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  • Interview with Thomas G. Smith, Educational Filmmaker
  • Amanda R. Keeler (bio)

I interviewed Thomas G. Smith in Los Angeles, California, on March 19, 2010, during the Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS) annual conference. Smith was invited to speak at two panels at the conference about his prolific career in educational filmmaking and, later, visual effects over the last forty-five years. He also screened his film The Solar System, which he directed and produced for Encyclopaedia Britannica Educational Corporation (EB) in 1977.

Smith was born in Canton, Illinois, in 1938. He attended Northwestern University, where he met his wife, Elaine Cosley. Smith began working as a writer and, later, a producer-director at EB. The first film he directed at EB was Food from the Sun (1965), a film that teaches how life on earth absorbs energy from the sun. Over the next twelve years, he directed more than fifty educational films for EB, including Discovering the Forest (1966), Midwest: Heartland of a Nation (1968), Introduction to Holography (1971), Venereal Disease: The Hidden Epidemic (1973), and The Solar System.

After EB closed its Wilmette, Illinois, office, Smith and his wife moved to Los Angeles. In 1980, he began working for George Lucas's Industrial Light and Magic (ILM). There he managed more than ten features, including Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), E.T. (1982), and Star Trek: The Search for Spock (1984). Smith also published a book on visual effects, Industrial Light and Magic: The Art of Special Effects (1986). After ILM, he continued to work freelance visual effects and was a producer on a number of films for Lucasfilm, Disney, Henson, and Turner. As executive producer of the 1989 film Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, he won a BAFTA (British Academy Award) for outstanding visual effects. More recently, Smith completed a new edit of his 1976 film Spoon River Anthology, based on works by the poet Edgar Lee Masters. Originally twenty-three minutes, the new film, titled Spoon River Anthology: Heartland Poetry for a New Age (2008), now runs fifty minutes. Smith restored the original film elements and added an interview with Masters's son Hilary Masters. The new edit is available through the Phoenix Learning Group, an academic film distributor.1

Smith's panels at SCMS were sponsored by the Nontheatrical Film Scholarly Interest Group, which was created in 2008 because of the growing interest in films that were produced since the earliest days of moving pictures that did not always play on the theatrical circuit. Recently, scholars have begun to revisit these forgotten films, including educational films, science films, industrials, and training films. The growth in their popularity as objects of study has brought attention to filmmakers like Thomas Smith.

Smith began making educational films in 1965, but the history of nontheatrical educational films in the United States dates back to the first decade of the twentieth century, when such films were championed by people like Charles Urban and George Kleine. Urban produced a pamphlet in 1907 titled "The Cinematograph in Science, Education, and Matters of State." Kleine followed with his 1910 Catalogue of Educational Motion Pictures. By the early 1910s, reformers such as John Collier and Jane Addams, popular magazines, and motion picture trade journals all avidly promoted films for use in venues such as churches and schools [End Page 124] as an alternative to theatrical moving pictures. By the 1920s, the discussion was taken up in a number of publications such as Reel and Slide, The Screen, and Visual Education, which were devoted to educational films. Educational journals, such as School and Society, Industrial Education Magazine, and School Review, featured articles touting the educational potential of moving pictures.

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Thomas Smith operates a camera while attending the French film school IDHEC in 1960-61. At his side is instructor Joseph-Louis Mundwiller, principal cinematographer on Abel Gance's Napoleon (1927). Thomas Smith, private collection.

With the advent of safety film in the 1910s and Eastman Kodak's smaller-gauge 16mm stock in 1923, it was safer and cheaper for amateurs to shoot moving pictures, which opened up new arenas of film production for people wanting to...


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