You are here:

Brian Brake at the NFU

Curated by NZ On Screen team
21st October 2010

 Brian Brake at the NFU

Brian Brake at the NFU

 NZ On Screen team

Curated by NZ On Screen team


Brian Brake is regarded as New Zealand's most successful international photographer. But before heading overseas to work for photo agency Magnum and snapping iconic shots of Picasso and the Monsoon series for Life magazine, he was also an accomplished composer of moving images. He shot or directed many classic films for the NFU, including NZ's first Oscar-nominated film. 


Brian Brake at the NFU

 A Master of Light - The Life and Work of Brian Brake Photographer

This documentary — made shortly before Brake’s 1988 death — surveys his career and craft (a striving for "mastery over light"). As well as discussing famous shots of Picasso and the Monsoon series, Brake recalls his time at the National Film Unit, and shooting Oscar-nominated Snows of Aorangi.

 Snows of Aorangi

Shot and directed by Brake, this tourism promo surveys NZ mountain landscapes. Stunning imagery: ethereal ice forests, lightning storms, volcanic craters, glaciers, and avalanches, is accompanied by James K Baxter-scripted narration. It was the first NZ film to compete for an Oscar, in 1959.

 Mount Cook

This was the first NFU film to feature Brake’s mountain imagery in glorious blue and white colour. Brake coaxes breathtaking images of the cloud-piercing mountain (and a rollicking snow fight) as skiers wander closer to Aoraki/Mt Cook to get a better look, then demonstrate the joys of descent.

 New Zealand Mirror No. 14

This magazine newsreel mixes buried Tarawera treasure with a classic Brake-shot performance piece. The final piece showcases the musicianship of Kiwi pianist Richard Farrell and Brake’s moving image talent, as moody studio lightning and lively compositions frame Farrell's performance of a Chopin waltz.

 The Snowline is Their Boundary

The rugged challenges of farming the vast aprons of the Southern Alps are captured here by Brake and Bob Kingsbury. The centrepiece is the great autumn muster where 16,000 sheep are worked down from “the tops”. “It's mutton every meal out here - we chase sheep every day and eat them every meal.”


The doco revisits an attempt by Brake, leading an all-star art team — James K Baxter as scriptwriter, composer Douglas Lilburn and painter John Drawbridge (all under 30) — to make a 'cinematic poem' about an ascent of Mt Aspiring. View an excerpt and original footage of the never-completed film.


This Brake-shot short features the first 'official' colour footage of the Waitomo Caves. Organ music accompanies the tour party as they enter limestone grottos, then float down an eerie underground river. Meanwhile the narrator reduces earlier cave explorations into a tale of a lone white man and his candle.

 Weekly Review No. 416 - Prelude to Aspiring

This was the first NFU title directed by Brake. It follows a group of climbers up the Matukituki Valley, west of Wanaka, towards Mt Aspiring for the opening of a new hut and a trudge through snow to resurrect a flattened shelter high up Mt French. The autumn alpine scenery is breathtaking in black and white.

 Canterbury is a Hundred

Brake shot this booster's gem to mark Canterbury's centennial. The original Canterbury crusaders' dream of a model England colony is invoked: "in one brief century they've turned the wilderness into fertile farms and built their red-roofed homes". Trivia: an excerpt from the film opens Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures.

 Farming in New Zealand

This pocket survey of 50s farming is a nationalist’s reminder that NZ is “one of the world’s great farming countries”. Brake captures arresting imagery: cattle move in silhouette against the sky; dust-caked fertiliser trucks emerge from clouds of lime; shirtless WWII veterans load silage onto harvesters.


Four decades before starring in The Last Samurai, NZ’s most symmetrical volcano stole the limelight in this Brake-shot short. Extolling a mantra of progress and change, Taranaki presents New Plymouth as regional hub and suburban paradise, surrounded by bays, gladioli and half the nation’s cheese.

 Journey for Three

Brake was assistant cameraman on this promo for postwar ‘Pommy’ immigration. Three Brits settle down under and the film records their hopes, jobs, challenges and adventures (tramping, skiing, milk bars, the races, romance). Released theatrically in the UK, it was scored by Douglas Lilburn.

 Wakatipu - The Long Lake

Shortly before leaving NZ in 1954, Brake filmed in the spectacular environs of Lake Wakatipu. He captures mist-shrouded hills sliced open by mining; a trio of skiers on Coronet Peak travelling hand in hand; tourists heading to Routeburn Track via steamer and open top bus; and a horseback gold miner.

 People of the Waikato

This Brake-shot journey along NZ’s longest river balances requisite scenery with excursions into the Waikato's extensive hydroelectric development; glimpses of those who work and live on the river include stunt-filled canoe races, Turangawaewae Marae, and a veteran boatman tugging coal.

 Weekly Review No. 401

Brake films a part of this Weekly Review looking at the reopening of the National Art Gallery by the Prime Minister Peter Fraser after eight years' occupation by the Air Force. The £40K national collection (mainly portraits and landscapes) is reframed and a Frances Hodgkins painting is examined.

An apprenticeship in "painting with light"

An apprenticeship in

Te Papa’s Lissa Mitchell on Brake’s formative period at the National Film Unit in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Read >

Brian Brake: Lens on the World

Brian Brake: Lens on the World

This Te Papa exhibition is a major survey of Brake’s life’s work, from Monsoon to Mitre Peak. Find out more >

NZ On Screen NFU Collection

NZ On Screen NFU Collection

For nearly 50 years the Film Unit filmed everything from wartime newsreels and tourism promos to historical TV epics. View here >

Archives New Zealand

Archives New Zealand

Archives New Zealand are the custodians of the NFU archive, including the films Brake made while working there. Find out more >