Cyril Morton — sometimes credited as C.J. Morton — spent four decades in Government filmmaking. Those decades encompassed phenomenal change, as Government filmmaking efforts expanded from a leaky tin shed behind Parliament, to an 80-strong operation on the edge of Wellington. Morton was second in command at the National Film Unit for 13 years.
When the 1918 flu epidemic closed schools across Wellington, teenager Morton got an office job at a local film distribution company. The grocer's son was keenly interested in photography, and soon got another job offer at small production company New Zealand Films Limited.
Though the job gave Morton wide experience in filmmaking, including cinematography, the company's most reliable source of revenue was creating subtitles for silent films. Morton worked on the titles for Rudall Hayward's first feature My Lady of the Cave, released in 1922.
The following year Morton joined the Government Publicity Office as a cinematographer. The forerunner of the NFU, the GPO concentrated largely on weekly shorts highlighting the country's scenery. Morton travelled NZ filming material for many of them, including Fighting Fins, which documented a fishing tour by American writer Zane Grey. He also edited a number of early productions. The GPO's films screened in both NZ and Australia, and also at London's British Empire Exhibition.
The GPO were initially based in a legendary tin shed near Parliament, where frozen chemicals and potential fires went with the territory (Morton would recall his early days in the lab, and in the field, in booklet The Tin Shed).
Scotsman A.A.P. Mackenzie, who ran a local photographic business, then began processing the GPO films from better facilities in central Wellington. After winning a five-year contract to process Government films in 1927, Mackenzie created Filmcraft Limited and financed a purpose-built studio and laboratory in the outlying suburb of Miramar. It was the start of a long Wellington filmmaking tradition; today Miramar is the main base of operations and post-production for filmmaker Peter Jackson.
The Government Publicity Office made more than 200 silent films. In the late 20s the arrival of talkies revolutionalised cinema; the effects on the burgeoning local filmmaking scene were catastrophic. MacKenzie's company was amongst the few to invest in expensive new sound equipment. It was to little avail: the arrival of the depression saw a massive reduction in filmmaking from the GPO, Filmcraft's major client. In Morton's words, the staff went from "forty to four overnight, and the place was like a morgue".
Though little filmmaking was going on in this period, Morton stayed on at the new studios under the title 'Government Film Supervisor'. He also managed to adapt, direct and co-shoot silent short Amokura, a rare early case of the Government funding a dramatic piece. Shot in Rotorua, the film was based on the legend of a Māori woman outcast for her tattoo. Initially shelved out of fear it might not have an audience, Amokura finally won the first of many screenings in 1934, after Morton wrote a narration to accompany it. He also shot footage that was later used in 48-minute travelogue Romantic New Zealand (1934), filmed partly in an early two-colour process. The film screened widely across Australasia.
Soon after, Filmcraft's Miramar studios were leased to, then bought out by the Department of Tourist and Health Resorts and Publicity. The change kept many of the old management and kickstarted production of more tourist promotion films, plus One Hundred Crowded Years (1940), made to mark the country's Centennial. Mixing re-enactments and self-congratulation over the country's achievements, the 43-minute film screened widely around the country as a war fundraiser. Morton was editor and "supervisor".
Morton and film critic Stanhope Andrews both played key roles in the creation of the National Film Unit. The arrival of World War II threatened a rerun of previous cutbacks, and even the closure of the Miramar studio. Keen to show that a filmmaking organisation could "be of value to the war effort", Morton made a small number of anti-waste films and screened them to various wartime committees.
Morton was introduced to Andrews, who was working on a report to Government along similar lines. Andrews had edited together newsreel footage of troops leaving New Zealand, with tidy-up help from Morton. After Prime Minister Peter Fraser and much of the cabinet saw the footage, the Government decided to use the studios to publicise the war effort (the film was later released as Country Lads).
Initially run by a far-flung committee, it was later decided that the operation needed a boss, and an official title: the New Zealand National Film Unit. Former NFU archivist Clive Sowry quotes Morton as saying he declined the job of leading the NFU as it's first producer, instead nominating Stanhope Andrews for the top job. Andrews in turn valued the technical expertise and experience of Morton, his second in command.
Morton oversaw production of the Weekly Review newsreel, of which 459 were made between 1941 and 1950. According to Sowry, "Morton had an encyclopedic knowledge of the unit's film stock, and often worked extremely long hours." In 1947 he was made the NFU's assistant producer. When Andrews resigned in 1950, frustrated by increasing bureaucracy, Morton became producer, under Geoffrey Scott as manager. To add to the confusion, the two shared 'producer' credit on numerous NFU productions.
Morton also oversaw a feature-length documentary on the 1950 British Empire Games in Auckland (later known as the Commonwealth Games). Soon after he travelled to England to work on the edit of Royal New Zealand Journey, which chronicled a royal visit down under by the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh. The film was co-produced by the NFU, and one-time British powerhouse the J Arthur Rank Organisation.
The NFU continued to produce many scenic films and Pictorial Parade (the successor to the Weekly Review series) newsreels, now shooting many of the former in colour.
Cyril Morton retired in June 1963, and relocated to Foxton, to concentrate on his hobbies of railway modelling and painting. He died in Levin on 25 June 1986.
Julie Benjamin, ‘Film Pioneer’ (Biography of Stanhope Andrews) - Onfilm, April 1990 (Volume 7, No 3, page 36)
Clive Sowry, 'Morton, Cyril James - 1903 - 1986' (Biography) - Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, Updated 22 June 2007. Accessed July 29 2010
Clive Sowry, “Cyril Morton’ (Obituary) - Onfilm, October 1986 (Volume 3, No 6, page 39)
The Tin Shed. Editor Jonathan Dennis (New Zealand Film Archive, 1981)