One of the most humbling experiences working on set was where we PAs had to show up before everyone else did. If your call time was 8am, we had to be there are 7am to prepare the set.”
As he interned, he learned the chain of command and how different departments collaborated to make sure each day of shooting went smoothly. As a PA, he would report to the first assistant director for his duties.
Smith related a funny story of his first day working on Short Term 12. It was early in the morning when the first AD asked around for help with an assignment. Smith volunteered, expecting to move a special piece of equipment. Instead it turned out a security guard’s dog pooped on set and he needed someone to clean it up.
“So there I was: stooping down with a grocery bag, picking up the dog poop because I didn’t want Brie Larson to step in it on her way to set.”
Short Term 12 occupies a special place in Smith’s heart, not only for its PLNU connection, but for the positive experience it provided him. He remembers chatting about independent films with the late Lance Reddick (John Wick, The Wire) while working on a short film a few years ago. When he mentioned he worked on Short Term 12, Reddick was visibly impressed at his involvement on the film.
Smith also supplemented his education at LAFSC by going on two class trips to the Sundance Film Festival as a PLNU student with Professors Alan Hueth, PhD. and James Wicks, PhD. The intimate setting, networking opportunities, and the post-screening Q&As with directors, screenwriters, and actors left an indelible impression on him — especially the Windrider Forum. This event was a collaboration between Fuller Seminary and Biola University, where college students explore spiritual themes in many of the festival’s film programming.
There he had the opportunity to meet filmmaker Ryan Coogler (Black Panther) and view his debut film, Fruitvale Station (2013).
“Ryan Coogler — another Marvel genius like Destin Daniel Cretton — was so kind, open, collaborative, and vulnerable as an artist,” he said. “We would do Q&As and we would talk to him. Going into the movie, he was always open to the questions coming to him.”
“He recognized how filmmaking is also an ambassadorship, how you are your own ambassador. You only have one shot to make a good impression. If you make a good first impression that causes people to be inspired by you, there’s nowhere to go but up.”
Smith incorporated these lessons and experiences into his filmmaking work at PLNU, while also developing the skills that would later serve him in the industry.
“Going back to Loma was a solidification of what I learned at LAFSC, while also respecting the fact that I still had much to learn,” he said. “My professors Rick Moncauskas and Alan Hueth were teaching me the technical and theoretical sides to things. They were instrumental in giving me confidence.”
“What was great was that you had the academic and theoretical side, which was Dr. Hueth. Then you had the practical, hands-on experience side, which was Rick Moncauskas. Rick was so patient and willing to open up the studio space to give us a chance to get to know ourselves as creators, as filmmakers, and as technicians.”
Having this balanced approach to filmmaking has informed Smith’s diplomatic approach to working in film production.
“I have since steered myself to the technician route,” he said. “But as a helpful and productive member of the technician side, you need to know the theoretical. You need to know the films directors are referencing. You need to know the practicality of what they’re envisioning, what inspired them. Your technical mind can make the image possible, while also respecting the inspiration where it came from. You know the vibes they’re going for. Building the vibes is incredibly helpful to the creatives you’re working with. If you have the right equipment, you can build what they want. They have the inspiration; you have the technology.”
Smith equates his role to the analogy of an artist’s tools.
“Being a technician is like being the paint brush or the paint,” he explained. “Because, in the collaborative art that is filmmaking, it takes more than one person. If it took one person to do filmmaking, then everyone would do it.”
Following graduation, Smith did not enter the film industry right away. Instead, he returned to college. He worked on student films at Saddleback College and Chapman University’s Dodge College of Film and Media Arts. The experience taught him to be patient.
“Being a technician is like being the paint brush or the paint. Because, in the collaborative art that is filmmaking, it takes more than one person. If it took one person to do filmmaking, then everyone would do it.”
“You realize that being on set and knowing your stuff is only half the battle,” he said. “The other half? Having the patience to work over 12 hours, having the ability to keep the enthusiasm going for whatever you’re going on.”
Most of all, he learned how to hold himself accountable for his mistakes on both student and professional film gigs as a freelancer.
“When you make a mistake, you have to own up to it,” he explained. “When you make mistakes, you get humbled. With that humbling and willingness to course correct, it’s all about not making that mistake twice. No encores.”
One time, Smith worked a gig where he cut corners by not strapping down equipment properly while transporting it. When he returned from the film shoot, the supervisor gave him a stern talk about the equipment damage and the overlooked safety concerns.
“He really imparted on me that the fine details make a world of difference,” he said. “Sometimes [mistakes] will cost you connections or jobs.”
Since working in the film industry, Smith has served as a PA, a grip, and most recently a lighting technician.
“The grips shape, shadow, and diffuse the light, while also moving the camera and assisting in physical camera operation,” he explained. “The grip is first and foremost the engineer who takes very basic construction equipment and allows lighting to happen in places where it normally cannot happen.”
Lighting technicians, on the other hand, focus on the application of light.
“The reason why I wanted to go into lighting was for the instant gratification aspect,” he said. “Granted, we still have to move heavy lights — and I say this with the utmost love to my fellow electricians — but we are nerds who lift.”
He further explained, “When it comes to lighting, you’re more of a programmer, a color scientist. You’re using a lot of creativity while also manipulating wireless lights, moving LEDs, operating tungsten units. Lighting is a practical application, the bringing of life of the actors and set. If it’s not for your light, you can’t see anything; lighting is paramount to anything you see on screen.”
Smith eventually worked on enough qualifying gigs to join a union, IATSE Local 728 for lighting technicians in 2020. Initially he found working on union-run sets daunting given the amount of professionalism. Compared to non-union sets, they were more organized and efficiently run.
“You go to work on Reno 911! and you’re like, ‘Oh, this is nice,’” he explained. “Or you go to work on Jimmy Kimmel Live! Those are consistent gigs. All your equipment is where you need it. Everything is calculated, everything works, everything is on schedule, and you’re getting compensated fairly.”
Working on these shoots also related to Smith’s love of comedy.
“Sometimes you’ll work on shoots that you can care less about,” he said. “Other times you’re working on something where you’re like, ‘This is my jam!’ It gives you another bit of inspiration and motivation to put out a better product. You know other people are going to watch it, and you’re going to watch it, too.”
In his first decade in the film industry, Smith has met many wonderful people and created cherished memories. Some of these include shooting an NFL promo with Sylvester Stallone; working with Edward James Olmos on the FX Sons of Anarchy series spinoff Mayans M.C.; collaborating with Danny Trejo on his son Gilbert’s forthcoming indie film, From a Son; and meeting Tom Cruise at a red-carpet event for The Mummy (2017).
With such varied experiences, it’s almost hard for Smith to believe that his career has so far come full circle. While working on Oppenheimer, he found himself working alongside an old colleague, the unit production manager Nathan Kelly. They first met when he worked on Short Term 12, where Kelly was a line producer.
On the second-to-last day working on Oppenheimer, Smith saw his name on the call sheet. He walked up to Kelly and said hello. He was surprised to find that Kelly remembered him.
“Nathan looked at me and said, ‘Hey man, what’s going on?’”
“‘You remember me?’” Smith asked.
“‘Bro, there’s not a lot of bearded, long-haired people in this industry.’”
“‘Can you believe you’ve gotten here?’” Smith replied.
“‘You? I can’t believe we’ve gotten here.’”
Smith thought it was a wonderful bonding moment because of all the shared struggles working their way up to that moment. It also reminded him of the reasons he got into the industry in the first place.
“You’re providing entertainment to those who will appreciate and love it,” he explained. “Something they can come home to and sit down [to watch]. Something that they can study later. It’s escapism, and we’re just magicians trying to make it work. That’s the one thing I love about the filmmaking process. You’re both serving others and their visions while also serving your desire and passion for filmmaking.”
“I’m taking all these experiences and lessons. I eventually want to make it into something of my own. It’s like going back to college. Every day I go to work I learn something new, I go somewhere different, I get inspired – until eventually I translate that into my personal work, my personal vision. I’m hoping to make some kind of feature film in the future, but I need more life under my belt first.”
Not one to forget his roots, Smith also had the following advice for aspiring PLNU filmmakers.
First, availability is your best ability.
Second, start small. Be open to learning and allow yourself to make mistakes.
Third, be personable with your fellow coworkers. Listening to and being considerate of others creates a positive work environment and fosters connections.
“The biggest thing the film industry has taught me is to not feel bad about starting over. Because at least you know where you’ve gone before. Starting over is not the end of the world. It’s a new beginning.”
Although the future of the film industry is in flux – given the rise of streaming and the ongoing Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists and Writers Guild of America strikes in Hollywood – Smith remains optimistic about his prospects, even if one day he might have to transfer his skills to another industry.
“The biggest thing the film industry has taught me is to not feel bad about starting over,” he concluded. “Because at least you know where you’ve gone before. Starting over is not the end of the world. It’s a new beginning.”