Some movie producers wouldn't know a sound boom from a booster. Not Geoffrey Scott: the longtime manager of the National Film Unit was fascinated with technology. Scott's career ran long enough for him to help oversee the transition from silent films to talkies, and later the growth of the NFU to become the country's then-biggest production house.
Born in Wellington in 1908, (Alfred) Geoffrey Scott persuaded his dad to buy him a 35mm film projector before he was 10. By the age of 18 Scott was studying engineering in Auckland, financed partly by playing piano with a local orchestra. He also provided piano accompaniment during silent movies, after getting a job with theatre entrepreneur Henry Hayward (uncle of pioneer filmmaker Rudall Hayward).
Scott's technical skills and enthusiasm for cinema saw him move through a range of movie-related jobs. He worked as projectionist, helped Rudall Hayward with sound on his feature film Rewi's Last Stand, and when talkies arrived helped install sound equipment in movie theatres.
In 1929 Scott got a technical job with Auckland Cinemas Limited. Later he managed cinemas, and bought and distributed films for the company.
In the early 40s, Scott's wife Joyce saw an advertisement for the new National Film Unit in Wellington. The couple moved south. The New Zealand Government had been involved in filmmaking for 17 years. Using inherited studios in the Wellington suburb of Miramar, the newly formed Film Unit set about making regular newsreel the Weekly Review, as part of efforts to publicise the war effort.
By 1943 Scott was the NFU's sound director. Two years later he was appointed technical director, and set about upgrading the organisation's limited equipment, which had initially included only three cameras. In 1950 NFU boss Stanhope Andrews quit the job, increasingly frustrated by a rising tide of bureaucracy and approval processes. Scott took over as NFU manager, and would remain at the helm until compulsory retirement 23 years later.
Scott faced a challenge early on when he was summoned to the offices of new Prime Minister Sidney Holland, whose cost-cutting and seeming disinterest in the Unit was one of the reasons Andrews had left the building.
Holland ordered Scott to stop production of the unit's Weekly Review shorts, annoyed by what he perceived as their "leftist tendencies". Scott came up with the longrunning, magazine-style Pictorial Parade instead. Dominion Post obituarist Peter Kitchin argued that Scott realised he needed allies to demonstrate he and the NFU were politically neutral, "and he took it upon himself to court politicians and heads of government departments rather than expose his staff to examination".
Scott demonstrated courage, as well as political nouse. He hired filmmaker Ron Bowie, who had been banned from taking public service jobs after five and a half years internment as a conscientious objector. The two would go on to produce many NFU films together, including Academy Award-nominated Antarctic doco 140 Days Under the World (1964). It was not the first time Scott had been Oscar-nominated; Brian Brake's Snows of Aorangi had gone up for a best live action short award, eight years before — the first Kiwi Oscar nomination.
Under Scott's leadership, the NFU would grow to become NZ's biggest production house, with a range of modern equipment. After earlier having refused to process footage for ex-NFU staffmember Roger Mirams' 1952 feature Broken Barrier, in the 60s the Unit began processing film from outside sources: especially television, the processing of which Scott argued was the Unit's biggest headache.
Scott also developed networks with the Walt Disney Company (who were at one point interested in the NFU's natural history work) and the British movie powerhouse run by J. Arthur Rank. He played a big hand in NFU/Rank Organisation co-production British Empire Games 1950, the Unit's first feature-length documentary.
He also helped secure Government funding for three-screen spectacular This is New Zealand (1970), which won impressive audiences during expo screenings in Japan, and on its homecoming. After hearing about early design concepts for the national pavilion, Scott argued that he could portray New Zealand more effectively with 20 minutes of film than static displays of industry and primary produce.
Scott outlived the Film Unit, dying in May 2006. Over the years, he had continued to welcome movie industry figures and politicians to his Wellington home, where he entertained them with silent movies, usually providing the piano accompaniment himself.
Stanhope Andrews, ‘The National Film Unit’ - Here and Now, December 1952 (Volume 3, No 3, page 7)
Julie Benjamin, ‘Film Pioneer’ (Biography of Stanhope Andrews) - Onfilm, April 1990 (Volume 7, No 3, page 36)
John O’Shea, Don’t Let it Get You: Memories - Documents (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1999)
Peter Kitchin, ‘Credits roll for NZ film producer’ (Obituary) - Dominion Post, 11 May 1986 (page B9)