Kevin McCarey is many things: a published author with two autobiographical works to his name, an accomplished sailor and boat captain, a warm-hearted raconteur and an inspiring professor.
However, it would be reasonable to say he has made his biggest mark in the world of documentary filmmaking, creating celebrated educational TV programming about the world around us, oftentimes focusing on our seas and oceans. Over the course of a lengthy and varied career, this three-time Emmy-nominated writer and director (he holds a master’s degree in film studies from the University of Oregon) has worked on a Peabody Award-winning series for Turner Broadcasting and won an Emmy, three CINE Golden Eagle Awards and the prestigious Chris Award. He was also an Academy Award semi-finalist.
Since 1996, McCarey has traveled the world for National Geographic Television and Films and has written, directed, supervised and/or produced some 20 films on subjects ranging from the lions of the Kalahari to giant squid. He has created four- and five-hour docudramas for the TLC network and feature narrative films that have taken top prizes at established international film festivals. He also teaches filmmaking right here in town at the Savannah College of Art and Design.
As of this upcoming weekend, McCarey can add another impressive title to that already stellar resume: recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award from Savannah’s own Gray’s Reef Film Festival.
‘Our Community, Our Ocean’
This year marks the 14th annual installment of this family-oriented showcase of stunning, oceanographic filmmaking. It will take place at three venues: Trustees Theater, SCAD Museum of Art and — for the first time in the festival’s history — Tybee Post Theater on Tybee Island. Admission to the screenings is by voluntary suggested donations, which go directly to fund Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, a nonprofit that supports the projects and staff of that celebrated undersea nature preserve and research park just off our coastline.
The theme of this year’s event is “Our Community, Our Ocean,” and through this selection of dazzling, thought-provoking films, the organization hopes to demonstrate to viewers that coastal communities such as our own share a deep and irreplaceable bond with the natural wonders around us — and to reinforce that such a bond is not to be taken lightly, and deserves to be both protected and strengthened, no matter how great the cost.
“Most of us have a deep understanding that life in the ocean depends on us,” says Sarah Fangman, superintendent of Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary. “These beautiful films remind us of how important a healthy ocean is to preserving our way of life.”
This year’s lineup of ocean-themed movies includes jaw-dropping works by such major names in the field as the team of legendary naturalist David Attenborough and filmmaker Martin Williams (“Galapagos 3D”), Oscar nominees Luke Cresswell and Steve McNicholas, who created the worldwide theater and movie sensation “STOMP” (“The Last Reef: Cities Beneath the Sea 3D”), the “wilderness environmental-themed filmmaker” David Lickley (“Wonders of the Arctic 3D”), as well as the famed undersea explorer Jean-Michel Cousteau, whose incredible film “Secret Ocean 3D,” which was shown at last year’s festival, returns by popular demand in a rare encore presentation.
The wanderlust gene
McCarey is touched to not only be included among such esteemed filmmakers at this year’s Gray’s Reef Film Fest, but to also have his diverse existing body of work celebrated in such a manner.
“I was raised in the Hudson Valley, and was always intrigued by the sight of those big freighters heading out to sea,” he says. “So I went to a maritime college and every summer our training ship sailed to Europe. And that was that. I was hooked on travel.”
After a stint in the Merchant Marine, he began working on oceanographic research vessels until one day he made what he laughingly calls “the big switcheroo,” transitioning into making documentary films for a living.
“This career has taken me all over the world, from Africa to the Far Pacific,” he says. “I think I must have that wanderlust gene. And I simply love sharing my stories in books and films. The storytelling part comes from spending too much time as a kid in all those Irish bars in upstate New York.”
McCarey bemoans the changes that have occurred in the world of cable television over the past couple of decades. He says that once the stylistic limitations of the so-called “reality TV” craze begin to sensationalize most television documentaries, it resulted in even dignified and venerated outlets — like his longtime employer National Geographic — churning out what he terms “a lot of dumbed-down, cheesy stuff.” As a result, he says, “I bailed out to write books. Fortunately, though, feature-length documentaries have not only maintained high standards; they are now more exciting to watch than ever, with great stories and great visuals.”
Creativity in Savannah
Relocating to Savannah only served to refocus and recharge McCarey’s batteries, as he has accomplished a great deal of creative work while teaching at SCAD.
“I’ve written two books and created an award-winning short film (‘Extinction’) while living here. The place inspires me. I feel like I’m in Hemingway country. I take daily walks up and down Bull Street, have Sunday brunch at the Firefly Cafe on Troup Square and venture out on the tidal creeks in my little Boston whaler. You can’t beat it.”
Lifetime achievement awards are often bestowed upon artists long after they have retired from their profession, or lost the inspiration for new works. That does not describe McCarey. So what does this restless, creative soul have on deck in the near future?
“I have a couple of documentaries currently in development as well as a dramatic feature film set in Cuba in 1900. It’s called ‘Distant Fires’ and it’s about four doctors who risked their lives searching for the cause of yellow fever. I hope to shoot the second unit footage in Cuba and the rest of the film right here in Savannah. That’s the beauty of this city. It can appear to be anywhere in any time period.”
A lifetime of achievement
McCarey says he “has no mixed feelings about” receiving such a career-capping award while he is still hard at work on new projects.
“It’s certainly been great to have received so much recognition for my films, and it’s extra special being honored by the Gray’s Reef Marine Sanctuary. I like to think it’s mostly for passing the torch to the younger generation of filmmakers through my teaching at SCAD. I mean, hell, let them endure the broken bones, tick bites and exotic diseases that come with environmental filmmaking!” he says with a laugh.
He stresses, however, that the message of this festival is far greater than merely celebrating the beautiful work of the daring filmmakers who risk life and limb to provide amazing, otherwise unseen perspectives on the undersea world for the rest of us without access to such vistas.
“For all the wonderful hoopla surrounding this year’s festival, I think it’s important we recognize the critical importance of marine sanctuaries,” McCarey says. “The ocean is under siege from over-fishing, pollution, climate change, acidification — you name it. It’s hurting. And the sanctuaries are truly sanctuaries. They are the only places where, if there’s any hope for recovery, the healing will begin.
“The oxygen in every second breath we take, no matter where we live, comes from the sea. Now more than ever, we need to enlighten Americans to just how important the oceans are to our very survival as a species.”
More on the films
“The Last Reef: Cities Beneath the Sea 3D” is a vibrant, uplifting, 40-minute theatrical film that was shot on location in Palau, Vancouver Island, French Polynesia, Mexico and the Bahamas using groundbreaking 3D cinematography. It gives viewers the closest possible experience to scuba diving alongside some of the world’s most biologically diverse hot spots: our endangered coral reefs and sub-arctic seawalls.
Filmed in one of the most extreme and difficult-to-access locations anywhere in the world, “Galapagos 3D” is an award-winning series of films written and presented by famed British naturalist David Attenborough, who returns to the remote Galápagos Islands for the fourth time in his career and travels throughout the archipelago to explain its origins and its unique fauna in terms of evolution. The series is notable for using 3D cameras to shoot documentary footage underwater. It includes the first known footage of the Galápagos pink land iguana, which is a new species of lizard only identified in 2009.
French oceanographic explorer, environmentalist, educator and film producer Jean-Michel Cousteau is the first son of iconic ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau. He served for 20 years as executive vice president of the Cousteau Society, and has himself produced more than 70 films. “The Secret Ocean 3D,” which will be screened as part of the Gray’s Reef Film Fest, premiered in 2015.
IF YOU GO
What: Gray’s Reef Film Festival
When: Feb. 2-5
Where: Various locations
Cost: Suggested donation for screenings is $10 per day for adults and $5 per day for children, students and military; party tickets are $25-$60
Gray’s Reef Film Fest Schedule
6-8 p.m. Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary Foundation Founders’ Party, “Beyond 3D: Dive Our Amazing Reef Without Getting Wet!” at 24e on Broughton Street. Includes appetizers, beer and wine. Tickets are $60.
7 p.m. 3D Night No. 1 at Trustees Theater, 216 E. Broughton St.
“The Last Reef: Cities Beneath the Sea 3D”
“Galapagos 3D: Nature’s Wonderland”
3 p.m. Emerging Filmmakers Competition at SCAD Museum of Art, 601 Turner Blvd.
7 p.m. 3D Night No. 2 at Trustees Theater
“Wonders of the Arctic 3D”
Winner of Emerging Filmmakers Competition announced
Presentation of Gray’s Reef Film Festival Lifetime Achievement Award to underwater filmmaker and SCAD professor Kevin McCarey
“Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Secret Ocean 3D”
9:30 p.m. Foundation after-party at 45 Bistro in the Marshall House on Broughton Street. Includes light bites, sweet treats and cash bar. Tickets are $25.
3 p.m. Short films at Tybee Post Theater, 10 Van Horne Ave.
“A Love Affair”
“How do Sharks and Rays Use Electricity to Find Hidden Prey?”
“A Plastic Sea”
“You’re Not Hallucinating, That’s Just Squid Skin”
“Two Miles Deep”
4:30 p.m. Foundation wrap party at North Beach Bar & Grill, 33 Meddin Drive. Includes food and cash bar. Tickets are $25.