Kent Harvey, who has been in the filmmaking business for nearly 20 years, will be participating in two panels at the Breckenridge Festival of Film next week. He will lend his years of experience as a cinematographer on adventure films and documentaries, as well as on Hollywood action films, to discussions about what makes a filmmaker and what it takes to get a great shot.
Climbing, mountaineering and other adventurous pursuits were part of Harvey’s life even before he got involved in filmmaking. In the early ’90s he worked with Outward Bound and the Colorado Mountain School in Estes Park. He also studied filmmaking at the University of Oregon.
“Eventually, my true passion for capturing beautiful imagery and being in the mountains is where things synthesized,” he said. “I started working on a lot of adventure documentary projects.”
Harvey’s first film as a cinematographer was to be a documentary for North Face and NBC, featuring a climb on Shisha Pangma mountain in Tibet. Unfortunately, the trip ended in tragedy as an avalanche swept away famed climber Alex Lowe and camera assistant David Bridges.
Harvey didn’t let that deter him from adventure filmmaking, however. He continued, working with companies like National Geographic, Discovery and Nova in remote and exotic locations, “living in tents, chasing wildlife,” as he described it. He eventually started shooting commercials and then several opportunities for large Hollywood films came along. He has worked on such blockbuster films as “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” two “Iron Man” installments and “Captain America: Winter Soldier,” among others.
While feature films now make up a large part of Harvey’s work schedule, he still likes to keep an adventure component in his life, whether through work or personal time.
“Adventure is very much a part of my life,” he said. “I don’t look at adventure like (only) recreation. … It’s integral to my life.”
His reputation now allows him to be more selective about which films he chooses, something he appreciates as a family man with two young children. Recently, he has been contacted regarding three different film opportunities on Mount Everest. Harvey has climbed and filmed on Everest twice before and is considering the daunting possibility of doing it again.
evolution of filmmaking
The first forum Harvey will take part in at the Breckenridge Festival of Film is called “Democratization of Film,” which focuses on how technological advances have changed the filmmaking world and questions what it means to be a filmmaker in the age of iPhones and cheap video equipment.
New technology “is changing the field radically on many levels, in that it’s making the filmmaking process much more accessible,” Harvey said, “but I would be very quick to say that by no means does just having a camera in your hand and hitting the roll button, acquiring a bunch of footage and assembling an edit, does that make anyone a filmmaker.”
He likens the idea to musicians, explaining that picking up a guitar doesn’t immediately make someone a musician, let alone a good one.
That doesn’t mean he’s against the technology. In fact, it’s just the opposite. New, cheaper and more efficient cameras and editing programs mean that filmmaking is accessible to many more people who previously were not able to even consider the possibility of making their own films. This opens the door to a lot more footage and filmmakers whose work wouldn’t have been seen previously.
But it’s more than just the camera. Breaking into the film business, Harvey said, “still takes tremendous talent, tremendous tutelage and tremendous humility, and more than anything, it takes luck.”
He warns against filmmakers relying too heavily on technology and forgetting the other important components, especially storytelling.
“Filmmaking is very much about telling a story through the imagery,” Harvey explained. “You can have a very compelling story and you can shoot it with an iPhone, and people will still be engaged. But if you have a very boring story and you shoot it with the most expensive, sophisticated camera system out there, people won’t watch it, people will walk out of the theater.”
Having new technology often prompts people to try to reinvent the filmmaking process, Harvey said, and they make the mistake of cutting out essential components. The job of the cinematographer, more than just taking “pretty pictures,” is to use the camera angles and cinematic techniques to help tell the story. This is what he had to do on his Everest projects, when he was basically filming climbers moving up a mountain. Their story had to come through in addition to the landscape of the world’s tallest mountain.
“I think it’s exciting that a traditional film festival is incorporating an adventure component to it,” Harvey said of this year’s newest addition to the festival — the Adventure Reel, featuring seven films. He added that he’s looking forward to seeing the movies, and hopes that with the advent of new technology and more focus on adventure documentaries and films, that more of them will be made, with increasing quality.
He’s also looking forward to sharing his love of cinematography with the forum audience.
“I get excited about a shot of a person climbing a mountain in beautiful light. I can get excited about a car turning down a mountain road in nice light. I can get excited about a stunt man diving out of the way in a sequence,” he said. “It’s dynamic, you feel it, and you know when you’re looking through the viewfinder that it works. What’s cool about my job is I get to see a lot of it first, because I have my eye on the viewfinder. I get to see the story unfolding in front of me, and that’s pretty cool.”