Catching up with… Norman Kent

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Norman Kent is a cinematographic legend. He’s been taking beautiful images and making amazing movies through decades of changes in the sport. We loved chatting to him. 

Norman Kent
Photo by Craig O’Brien

Norman, how important do you think the camera is to the skydiving world?

The importance of the camera and the cameraman is that our beautiful world gets funneled through our lens. It’s a translation of what we see, that we share with the general public. Because we are jumping from high altitude the public can’t see most of our sport.

Actually, I started a personal movement to indoctrinate my helmet into the International Skydiving Museum. They want it to appeal to the general public. What was going to be a ‘Museum’ has been renamed the ‘Skydiving Experience’ – focusing on the sensations of skydiving with virtual reality, immersive experiences etc. Without cameras none of the items in the museum would exist – or even the museum itself, not the way it’s been designed. 

Part of the principle is I always felt I had a relationship with this entity that almost had a life of its own – the Helmet. It’s important to understand the dynamics and the physics of the helmet and respect it as its own entity. Rather than thinking you put it on and it becomes a part of you. It does not become a part of you! (laughs). It wants to go in a completely different direction, it has a life of its own. 

Based on physics, you have to understand that to successfully survive it, and to use it as a proper tool. It’s like shopping in a supermarket in a cart where all four wheels turn. If you fill the cart right up with beer, you’re going down the aisle and you want to turn into the next aisle, you can’t just turn the cart because it goes straight on. You have to get around the cart and steer it around the corner, because of the weight. 

It’s the same with the helmet, sometimes it wants to be faster than you and sometimes to be slower. You have to do this dance with it. So if you want it to go in a certain direction you have to get around it and bring it over. I’ve developed a technique to deploy safely, which is to get underneath the helmet as the canopy deploys. Because of its weight the helmet wants to keep going while you’re slowing down. If you just deploy in a flat and stable position, then your shoulders will be pulled back in the opposite direction the helmet wants to go. 

Deploying the canopy when you carry so much weight on your helmet needs a special technique
Photo by Craig O’Brien

Do you ever talk to your helmet? 

Yes, I talk to the helmet. When it’s all assembled, like say for Willing to Fly with the full set-up of 35mm film. I would walk by it and go ‘No way’ (laughs). Especially if I hadn’t jumped it for a while. I’d start conversations like “please don’t be angry… sorry I haven’t been with you. I’m not abandoning you. I love you… we will dance again in the sky soon”… And then I’d make a request, “Please don’t hurt me!”

Does it have a gender and a name? 

It’s a girl. But it doesn’t have a name. I could never come up with the right name. But sometimes I call her ‘baby’; or ‘honey’ … I think I’d better give it some affection because if it’s pissed it might hurt me. People would look at me talking to the helmet and think, ‘What is he doing, is he crazy?’ But I really have a relationship. 

Give me an example how this ‘relationship’ with your helmet works

We were shooting for Willing to Fly, we had a mount on the strut with a movie camera, it had been set up how I’d asked for it. We were walking to the plane and I looked at the camera. I felt a disconnect. I felt there was something wrong, so I walked to the camera, while the engines were running. I touched it and all of a sudden I knew it wasn’t working. I turned to my crew and said, ”This camera is sick“. They took it out and, sure enough, the lens had become loose, so it was not working properly. 

Then the crew were asking, “How can a camera be sick??! And how did you know that?!!” I said, “I don’t know how to explain it, I just have this relationship with my camera… It looked sick. I don’t know why”. That’s when I realized I was treating the helmet and all my cameras as if they are alive.  I kinda like that better than treating them like an object… They thought it was hilarious. 

The importance of the camera and the cameraman is that our beautiful world gets funneled through our lens

Close-up of Norman in freefall during his 60 Cycles birthday event
Photo by Craig O’Brien

What was your favourite movie project and why?

The Get Smart movie was one of the most beautiful projects for me. Because I am a cinematographer – a director of photography – at heart. I have always been in love with that and passionate about it as a form of expression. 

One of the reasons I love this project was we negotiated with Warner Brothers to be a splinter unit. We were totally detached from the studios and unions. There is the glamour side of being in Hollywood– wardrobe, catering, assistants, hair, make-up. You’re fed well, you get paid well and you don’t work very much. But you don’t get a lot done! For example there was this instance in the set for Drop Zone movie. It was a beautiful day, we had the airplanes, the pilots, the camera team and the people to skydive for the scene. But there were no goggles or helmets or jumpsuits because the wardrobe department had worked late the night before. They take the gear away at night because that’s their job… so there we were sitting on the ground for hours doing nothing – because of course we couldn’t take care of our own goggles!

So that’s why it was fun doing Get Smart – it was great going back to being skydivers on the dropzone, doing the jumps, coming down, improving things, going straight back up and making things happen. 

Midair tussle from Get Smart
Image by Norman Kent

How did Warner Brothers direct your work from a distance?

When I had the conversation with the director of photography, my superior, I asked what sort of film he wanted me to use. He said, “Well I’ve heard a lot about you, so I was hoping you would tell me what to do.” So I said ‘ok‘, thinking that’s cool, and suggested the type of film and some settings and explained why, gave a strategy. He said ‘you sound like you know what you’re doing, I’m going to let you do your thing.’ It was very rewarding to feel that this major film director gave me the ball and let me run with it. Every time I sent film there to discuss it, all I got was, “Just keep it coming, you’re doing amazing.” We would have ideas in addition to the shots they wanted, so we’d take them and do our own little edits to show how we thought the shot would fit in. Most of our extra elements were used. We’d think of ways to tell their story that they’d never have imagined, because they weren’t skydivers. Working closely with Guy Manos, we turned their plan into something even better. It was a big creative process, really rewarding.

Filming the Get Smart movie – Guy Manos in the background as ‘the babysitter’
Photo by Caroline Prevost

Were there any downsides to this independence? 

My biggest concern was, when you’re just on your own, if something goes wrong it’s your unit that screwed up. There’s nowhere to hide. Instead of me thinking just about the shooting I felt responsible for the results. I had better deliver. 

The scary part is, we were dealing with the hidden rig for the Secret Agent 86. We were a splinter unit on a small budget. We couldn’t hire Jake Brake or Shoobi, the experts, who always had the most beautiful hidden rigs, very safe and very small. They seem to know how to distribute the material around the body, so it doesn’t look like a parachute. We couldn’t afford that luxury. We had our own design, modified from a UPT Vector. It was more like a regular rig. Any time you start testing that sort of thing you are playing with fire. It’s someone’s life. The rig was built into the jacket – you un-velcroed the jacket to reveal the rig, and part of the deployment was part of the jacket. It was always a concern. At the beginning when the rig wasn’t performing like we wanted we contemplated shutting down. Then we made some mods that made the rig work very efficiently and so we kept going.

The rig was built into the jacket, you un-velcroed the jacket to reveal it, and part of the deployment was part of the jacket
Get Smart movie, photo by Norman Kent

How did you feel when Get Smart was released?

I was really, really happy. When you have to step up because the director says, ‘ok we’re gonna do it your way’, now you’re in the spotlight and you’ve got to do it right. It was nice to be validated by the top filmmakers in Hollywood. 

Instead of a trailer with pieces of the film, they just showed one clip – ours! I had never seen that happen before. It was virtually our clip in its entirety for the whole 7-minute segment. I think it was a very risky idea because you’re giving away a whole chunk of the film. But a beautiful brave marketing approach, and with it being our clip – our little splinter unit – it was that much more rewarding.

Check out the trailer here:

How do you make sure you get the shots, especially on a small budget?

We were really into efficiency. We used a process on Get Smart that I started with Willing to Fly. I made a list of all the shots required and everything to do with that shot in an Excel spreadsheet – the people, lens, frame rate, aircraft, type of light, time of day, jumpsuits, equipment. Then you can find the shots with matching parameters that can be done on a single jump, and you work out a way to choreograph them together. That becomes a very interesting dirtdive. Multiple shots not in chronological order. I found that to be really cool to increase productivity, and give a real feeling of accomplishment. 

Imagine this – I am filming Fred in freefall, he’s tumbling like he’s fallen out of the plane, he’d go past me, I’d turn and set up again and he’d tumble past me again until at some point Guy would come and help with Fred’s deployment (running the shot). Then I would turn around and there was Pam Manos behind me – so I had someone else to shoot – she would go past the camera tracking, and then I’d film her deployment, all for completely different scenes. 

One of the things I love about working with Guy is, often he would be one to give you the shot – if the jump went all wrong, I’d just find Guy … he knew the plot so well and he would just do something in front of the camera that could be useful for the movie. A lot of the shots ended up being used, on a jump that would otherwise be wasted. 

Behind the scenes, Get Smart movie
Photo courtesy of Norman Kent

How do you keep your filming safe?

I don’t put myself in charge of safety (laughs). I can be a big offender because I always want to do more. I can get easily distracted by the shooting because I love it so much, and let go of the safety. Which isn’t so smart. One option is to think about my life a little more – and everyone else’s lives – but that hinders the creative process in my world.

A good alternative, which we used in Get Smart and which I’ve used often, is to assign a ‘babysitter’ who has the authority to ground me at any point. Guy Manos was the sitter in this case. He was behind me in freefall, when he’d get in front and contaminate the shot, I knew there was no point in carrying on. 

I remember when we were shooting for the movie Eraser with Arnold Schwarzenegger the scene when he got entangled in the canopy. We had to create a parachute that would wrap around Jeff Jones, the stuntman, that he could get rid of for deployment. We were almost finished but I wanted more shots. We were in freefall and Jeff was looking tangled and panicky. I was thinking, ‘Is he acting or is there a real problem? Maybe I could help him if he is tangled… but I’m supposed to be shooting and he’s supposed to be looking like he’s in trouble… I just have to trust that he‘s good and just shoot.’ At one point we were very low and I made a dramatic shot by pulling upwards so he rushed out of frame. 

Jeff Jones, the stuntman from Eraser movie, wrapped in the fake canopy
Photo by Norman Kent

Then I realised I was above Jeff and he still needed to get the nylon off and deploy. As I was thinking that, this piece of material hit me on the leg, pushed me backwards in a backloop and almost wrapped around my foot. I deployed and I’m really low… and of course I had a nasty malfunction… spinning… I cut away at about a thousand feet, opened the reserve and landed. The sun was really low on the horizon but I was like, “Hey, lets’ go, we can do one more shot?”

The babysitter said, “No, you’re grounded. That’s a sign you should just quit”. 

That’s why the sitter is a useful idea. I get to be irresponsible and play with the shots I want.. and the sitter deals with the safety. When they stop me, I am always pissed. Then I evaluate and it’s always the same, they made the right call. 

Video – skydiving scenes from the Eraser movie

Editor’s note

Norman Kent is proudly sponsored by Performance Designs, UPT, CYPRES, Parasport Skydiving Equipment, LB Altimeters, Tonfly and LiquidSky Sports.

More of Norman…

… you really don’t want to miss these gems!

Never Give Up

The story of Norman’s adventures during the jump when the 164-way Vertical World Record was set in 2015

Moments Lived

Get a glimpse of how Norman approaches every jump – it’s fascinating!

Melissa Lowe interviews Norman Kent (video)

Further reading from our “Catching up with series”

Bruno Brokken
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Meet: Lesley Gale

Lesley has been in love with skydiving for 35 years. She is a multiple world and national record holder and a coach on 20 successful record events worldwide. She has over 100 competition medals spanning more than 25 years and has been on the British 8-way National team at World events. She started Skydive Mag to spread knowledge, information and passion about our amazing sport.
Lesley is delighted to be sponsored by Performance Designs, Sun Path, Cypres, Cookie, Symbiosis suits and Larsen & Brusgaard

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