Ron Skelley spent 36 years with the National Film Unit’s sound department, contributing to the soundtracks of Weekly Review, Pictorial Parade, and many other NFU and independent films. He started at the NFU in 1949, and was in charge of the sound department from 1977 until his retirement in 1985. Skelley died in March 1992. Image Credit: Photo from The Evening Post, courtesy of Fairfax Media
'Background - Ron Skelley.' Typical National Film Unit photo caption
Directed by Hugh Macdonald, This is New Zealand was made to promote the country at Expo '70 in Osaka, Japan. An ambitious concept saw iconic NZ imagery — panoramas, nature, Māori culture, sport, industry — projected on three adjacent screens that together comprised one giant widescreen. A rousing orchestral score (Sibelius's Karelia Suite) backed the images. Two million people saw it in Osaka, and over 350,000 New Zealanders saw on its homecoming theatrical release. It was remastered by Park Road Post in 2007. This excerpt is the first three minutes of the film.
This 1968 tourism promo follows two Aussie sheilas, Helen and Beverly, on a champagne-fuelled trip across the ditch. The tour kicks off with an obligatory sheep's 'baa', but offers some surprises alongside the scenic wonderland way, such as a detour to a Kaingaroa Forest mill and an Otago gold rush history lesson. Surprisingly trippy, Blow Up-inspired opening credits, some bold cutting and a jazzy score enliven the jaunt; a highlight is the lasses and hip local lads Monkee-ing around a Māori village and geothermal power station ... it's not PC, but it's definitely pop-tastic!
This vibrant NFU travelogue takes the pulse of NZ's capital after 125 years of Pākehā settlement and finds a "colourful, casual" city that has had to impose itself on the landscape to endure. Highlights include the 90 sec opening flyover, some off-the-wall music choices in the score and vox pops that are well shy of 'coolest little capital' chutzpah. The wind puts on a requisite show but so do the city's 32 miles of beaches, with a Riviera-esque Oriental Bay beaming on a good day. The mower on a rope trick looks dodgy to a more health and safety conscious age.
A series of comical graphics introduce this 1966 National Film Unit diversion, in a style animator Terry Gilliam would soon make famous via British comedy shows Do Not Adjust Your Set and Monty Python's Flying Circus. The film itself follows a reporter (Michael Woolf) on a jaunt with an international 'veteran car rally' through Southern Lakes scenery, trying to make sense of it all. As he says, "there don’t seem to be any rules to this vintage motoring business". Directed by John King, the playful film features a dubbed soundtrack, complete with sheep baas and car horn sound effects.
The ‘Young Giant’ is Kaingaroa Forest: the largest plantation in the Southern Hemisphere, and one of the largest exotic forests in the world. 1,300 square kilometres produce “50 million cubic feet of timber a year” for pulp, paper, and building. Directed by Brian Cross, and made by the NFU for the forest’s then-managers — the New Zealand Forest Service — this documentary showcases the industry in the pines: scrub clearance for forest extension, burn-offs, machine planting, pruning, felling, grafting, and kiln-drying cones to extract seeds for sowing.
Winter is going. This impressionistic take on spring in Aotearoa focuses on details of regeneration, from the mountains to the sea. Director Ron Bowie and cameraman Grant Foster capture signs of the season: ice melt like tadpoles under snow grass, gannets nesting on their Cape Kidnappers tenement, fern koru unfurling, kōtuku and royal spoonbills perched in Ōkārito trees like Dr Suess characters, willow buds and kōwhai flowers. And of course, lambs and daffodils. The camera aptly obeys the title to end. Patrick Flynn (Don’t Let it Get You) composed the score.
A military exchange between New Zealand and the United Kingdom is the focus of this National Film Unit short. About 150 Kiwi soldiers head to London for Exercise Powderhorn in 1964, which includes guard duty at Buckingham Palace and the Tower of London. And they still have time to see the sights. Meanwhile a contingent from the Loyal Regiment in North Lancashire arrives in New Zealand for Exercise Te Rauparaha. They experience jungle warfare in a mock battle on the West Coast and practise mountain craft in the Southern Alps.
The Waitomo Caves are a longtime tourist magnet, thanks to their bioluminescent glow-worms and spectacular stalagmite and stalactite formations. Aside from the glories of the caves, this National Film Unit tourism film mentions the surrounding countryside as “a good reason to stay another day”. Set to a laid-back jazz score, a tour from Waitomo Caves Hotel takes in lambing, limestone outcrops, scenic driving and a picnic by the Marokopa waterfalls. But "to float down the underground river as galaxies pass silently overhead is the crowning pleasure in the valley of Waitomo.”
This 1965 National Film Unit classic follows the working life of a young musterer, on a 145,000 acre South Island merino sheep station. He hands over his swag and gets to work (after he’s been mocked for bringing an electric blanket). He begins in the summer: training dogs and breaking in a horse. In the autumn it’s the muster: wrangling 10,000 sheep from the tops, across rivers and down to the yards before winter snow. Peter Newton’s 1947 musterer memoir, Wayleggo, was a local bestseller, and the film bolsters the book’s Kiwi mountain man mythology.
"The story of a four-day journey from Westland to Canterbury, across the Southern Alps." Narration from the four climbers accompanies spectacular alpine imagery in this classic NFU film. In crevasse country they rope up and climb to "half way across the frozen roof of New Zealand" and share a can of tinned pineapple as reward. At Malte Brun Hut they meet Sir Edmund Hillary, Murray Ellis and Harry Ayres, and they descend together down the Tasman Glacier. Ayres reflects on the Alps as training ground for famous polar and Everest expeditions.
“Mental subnormality here is no higher than in other countries. Still it strikes more than one in a thousand.” The subjects of this 1964 NFU documentary are intellectually disabled patients (mostly children) at a Levin psychopaedic hospital, and the trainee nurses who care for them. The narration embodies contemporary healthcare ideas where “retarded” children were seen as patients to be kept “happy among their fellows”, and sheltered from the outside world. By the 90s, institutions like this one (later renamed Kimberley) were overtaken by assisted living.
This NFU classic tells Peter Snell's story, up until just before his triumph at the Tokyo Olympics (he'd already won 800 metres gold in Rome, and beaten the world record for the mile). Snell's commentary — focused, candid — plays over footage of training and some of his key races. "It always gives a feeling of exhilaration to run in the New Zealand all black singlet." Snell offers insights into the marathon-style training of coach Arthur Lydiard (15 miles daily, 100 miles a week), and there's priceless footage of Snell running through bush and leaping fences in Auckland's Waiatarua hills.
This National Film Unit doco illustrates the early days of the Royal New Zealand Ballet. Performances from the company’s touring program include Bournonville’s Napoli, kiwi Arthur Turnbull’s Do-Wack-A-Do, a quirky 1930s flapper themed production (also with a NZ composer, Dorothea Franchi) and the tulle and poise of Fokine’s Les Sylphides. Prismatic Variations, choreographed by ballet company founder Poul Gnatt, and produced by another dance icon Russell Kerr, is the finale for this tribute to those who have made New Zealanders “ballet conscious.”
This 1963 film looks at how the development of high country aviation is taking on the challenges presented by the South Island’s rugged geography. Piloted by war veterans, small aircraft parachute supplies into remote locations for Forest Service hut building and service lighthouses. Meanwhile helicopters and airlines open up opportunities for industry (venison, tourism, forestry, topdressing) and recreation (fishing, hunting). Good keen men, smokos and Swannies abound in this classically-filmed National Film Unit documentary.
This 1962 National Film Unit short uses the relationship between Māori and manu (birds) as a platform to celebrate New Zealand bush birds — from food source and key roles in myth, to their general character. Legend of Birds was filmed on Kāpiti and Little Barrier Islands. Many of the images were captured by noted nature photographers Kenneth and Jean Bigwood, and the score is by composer Larry Pruden. The narration includes a rap-style tribute to the kākā parrot: “squarks about his indigestion, population and congestion … politics the current question”.
This NFU documentary goes behind the scenes as Selwyn Toogood and his team prepare an episode of 50s radio quiz show It's In the Bag, long before it hit the telly. Questions are prepared and booby prizes — epsom salts, toy ducks — selected, before Toogood hits the stage at the Lower Hutt Town Hall to utter the ultimate poser. The big prizes du jour included washing machines and flash (New Zealand-made!) fridge-freezers. The show was so popular with '50s radio audiences it was said cinemas closed their doors on Tuesday nights when it went to air.
This National Film Unit production was made to celebrate the golden jubilee of the Plunket Society. Plunket — aka ‘Karitane’ — nursing is a New Zealand system of ante-natal and post-natal care for mothers and infants, founded by Sir Truby King: “the man who saved the babies”. Featuring original nurse Joanne MacKinnon, the film follows Plunket from a time of high infant mortality to providing contemporary nursing to a New Zealand flush with postwar optimism: “a family country, where children grow happily in the fresh air and sunshine.”
In this 1956 reel, Sir Edmund Hillary and colleagues describe their mission to set up bases in advance of the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition. Ed meets Everest mate George Lowe in Uruguay to board The Theron, and they smash and use explosives to blast their way through ice, then unload supplies (including the soon-to-be-famous Ferguson tractors). Sections of the footage were shot on 16mm film by Hillary himself. Lt Commander Bill Smith and Dr Trevor Hatherton narrate pathfinding with sledges in McMurdo Sound, on the other side of the continent.
This National Film Unit documentary shows the NZ contingent training in the Aoraki Mount Cook area for their mission to Antarctica, as part of the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition. On the Tasman Glacier, they practise polar survival techniques, huskies are put through their paces and an RNZAF ski plane dramatically flips before a blizzard blows in, and some classic Kiwi DIY repairs are required on the ice runway. Team leader Sir Edmund Hillary narrates in laconic style. Cameraman Derek Wright went on to chronicle Sir Ed’s famous tractor dash to the pole.
This NFU public safety film takes a jaunty approach to a serious subject as it shows road crossing dangers via bad examples. Mis-steps include walking off the footpath carelessly, crossing the road at oblique angles, 'dithering', and over-confidence. The humour may be physical and the narration pun-filled, but the lessons remain relevant, as pedestrian accidents on Wellington's and Auckland's 21st Century city bus lanes attest. Despite the big question promise of the title there is no Socratic dialogue about crossing the road or any consideration of chickens.
This magazine newsreel mixes buried treasure with a classic Brian Brake-shot performance piece. Opener 'The Long Poi' captures a poi dance. In 'The Buried Village' tourists examine fireballs and Māori stone carvings buried in the 1886 Tarawera eruption. The final piece showcases the talents of Kiwi pianist Richard Farrell and director Brian Brake. Brake's moody studio lighting and lively compositions frame this performance of a Chopin waltz. Farrell would die in a UK car accident in 1958 — the same month Brake won his first big spread in Life magazine.
In this first edition of the NFU’s monthly magazine series, the US Davis Cup team — featuring tennis legend Vic Seixas — plays a demonstration match in Wellington, en route to Australia. Further south Christchurch hosts the annual A&P Show. Motorbike-riding traffic cops keep the traffic moving on one of the busiest days of the year, and a shot of Cathedral Square is a reminder of pre-quake days. Then Ohakea farewells No. 14 Squadron, led by World War II air ace Johnny Checketts, as its de Havilland Vampires jet off to Cyprus and Cold War peacekeeping duties.
Broken Barrier marked the first New Zealand dramatic feature to be made since 1940. Its production saw directors John O'Shea and Roger Mirams crowding into a Vauxhall with two silent cameras, one picked up "from a dead German in the Western Desert". Ditching dialogue for 'spoken thoughts', the pioneering film examines cultural complications in a romance between a Pākehā journalist (Terence Bayler) and a Māori nurse (Kay Ngarimu, aka Keita Whakato Walker). According to O'Shea, some viewers considered it "a dirty movie" for spurring mixed race relationships.
It's a Wonderful Life meets driver education in this NFU film that aims to scare those who would be careless in bad weather conditions. This now-quaint precursor to 2011's Ghost Chips road safety ad sets up a low-key mystery plot, as five naive unfortunates find themselves at a bus stop in pea-soup fog. Purgatorial befuddlement — the bus goes via 'Infinity Terrace' and a saucy angel is handing out harps — turns to moralizing, complete with flashbacks and a lecture from the weather god, as they discover why they've ended up en route to 'Elysian Fields'.