The Nature Collection

A personal perspective on NZ nature on screen  

Why is New Zealand's natural world so special? That's a question my colleagues and I at NHNZ, have been answering in documentary films over the last three decades, and it is some of those films that make up this collection. But I think the short answer to that question is: we are unique because we live on an island, and isolated islands are evolutionary laboratories where weird and eccentric species can thrive. 

A parrot that can't fly, lives in the dark and blows itself up like a football? What about a hairy dwarf, a killer parrot, a reptile with a third eye and giant meat-eating snails? New Zealand is a land of evolutionary oddballs, and that's why I love it, and have been so privileged to have been part of a team that has turned these often shy creatures into stars of the small screen.

My first recollection of seeing nature on screen were National Film Unit featurettes shown as shorts to movies (such as Wildlife of the Mountains and New Zealand Mirror). Then along came television and Disney and Cousteau showed us an amazingly diverse world of incredible species in exotic locations; they were high drama, big budget and offered a French accent well worth imitating. But back then, there was very little about New Zealand on our screens.

A few hardy souls at TVNZ in Dunedin sought to rectify that situation and the Natural History Unit was born. 1980 saw the screening of the first series of Wild South, which I was lucky enough to be part of. Early programmes included Seven Black Robins, which featured one robin in particular, Old Blue, the only female laying fertile eggs. It was she who averted extinction for her species, and we made her a 'star'. Another rare bird that featured in an early episode was The Black Stilt. It too was on the brink of extinction. In fact a motivation for making these 'rare bird' documentaries, (that included kakapo, takahe and kokako), was that without substantial help, they all might soon become extinct ... these films might possibly be their epitaph.  

Thankfully this grim prospect did not come to pass. The Department of Conservation (DOC) now has many conservation heroes, but early on, they were few. Don Merton led several expeditions to help pull critically endangered species back from the brink. These efforts made great documentaries which New Zealanders loved. These films took viewers to meet species they would be unlikely to ever see, and to places they were unlikely to ever visit.

Rod Morris was responsible for a number of the most revealing and innovative documentaries. One of his tougher assignments was filming Kea - Mountain Parrot. He wanted to show the dark side of this playful character. High country farmers have long accused kea as being sheep killers and Rod wanted to prove it one way or the other. It required him to spend many nights in the mountains, using infrared cameras to penetrate the darkness. He got the shot. Verdict: guilty as charged.

The Southern Alps was just one of the extreme environments that crews had to endure in order to bring great stories to our screens. Antarctica defines 'extreme' and NHNZ, which was the new name for the Dunedin natural history production group once it left TVNZ, has made more films on the white continent than any other producer. One of the earliest and most challenging was Under the Ice. The crew battled extreme cold, frozen equipment and a learning curve that was near vertical, but they conquered this toughest of frontiers. Almost as challenging was a mid winter journey, in total darkness, to camp beside, and bring to the screen, the extraordinary story of Emperors of Antarctica.

In the 80s and early 90s, younger viewers had their own nature show, Wildtrack. The hundreds of stories, told by adventurous hosts, proved to be an early influence on the choice of careers for many biologists, conservationists, activists and a whole host of outdoor activity professionals. I remember being nearly run over by a cyclist on the Otago Uni campus, who screeched to a halt to tell me he was doing Zoo[logy], and he was doing it because of Wildtrack! Brilliant.

Our World was appointment viewing for many families on Sunday nights. Journeys Across Latitude 45 South originally screened in this slot. Andrew Penniket came up with the idea, and it proved a real insight into what this country is, and does, and where nature finds its place. Following a line on a map, I walked, hitched, rode and rowed across the South Island. This series is a revealing time capsule. For example, as we filmed winemaking pioneer Alan Brady on his doorstep at Gibbston, he hoped his few rows of vines would be successful. Well, drive to Queenstown today, and see what his dream has become.

In Castles of the Underworld, Emmy award-winning cinematographer Mike Single, revealed the hidden world of limestone caves, like it has never been seen before. We also get to understand why this rock is so much part of who we are. Limestone forms under the sea, which means that a lot of this land was once underwater. But, drowning is just one of the catastrophies that these 'shaky islands' have endured.

One of my favourite places is Fiordland, which was created by the grinding glaciers of ice ages. Award-winning for its photography, Mirrorworld, shows not only what the ice has left behind, it also reveals that what is above the water is only half the story. Below the water's surface - too deep for people to dive to - a deep sea submersible camera reveals that nature 'mirrors' the brilliant patterns and processes above.  

Early on I learnt that we all respond to films about animals as individuals. Their struggles and victories are almost human ... well, maybe that's a bit of a stretch when talking about whales, but, it's close. The Lost Whales is an intimate portrayal of family life in their secret calving grounds around our sub-Antarctic islands. The Lost Whales also asks the question: where did this 'lost tribe' come from? Solving a mystery is always good television.

Since the first canoe landed on a beach, the nature of this land has been compromised. Europeans brought rabbits, possums and stoats, which have done untold damage. Other species, like wasps, came uninvited, and in Bandits of the Beech Forest, we see the chaos they have caused. The film also shows how kaka and native geckos find it almost impossible to compete with these buzzing 'bandits'. It was a dangerous assignment, but it is a dramatically beautiful film.

Ghosts of Gondwana is not only a journey into the night time world of New Zealand's ancient forests, but is a story with two tellers. Rod Morris set out to show that the two stories might be different, but are equally 'truthful'. One storyteller is the scientist; the other, composer Hirini Melbourne, uses legend and song to describe a reality from the perspective of Tangata Whenua. The result, I think, is a truly wonderful film.

Marking the 100th  anniversary of the gift to New Zealand - by Chief Te Heuheu Tukino - of Tongariro National Park, NHNZ produced a six part series of Journeys in National Parks. This series went beyond the landscape and told stories of people who live and work in New Zealand's most precious landscapes. It was my great pleasure to host the series. Among the many highlights, was working with director Barry Barclay in 'Te Urewera'. Barry spent months visiting marae, outlining the series to elders, seeking their blessing and involvement. It paid off, the result is a very special view of nature. For Tuhoe people, the forest is a protector, a larder, a pharmacy and more. I spoke little, I listened a lot and learnt so much.

To paraphrase David Bellamy in the series Moa's Ark; if New Zealand can't get on top of conserving its unique species, then nobody can. Here, we have the benefit of a small population and a relatively high standard of living, so get on with it, the world is watching. David loves this country, taking whatever opportunities arise to come back.

In 2009, he revisited Whirinaki Forest, which featured in the episode of the Moa's Ark series called 'Stamp of Giants'. Whirinaki had been a battleground of forest conservation, where protestors camped high in the branches of mighty podocarps to prevent them being cut down, as so many other forests had been. David's passion has inspired many, me among them.

In the last few years, young wildlife filmmakers studying at the Centre of Science Communication at the University of Otago and supported by NHNZ, have been producing some great short films. One that I particularly liked was the story of a most unlikely subject, an extinct plant. The  filmmakers of award-winning, Exhuming Adams, told the story as a CSI type investigation.

This new breed of filmmakers have all the skill and passion to tell great stories of New Zealand nature. They also have the wit and inventiveness to attract new audiences and find new media avenues for these stories. They will also continue to reveal answers to the big question - why is New Zealand's natural world so special?