When Don Oakley joined the National Film Unit in September 1948, most of the unit's filming was for the Weekly Review. Items ranged from short news clips to full-reel documentaries. The first film Oakley shot was for one of the items in Weekly Review No. 392, released in March 1949. By the end of the year he had received his first screen credits as cameraman. Firstly for New Settlers (released as Weekly Review No. 414), a film showing the arrival and settling-in of displaced persons from Europe, and secondly for Golden Bay (released as Weekly Review No. 434), showing life in the district beyond the Takaka hill.
His first major solo assignment was accompanying an expedition to the remote mountains beyond Lake Te Anau to film the takahē, a native bird thought to be extinct until rediscovered in 1948. By the time Weekly Review No. 437 - Ornithology ... Notornis Expedition was released, just prior to the 1950 British Empire Games, the NFU had dropped the practice of including on-screen credits.
When production of the Weekly Review was stopped, Oakley was assigned to film soil conservation work in the Wairarapa and Poverty Bay. After filming the work of a district health nurse in Wellington, he was sent to make further films in remote parts of the country: Cattle Trail (1951), filmed in South Westland, and Bushman (1952), shot at a forestry settlement in the central North Island.
From 1952 to 1971 he filmed or assisted with filming roughly 60 items for the NFU’s long-running magazine series Pictorial Parade. Notable among these were the royal tour specials, and a number of items shot in Northland. While filming artist Eric Lee-Johnson for an item directed by Maurice Shadbolt in early 1956, Oakley was on hand to film Opo the friendly dolphin, then attracting huge crowds to the beach at Opononi. Not all items required cameramen to travel. Back at the studio he was picked to shoot This Colourful Season, the first Pictorial Parade item filmed in colour.
Oakley had been behind the studio camera on an earlier occasion, when the sound stage was transformed into a shearing shed for a New Zealand Wool Board instructional film featuring Godfrey Bowen. Originally intended for non-theatrical use, the film proved of sufficient interest for a shortened version, Shearing Technique (1958), to be prepared for screening in picture theatres.
By the late 1950s short films for theatrical release were increasingly made in colour. Oakley travelled with director Ron Bowie to the Cook Islands to make Drums Across the Lagoon. His first on-screen credits on colour films were for Royal Occasion (1962), recording the visit to New Zealand of the King and Queen of Thailand, and for Maori Arts & Culture No. 1 Carving & Decoration (1962), which detailed work on a new meeting house at Waiwhetu.
Oakley returned to places he had earlier filmed in black and white to make the colour films The Twin Lakes (1963), including the Te Anau area, and Alpine Airways (1963), including South Westland, by now more accessible by air.
In 1965 he travelled to Singapore to shoot scenes of New Zealand’s apple exports for Case History, and stayed on to film New Zealanders in South East Asia, showing military and medical teams in Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam.
From the time Oakley was appointed chief cameraman in January 1966, his role became more supervisory and administrative. He continued to work behind the camera on occasional films, notably on Te Rauparaha (1972) and feature-length Commonwealth Games documentary Games 74; the latter required all the camera personnel the NFU could muster. He retired in January 1984 after nearly 36 years’ service.
Don Oakley died on 13 January 2006 after a long illness.
Writing and Original Research by Clive Sowry
Oakley, Donald Leslie (Death Notice) – The Dominion Post, 14 January 2006, page D7
‘In Film With Pelorus Jack’ – The Evening Post, 6 March 1956, page 20
‘Shearing Champion in Documentary’ – The Evening Post, 14 December 1955, page 14
‘Film of Notornis’ – The Evening Post, 20 December 1949, page 8
NFU Production file 3/8/97 South Island Airways. [ANZ ref.: AAPG W3435 Box 37, 3/8/97 South Island Airways.]