Journalist turned producer Elizabeth Mitchell first set up Firehorse Films to make comedy bro'Town, which debuted on New Zealand televison screens in 2004. The first local animated series to play in primetime, this tale of polynesian teenagers became a bonafide hit with impressive ratings, international sales, a run of merchandise and half a dozen awards.
Mitchell came up with the idea for bro'Town after watching her old friend, actor/writer Oscar Kightley, in the first play by comic ensemble The Naked Samoans. Having laughed at some of the teenage characters on stage, Mitchell came up with the idea of a TV show about a group of young polynesians, thinking that animating it would get around the fact that Kightley and co weren't very teenage in appearance. After Kightley and the rest of the Naked Samoans signed on, she approached TV3's Kelly Martin with the idea of bro'Town. So began three years of development and boning up on animation.
The television series mined comedy from its characters: five teenagers growing up as a minority in Auckland, the world's largest polynesian city. In 2006 Mitchell told The Dominion Post that it was "brilliant" so many New Zealanders had taken Vale, Valea, Sione, Mack and Jeff da Māori into their hearts. "We get emails almost every day from schools doing projects on the show, community groups, academics writing papers on bro'Town, as well as viewers who just want to say 'top dogs' to the team."
Over five seasons, bro'Town won four local awards for best comedy programme, and sold to Australia, Fiji, Canada, Russia and Latin America. Local critics labelled it "groundbreaking" and dazzling; the Herald's Frances Grant noted that it left "no sensitivity unmocked". In concentrating on the show's (genuine) polynesian angle, journalists sometimes forgot that there was also a white woman on the writing team. A run of celebrity guests made animated cameos, from league star Stacey Jones to John Campbell and Prince Charles, whose children were given their own bro'Town hoodies.
The challenges of commanding an animated series involving 150 crew across two countries would have tested any producer, let alone one whose previous experience of animation was one commercial about the white-spotted tussock moth. In 2005 local screen organisation SPADA named Mitchell their independent producer of the year. bro'Town was made from Firehorse Films' Auckland studio, but much of the animation was handled at offshore studios — mostly in India, with help from China for just over a season. Each episode took up to six months to complete, and required 16,000 to 24,000 drawings. A bro'Town movie may still emerge.
In 2013 Mitchell produced comedy drama Tom's Dairy, a short film about a Spacies-mad Samoan growing up in 80s-era Auckland. Written and directed by Oscar Kightley, it won best short film at the Belize International Film Festival and was nominated for four Moa awards, including best short. A movie version is in development.
The same year the two worked together on Rooster Rooster Dragon Rat - Oscar's Guide to the Chinese Zodiac. Playing on TV3's Inside New Zealand documentary strand, the beginner's guide to the 12 oriental star signs was directed and produced by Mitchell.
She has also been involved in development scheme He Ara, taking part in a round table group offering support to Māori and Pasifika filmmakers as they develop "culturally diverse" feature and documentary projects.
Raised in Auckland, Mitchell first joined the writing staff of The Auckland Star in 1988. She befriended fellow scribe Kightley on her first day at the newspaper, shortly before he went to work in in New Plymouth. In 1990 she left to start a post-graduate Diploma of Broadcasting at Auckland University. Mitchell also has a Diploma in Journalism from Auckland Institute of Technology, and a BA majoring in languages.
Mitchell's first screen job was at TV3, assisting in on-air promotions. She went on to become the network's commercial producer, dealing with sales and marketing then as head of on-air promotions. In the mid 90s she went freelance, writing, producing and directing adverts and corporate presentations, before bro'Town beckoned.
'Elizabeth Mitchell talks bro'Town' (Video Interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Clare O'Leary. Loaded 24 April 2009. Accessed 29 April 2009
'Welcome to Morningside, bro' - The Dominion Post (TV Week liftout), 21 September 2004, Page 3
'Top dogs going global' - The Dominion Post (TV Week liftout), 26 September 2006, Page 3
'Comedy Central Shows: Bro'Town'. Comedy Central NZ website. Accessed 6 March 2015
'Three Teams Selected for He Ara Funding' (Press Release) NZ Film Commission website. Loaded 25 June 2014. Accessed 6 March 2015