Production designer and art director Ash Turner has worked on a wide range of films and television programmes, as well as commercials and live events.
Turner began his career as a graphic designer and photographer. At New Zealand Film and Television School in Christchurch, he was initially undecided about specialising in production design or cinematography. A job as a set dresser on his first feature project, goldmining classic Illustrious Energy (1988) helped him decide which direction to take — as did opportunities working in the art department of early mentor Sigmund Spath Senior.
Amongst Turner’s earliest film work was production designing an ambitious short directed by a fellow film school student, Andrew Bancroft. Planet Man recast New Zealand's urban landscape as a near-future noir dystopia; the result was judged Best Short Film at the Critic's Week section of the 1996 Cannes Film Festival.
Turner helped out as an art director on the second unit of locally-shot series Hercules: the Legendary Journeys, and designed an episode of based-on-a-true-story series Rescue 911. He also provided production design to a series of TV movies, including Plain Tastes, an early teleplay from Whale Rider director Niki Caro.
Also among these was another significant collaboration with Andrew Bancroft. The award-winning Ngā Tohu: Signatures (2000) interweaves a contemporary Waitangi Tribunal claim with the period 1839-1840, when iwi were first canvassed for their support of the Treaty. Turner worked closely with Māori advisors to ensure that the design of a pa set, as well as tukutuku panelling and other key on-screen design elements were faithfully and respectfully recreated.
Turner's work with Bancroft continued when the director developed an adaptation of Witi Ihimaera's novel Bulibasha. The project failed to materialise (it would later be filmed by Lee Tamahori as Mahana). Instead, Turner's first experience in feature film came through another film school acquaintance, director Gillian Ashurst.
Turner had art directed Ashurst's short film Venus Blue, which debuted at America's Sundance festival in 1999; he went on to production design her debut feature Snakeskin, which won Best Feature at the 2001 NZ Film and TV Awards.
Being a road movie, Snakeskin's main sets were its cars. Turner was responsible for converting three Chrysler Valiant Rangers into identical “American style convertibles”, which were then used in ‘hero’, ‘rig’ and ‘stunt’ versions for the film's central automobile. Snakeskin also required him to create the main character's private world of Americana obsession, a large-scale psychedelic set dressing for a party sequence, and plant an entire field of sunflowers several months in advance to ensure they'd be in bloom for a crash sequence.
As in Snakeskin, much of Turner's work has juxtaposed the recognisable with the fantastic. Short film Rest Stop (director Roseanne Liang, 2005) evokes 1940s noir in a New Zealand context, while Nature's Way (Jane Shearer, 2006) contrasts native bush with suburbia to provide insight into a character's deranged mind. Sci-fi tale No Ordinary Sun (Jonathan Brough, 2004) brings an Antarctic research base into surreal collision with an ordinary family home. It screened at several international film festivals, and Turner was awarded Best Design at the 2005 NZ Film Awards for his work. Meanwhile Dive (Matthew Saville, 2014) sees a man diving into a portal via his bathroom, in search of himself.
In 2003 Turner was production designer on effects-heavy American TV movie Cave In. To recreate a flooded Pennsylvanian coal mine, a labyrinth of tunnels and elevator shafts were recreated in an Auckland studio. Five years later Turner was nominated for a Qantas award for his work on Gregory King drama A Song of Good. Originally planned as a $2 million production, it was ultimately funded through the low-budget Headstrong programme, with Turner providing a range of interior and exterior locations on few resources.
He went on to help out on the design of Toa Fraser's Dean Spanley (2008), working on the film's secondary storyline about the life of a dog. The dog scenes were filmed in New Zealand, while the rest of the film was shot in Northern England, and production designed by Andrew McAlpine.
Turner has contributed art direction to many major advertising campaigns (as well as this 60s set music video). Clients have included Hewlett Packard, Vodafone, NZ Beef & Lamb, and the launch of Spark's Morepork service. Many of his commercial projects have including the design of specially-rigged sets and models, to accommodate elaborate special effects shots. In 2002 he was awarded the British Design and Art Direction Award for his art direction of Toyota’s Bugger campaign. He also provides location design and interactive light displays for major live events, including WOMAD, the 2009 Auckland Anniversary celebrations, and the Ellerslie Flower Show.
Based in Auckland, Turner works through his design firm Ash Design.
Profile written by Chris Gilman; updated on 7 January 2020
Ash Design website. Accessed 7 January 2020
Nick Grant, 'King, maker' (Interview with Gregory King) - Onfilm, November 2008, page 24 (Volume 25, No 11)
Dive press kit. Accessed 22 December 2016
Snakeskin press kit
Nature’s Way press kit