Geoff Dixon's talent for making commercials saw him working for heavyweight clients in New Zealand and around the globe, and founding a company that thrived for three decades, before faltering as it was expanding into new fields.
As a director, Dixon honed his mastery of imagery and mood over literally dozens of adverts, including high profile campaigns for Toyota, Air New Zealand, Levi's and McDonalds. Along the way he helmed many classic celebrations of New Zealand and its people — the Crumpy and Scotty ads, two memorable Travellin' On campaigns, and Welcome to Our World (the accompanying song by John Grenell topped the charts). His company Silverscreen Productions grew from one phone and a desk to become the most successful local production company in its field.
A master of the soft sell — through ads that evoked admiration, patriotism or laughter, but rarely hammered the product — Dixon soon found himself getting called for many of the really big jobs: commercials that were longer in duration (often 90 seconds or two minutes), and often more beautiful than the others. Quality came at a price: the shoot for a travelling Europa Oil commercial involved 10 vehicles and a crew of 25; some of the international projects cost as much as NZ$3 million.
Raised in Lower Hutt on the edge of Wellington, Dixon went on to major in English at Victoria University, while working on the side at chemicals company ICI. One day in 1967 he wandered into the offices of the NZ Broadcasting Corporation, and was offered a job as a cameraman.
After two years at the NZBC, he headed overseas. The next four years saw Dixon in London, Europe, Australia and New Zealand, often with a camera in hand. In Sydney he joined production company VTC, and got his first chance to move up from camerawork to directing — an ad for Bremworth Carpets. At that time a number of Kiwis crossed the Tasman to finish their commercials at VTC; one of them was pioneering Wellington ad man Dale Wrightson, who planted the idea that Dixon come back and start directing ads in NZ.
In 1974 Dixon launched Silver Screen Productions in an office of Wrightson's company. Silver Screen (originally there was a gap after the 'Silver') concentrated exclusively on making adverts: "just me, a desk and an office". Wrightson and upstart ad agency Colenso gave Dixon his earliest jobs; they were all part of a new generation of talent, keen to add some life to a conservative ad industry. Colenso co-founder Roger MacDonnell argued that Dixon brought a new and distinctively New Zealand look to commercials, and had "a wonderful eye for strong visuals".
Times were ripe for expansion — but that meant finding more crew and improving facilities. There were so few freelancers available that Dixon went up to people on the street, and offered them jobs moving the camera dolly.
Meanwhile Dixon was doing the work of many, shooting all day, editing much of the night, sometimes even sleeping under the cutting bench. "By late 1975 I was working seven days a week — 20 hours a day, and it stayed like that for quite some time. We didn't take our foot off the accelerator right through the 70s and 80s. Even the crash didn't slow us down." Silverscreen expanded from one room to eight. Colenso and Saatchi and Saatchi were just a few minutes walk away. "We were all just mates," he says of the early days. "We'd turn up every day and figure out how much it would cost to make something and we'd all go off and do it. Simple."
Dixon certainly made it look easy, whether showcasing alligators swimming through water-logged offices, children sneaking some chocolate, or the beloved ads where Barry Crump takes the wimpy city guy for a backroads drive. He tried to include "universal values and emotions: justice, love, fun adventure". A rare glimpse of Dixon in action is offered in this 1982 documentary: it chronicles the making of a big budget Crunchie ad requiring heroes on horses, and a 12 hour long shoot inside the Waitomo Caves.
He also directed some half-hour films: Pouihi ... A Legend of New Zealand (1977) followed the creation of a major carving for NZ House in London; Hunchin' Down the Track (1980) was a chronicle of two cowboys on the local rodeo circuit. He managed to win representation from major agency ICM to direct some features, but the many scripts sent his way held little appeal. And plans to film Alan Duff novel One Night Out Stealing failed to get off the ground.
By the mid-80s, awards (including Cannes Lions and FACTS gongs from Australia) were starting to stack up on Silverscreen's walls; in 1986 alone, Dixon-directed commercials won 11. The awards provided perfect bait for overseas clients. Dixon took on the lion's share of the international projects, leaving directors John Reid, Roger Tomkins and Murrray Savidan to handle the majority of local work.
By 1994, Dixon estimated that 60 to 70 per cent of his directing was happening overseas. He helmed campaigns for Levi's and the Indonesian Tourist Board, and a McDonalds commercial featuring BB King. Some labelled him one of the top 10 commercials directors in the world.
Dixon also annoyed some Australian screen figures that year, after winning the gig to direct a Qantas spot which featured song 'I Still Call Australia Home' being performed from seven international locations. Bulletin writer David McNicholl called it "one of the most remarkable and innovative commercials I have ever seen". There have been further airline commissions; Dixon also directed 'Singapore Girl' ads, and shot campaigns in Asia and Fiji for Air New Zealand.
His personal favourites include a World Vision spot set in a terrifying train station, and a big-budget campaign for Europa Oil, which starred longtime musical collaborator Murray Grindlay, blues musician Midge Marsden and model Brigitte Berger, travelling the West Coast in a 1939 flatbed truck. A later entry in the campaign saw them joined by bluesman Stevie Ray Vaughan, shortly before he died in a Wisconsin helicopter crash. After directing the first Europa ads in 1987, Dixon argued that if it had been made in the United States, any changes would have "had to be cleared by at least 14 people. The amount of freedom we have here is amazing compared to other countries."
Along the way, many directors honed their skills at Silverscreen, including Lee Tamahori, Christine Jeffs, Richard Gibson, Matt Murphy, Chris Dudman and Nathan Price. Talking to Idealog in 2007, Dixon sounded more upbeat than bitter about all who had been and gone. "Over the years we've had a lot of very good directors that have deserved their independence. When we lost directors it was because they went on to start their own companies. I feel proud of that".
In the mid 90s Silverscreen followed Colenso and others north, to Auckland. A Sydney office, owned by Dixon, had opened late the previous decade. In the late 90s, Silverscreen opened a purpose-built $5.5 million office in Cook Street; it housed roughly a dozen full-time staff, including an in-house chef, and as many as 85 contractors. Just out the back was renowned post-production/effects facility Oktober, whose work included scenes for The Lord of the Rings trilogy. By now new management and a board of directors had freed Dixon up to concentrate on directing and building Oktober, which also had an Australian arm.
There were other ventures into feature films: through his company Silverscreen Films, Dixon was involved in Geoff Murphy's Spooked, and troubled Vincent Ward epic River Queen (on which he was one of nine producers).
In January 2007, after 33 years, Silverscreen went into liquidation. Oktober closed its doors shortly after, but by 14 March Dixon had sold the company to Australia's Omnilab Media. The press had reported debts totalling $5.5 million, but Dixon argues that around $4.5 million of that was money owed back to him. Dixon says he used the proceeds from Oktober and other assets to pay off almost all of Silverscreen's creditors.
Silverscreen's fall reflected changing times in local advertising. Budgets and profit margins were tightening, audiences were being split across a wider range of viewing options, and smaller, leaner companies had begun winning more work. Longtime Silverscreen producer Roimata Macgregor felt that a low-budget Casio campaign marked a key turning point. In 2000 the Casio G-Shock ads took away a run of local awards; "that became a kind of a benchmark in advertising here, which was very cheap and cheerful".
These days Dixon lives in Kerikeri with his wife Laurian. Having obtained his offshore skipper's ticket, he enjoys boating and fishing, including the odd sojourn sailing around the Mediterranean. Long a keen photographer, he has also returned to playing some guitar from the days he was in a band.
Profile written by Ian Pryor
Eugene Bingham, 'The king is dead' - Unlimited, April 2007, page 20
Karl du Fresne, ' When Life's An Adventure' (Interview) - The Evening Post, 28 December 1994, page 13
Simon Hendery, 'Poised for a second wind'- AdMedia, April 2007 (Volume 20 No 4), page 38
Sue May, 'In To Win In TVC Boom' - Onfilm, December 1987 (Volume 5, No 1), page 3
Monique Oomen, 'On The Road, Out Of The Rut' - Onfilm, (Volume 3, No 6), page 3
Gena Tuffery, 'Silver-Screen's final Scene' - Idealog, May 2007, page 34