Tell us what your role was at the National Film Unit? And how long did you work there.
Started as production assistant in 1957, retired as producer director in 1991.
How did you come to work at the National Film Unit?
Being a copywriter for NZ Broadcasting 2 years, and a draughting cadet at Ministry of Works 3 years previously.
Did you start off as an editor and move into directing?
What was it like to try and film on location in those early days?
Cameramen (no women) were newsreel 'trained' on Weekly News/Pictorial Parade cinema newsreels for the NZ Government. Sound-shots were via a gigantic 35mm Newall battery-driven blimped Hollywood-style beast, meaning a van-full of tripods, reflectors, car-batteries and syncing systems came along for what was always a laconic Kiwi-ism from a 'typical Kiwi' and that's about all, to spice up a music-and-effects documentary track.
The standard medium was 35mm Kodak monochrome in 200ft magazines shot on 35mm Arriflex 3-lens ex-combat (German war-reparation) battery-driven cameras. Camera assistants hefted the tripods and batteries, etc. and production assistants ran errands and dressed 'sets' (whatever). We had Commer vans or Post Office transport when far from Wellington. Usually a two-man crew shot a newsreel 'item', spent a night or two in 'digs', and liaised with the official or sporting people featured. Throughout the Unit's history, such small teams interpreted the intentions of government publicists who had absolutely no idea of how we worked.
Reflecting on your time at the National Film Unit how you would describe what it was like working there, what was the vibe like?
I thanked the longtime Manager of the Unit, Geoffrey Scott, after we had both retired, for being our 'Squadron Leader'. He had to handle our critical departmental interface so I doubt he knew of the slinters we used to cajole cooperation in the field. Later on, helicopter transport was authorised although smaller government work order flimsies were often suddenly dropped on to hesitant accounts-clerk's desks. Expedience ruled the day.
Can you remember some of the films you worked on – what was a favourite?
My favourite is “The Gift” the National Parks centenary 35mm colour film buried somewhere in Conservation Department hands. I had no idea of the unique biology celebrated and preserved in our parks so accessible to every New Zealander. The Southern biota mimics many northern counterparts from a distinctly different heritage!
What contribution do you think the National Film Unit made nurturing young NZ talent in the film industry?
Very little. When the Education Department discovered film as a cultural resource, their informants were obviously not practitioners. Individual film-makers, enthusiasts all, did that. Government confined the NFU to the propaganda role which politicians understood. It was generally stifling and unadventurous.
How important do you think the National Film Unit was in nurturing the skills and careers of future NZ film makers, technicians and so on?
Very few NFU personnel shared technique with their outside counterparts until TV intervened. A Film Exhibitors club welcomed Unit technicians, an aborted Academy was begun for prospective TV makers, but the security of a government appointment meant the trials/rewards of independent film-making was foreign to us.
How important is it for the National Film Unit collection to be preserved?
Visually, all social content is invaluable and story-telling narration can be quite revealing. Most of all though, the programme content looks scant compared with the output of the Canadian National Film Board which had the stated objective of unifying a widespread, TV-deprived, diverse community. Identifying which NFU productions could be so extolled will need great foresight I imagine.
What would you like today's young New Zealander's take away from watching these movies today?
A sense that our population then 'made do' regardless.
How important do you think it is for Archives NZ to be preserving these films for future generations?
Books, music, poetry and drama can yield insights to sensitive historians. These films will also.
Last updated on 17 October 2021