Hugh Macdonald began his long, award-studded career at the National Film Unit, where at age 25 he directed ambitious three-screen spectacular This is New Zealand (1970). It was seen by 400,000 New Zealanders. In the 1980s he produced Oscar-nominated short The Frog, the Dog, and the Devil and set up his own company, continuing a busy diet of train documentaries, commercial films and animation.
That was one of the great things about working at the National Film Unit in the 60s — we could do what we wanted, as long as it wasn't offensive to whichever adminstration was in power at the time. We were frequently allowed to play with ideas we had. That was an incredible creative freedom. Hugh Macdonald
No Ordinary Sheila unfurls the life story of the adventurous, multi-talented Sheila Natusch: from first opening her eyes to nature while growing up on Stewart Island, as the daughter of a ranger and an artist; through befriending Janet Frame during teacher training, to the many books Natusch went on to write and/or illustrate. Filmmaker Hugh Macdonald (This is New Zealand) directs this portrait of a lover of nature and life, her joy unbowed by age. Natusch died on 10 August 2017, just days after watching the film as part of a packed house at the 2017 Wellington Film Festival.
One morning, as kids are stealing apples from an old man’s orchard high above a seaside town, an earthquake hits. No one is hurt, and the townsfolk are non-plussed, but the old man is agitated: he alone is aware of the imminent tsunami and tries to warn the village. Based on a classic Japanese fable, The Orchard was made by one-man band Bob Stenhouse, who had been nominated for an Academy Award the previous decade for pioneer tale The Frog, The Dog and The Devil. Fans of the animator will recognise his lush, luminous hand-drawn style.
Bob Stenhouse worked largely alone to visualise this luminously-animated ode to the "nation of drunkards" (as New Zealand was tagged in the House of Lords in 1838). A shepherd tricks a Mackenzie barman out of a bottle of ‘Hokonui Lightning', but too much pioneer spirit sees him haunted by the devil's daughter. In 1986 Frog was nominated for an Oscar for Best Animated Short; later an animation festival in Annecy, France judged it one of the best animated films made that century. A short 'making of' clip at the end offers hints of the hard work behind the film's distinctive look.
“I’d no idea what I’d been missing!” This 1985 film pitches Aotearoa as a destination to our Aussie cobbers. Long haul air travel had led to a tourism boom, and promo campaigns were becoming increasingly sophisticated. This effort tries to overcome expectations of NZ as a place for oldies where “nothing is ever open”. A dinky-di Sydney family go on a tour of “Kiwiland” for a smorgasbord of sun, sea and snow. There’s crayfish and wine on the sand, and Barry Crump tells a less than 100% Pure tale at the pub. Australian John Sheerin (McLeod's Daughters) plays Dad.
In the 20th Century forests of fast-growing exotic pines were established in the North Island, making one of the world’s largest timber plantations. This short explores timber work in Kinleith and Kawerau: from planting to felling to finished product. Directed by NFU veteran Hugh Macdonald, Logger Rhythms is notable as the first Kiwi film to record sound using Dolby Stereo. Sound men Kit Rolling and Tony Johnson’s efforts capturing chainsaw and machine ambience, along with Steve Robinson’s score, compelled Dolby in London to use the film as a demonstration reel.
This 1983 film looks at New Zealand in World War II, via a compilation of footage from the National Film Unit’s Weekly Review newsreel series, which screened in NZ cinemas from 1941 to 1946. It begins with Prime Minister Savage’s “where Britain goes, we go” speech, and covers campaigns in Europe, Africa and the Pacific, and life on the home front. The propaganda film excerpts are augmented with narration and graphics giving context to the war effort. Helen Martin called it "a fascinating record of documentary filmmaking at a crucial time in the country’s history".
This 1982 film, made for the New Zealand Council for Recreation and Sport, is an impressionistic exploration of play. Child narrators talk about what play means to them, while the images capture young people engaged in recreation. The focus is on informal play: kids and teenagers at playgrounds, hunting for frogs, reading, skylarking in the snow, doing cartwheels on the beach, fixing motorbikes, skipping, stargazing and playing Space Attack. Seagulls inspire dreams of flight for a young girl, and a fancy dress ball for adults shows the enduring spirit of play.
This award-winning NFU short focuses on the tuatara, sole survivor of a reptile species extinct for 135 million years. An NZ Wildlife Service (now Department of Conservation) team search for the reptiles on Stephens Island sanctuary (aka Takapourewa) as they hunt for insects. Voiceover is eschewed in favour of natural sound, and composer Jack Body’s evocative soundtrack. The tuatara are weighed and measured; they can grow up to 80 centimetres, weigh over a kilogram and live 150 years. There were about 100,000 tuatara on Stephens Island when the film was made in 1981.
This animated short follows a film editor being driven around the bend by the domino effect of various intrusions, which prevent him from getting on with his work. Animator Bob Stenhouse (later Oscar-nominated for The Frog, The Dog and The Devil) dramatises the challenge of maintaining creative focus while facing Kafkaesque bureaucracy, noisy interruptions and form-filling. Aside from exploring the psychology of creativity, the short is also a primer for how productions were edited in the pre-digital age: showing film physically cut and pasted together with a splicer.
This 1981 promotional short snaps the clapperboard on the National Film Unit’s new filmmaking facilities at Avalon. The Unit had moved from its Miramar birthplace to the Lower Hutt complex in 1978 (it was officially opened on 18 October that year). Narrated by Bob Parker and scored to a funky soundtrack, the film is a guide through NFU production processes. A montage of production scenes is followed by a look at film processing once the film is ‘in the can’. Tricks of the trade depicted include rear projection, film colouring and foley (sound effects).
Artists Prepare was a series of six programmes made by the NFU and screened in the Kaleidoscope programme on TV2 during July and August 1980. It featured prominent performance-based artists of the time with each episode exploring their particular creative process and performances of their work. The subjects were: Limbs Dance Company, composer Chris Cree Brown, mime artists Robert and Jane Bennett, songwriter-singer David Ngatae, poets Sam Hunt and Gary McCormick and singer Malcolm McNeill.
Artists Prepare was an NFU series that featured prominent performance-based artists of the time. In this episode 'sonic artist' Chris Cree Brown discusses composing with new media, and how he orchestrates particular sounds into formal compositional structures. Some sounds are made instrumentally; others are recorded from his environment. In 1980 few classically-trained musicians in New Zealand experimented with synthesised sound, and the gloriously large and sturdy equipment Brown uses to create his music will be of anthropological interest to many musos.
Artists Prepare was an National Film Unit series that featured prominent performance-based artists of the time. The edition follows poets Sam Hunt and Gary McCormick (the "John Travolta of New Zealand poetry") on tour in the Nelson region as they give poetry readings, talk to high school girls, drink whiskey, and muse about poetry and life — while Minstrel, Hunt's dog, lies patiently under bar tables. Ultra-tight stovepipe jeans, rock-star scarves, scenes in a milk bar and out on the open road in a Valiant evoke a time when poetry and heartthrob weren't antonyms.
The Governor was a television epic that examined the life of Governor George Grey in six thematic parts. Grey's "Good Governor" persona was undercut with laudanum, lechery and land confiscation. NZ TV's first (and only) historical blockbuster was hugely controversial, provoking a parliamentary inquiry and "test match sized" audiences. It won a 1978 Feltex Award for Best Drama. Auckland Star reviewer Barry Shaw trumpeted: "It has made Māori matter. If Pākehā now have a better understanding of the Māori point of view [...] it stems from The Governor.
Made for the 75th anniversary of the Tourist and Publicity Department, this National Film Unit short film surveys New Zealand tourism: from shifts in transport and accommodation, to how Aotearoa is marketed. The "romantic outpost of Empire" seen in 1930s promotional films gives way to a more relaxed, even saucy pitch, emphasising an uncrowded, fun destination. Middle-earth is not yet on the horizon; instead Wind in the Willows provides literary inspiration. Directed by Hugh Macdonald (This is New Zealand), it screened alongside Bugsy Malone and won a Belgian tourist festival award.
This award-winning short film explores Te Waikoropupū Springs. The springs fully live up to New Zealand’s 100% Pure brand, with some of the clearest water known (a 1993 study measured visibility to 63 metres). After visiting the springs' ‘dancing sands’, three divers take a down river run: going with the flow of the 14,000 litres per second discharged from the springs (here the classical score funks up the tempo). One of the divers was sound recordist Kit Rollings. The waters are now closed off, to preserve their purity. The NFU short played in cinemas with Return of the Pink Panther.
There is a Place is one of many Kiwi tourism films that Hugh Macdonald (This is New Zealand) made for the National Film Unit. After the Ministry of Foreign Affairs proved unhappy with the original version, the director was forced to remove “all parts of the film that offend the sensitivities of Foreign Affairs.” Macdonald ended up cutting it in half, removing "anything that reflects badly on the country". The end result is a quick stroll through New Zealand’s four main cities, and a brief look at everything the locals hold dear: rugby football, agriculture, public bars, and pottery.
Made for the United Nation's first 'Earth Summit' in Stockholm in 1971, this film explores possible futures for Aotearoa's environment. Director Hugh Macdonald (This is New Zealand) presents an impressionistic ecosystem: mixing shots of natural wonders, urbanisation, and pollution with abstract montages and predictions from futurologists, including Jacques Cousteau’s “underwater man”. Before climate change heated up 21st Century doomsday debates, this film (made for the Ministry of Works!) emphasises individual responsibility. The score enlists French nursery rhyme ‘Are You Sleeping?’.
Made by the NFU for the NZ Water Safety Council this film enlists shock to provoke punters to consider water safety. On a summer’s day a fisherman, surfer and boatie all reckon it's “a great day for it”. But thoughtlessness results in tragedy. Directed by Hugh Macdonald (This is New Zealand), the disjunct between the jaunty song on the soundtrack and sunken bodies onscreen anticipates the graphic horror of the late 90s/early 00s road safety ads (sharing kinship with 1971 bush safety PSA Such a Stupid Way to Die). Grant Tilly cameos as a radio DJ.
It's 9am, and people have been queuing for hours. Welcome to Expo '70 in Osaka Japan, with 70 plus countries showing what they are made of. This National Film Unit documentary combines an overview of the expo, with a closer look at the New Zealand presence. There is extensive footage of the Kiwi pavilion, including background to screenings of Hugh MacDonald's three-screen spectacle This is New Zealand, which was one of the most acclaimed films at Expo '70. The Maori Theatre Trust also perform.
Manapōuri hydroelectric power station is New Zealand’s largest. This 1970 NFU film — made for the Electricity Department — follows workers clearing a path for power through epic Fiordland mountains and rainforest, building roads and power pylons, and stringing a cable along the “hard and dirty” 30 miles to the aluminium smelter at Bluff. Sixteen men were killed constructing ‘the line’ before power was first generated in 1969. At the same time the scheme generated mass protests (the ‘Save Manapōuri’ campaign) at the proposal to raise Lake Manapōuri's level.
This 1970 documentary surveys New Zealand’s dairy industry — “probably the most advanced in the world” — from pasture to export. Dairying then produced a quarter of NZ’s income, but with Britain due to join the EEC, NZ was forced to seek new markets. This film proclaims the industry’s readiness, thanks to an artificial breeding centre (with ‘calf-eteria’), room-sized computers, and cheeses designed for the Asian market. The country's 25,000 dairy farms were each owner-operated, and averaged 90 cows. The Dairy Industry won top prize at an agricultural film competition in Berlin.
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 fondly-remembered Pictorial Parade plunges down the famously steep grade of the Denniston Incline. The cable railway was the key means of transporting ‘black gold’ from the isolated Denniston Plateau to Westport. The engineering marvel fell 518 metres over just 1670 metres. It brought down 13 million tonnes of coal and many hardy families, despite notorious brake failures. This film was made just before the mine and railway ceased operating, as “old king coal” was supplanted by oil. Director Hugh Macdonald writes about making it, and a companion film, here.
This impressionistic, late 1960s survey traces Auckland from volcanic origins to a population of half a million people. Produced by the National Film Unit, it finds a city of "design and disorder" growing steadily but secure in its own skin as its populace basks in the summer sun. A wry, at times bemused, Hugh Macdonald script and an often frenetic, jazzy soundtrack accompany time honoured Queen City images: beaches and yachting, parks and bustling city streets, and an unpredictable climate given to humidity and sudden downpours.
This episode of Pictorial Parade, a long-running National Film Unit newsreel series, presents three events: at Mt Bruce, a native bird reserve is opened, the New Zealand Cricket Team’s tour of India is lost 1-0, and Miss World, Ann Sidney (UK), leads the way in fashion at the 1965 Wool Award and Fashion Parade in Lower Hutt. Watch for takahē feeding from the hand, a disconsolate kiwi being held by the Minster of Internal Affairs, Miss Hutt Valley Wool Princess finalists sashaying in the latest fashions, and the New Zealand cricket team sightseeing in India.
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.