Hugh Macdonald's filmmaking career has taken him underwater, inside caves, and up the Denniston railway incline. Four decades in, it shows no signs of stopping. Yet despite all the journeys under his belt, he is probably best known for just 20 minutes of film: beloved three-screen spectacular This is New Zealand.
Born in Invercargill and raised mainly in "idyllic" Lake Tekapo and Christchurch, Macdonald began making films as a child, using an 8mm camera — including slow motion footage of the high school rowing eight, which was used to help improve their technique.
His parents suggested government filmmaking organisation the National Film Unit as the obvious place to find a job. After meeting NFU director Frank Chilton, Macdonald was offered a position. Beginning as a trainee in 1962, at age 18, he began working on the Unit's monthly film series Pictorial Parade, editing and writing narrations. By the end of 1963 he'd begun directing items as well. The following year his bosses reluctantly let him loose to make a promotional film for a cruise ship company, who were operating between New Zealand and Greece. In Tahiti, local officials extracted promises there would be no shots of nuclear installations or naval ships.
In the late 60s, Macdonald's NFU tourism film This Auckland was labelled "flippant and superficial" by The NZ Herald. It also won him four international awards, including one at the Venice Film Festival. Soon after he was told he'd be leading the making of This is New Zealand, after NFU manager Geoffrey Scott successfully campaigned to politicians for the opportunity to contribute a film for the New Zealand Pavilion at Expo '70.
Lacking the resources to film on a large format like 70mm, the decision was made to link together three 35mm cameras and projectors, to provide a widescreen view of New Zealand and its people. "It gave you a great freedom for manipulation of images, music and sound", says Macdonald, who worked closely with associate director David Jordan. Images danced from one screen to another, alongside moments where grand vistas played across all three screens. Audience reaction when the results first screened at the NFU showed that the effort had not been wasted.
Two million people saw This is New Zealand at the expo site in Osaka, Japan. Although it was never part of the original plan, 400,000 more saw it back in New Zealand, after cinemas in the main centres were outfitted to take the four machines required to play it. In Wellington, the film ran for 13 weeks at the Embassy, one of the city's largest cinemas.
Advances in digital technology later allowed Park Road Post and Archives NZ to preserve This is New Zealand on a single combined 35mm negative and a digital file. The film returned for the 2007 round of NZ film festivals, alongside Macdonald's 1971 documentary This is Expo, which explored the expo site where This is New Zealand first debuted. In 2014 Macdonald completed That was New Zealand, an affectionate hour-long documentary about his three screen film's creation and success.
In 1972 Macdonald won a Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council grant to study overseas. He spent nine months in England and Canada, including time at Pinewood and Shepperton Studios, and met animators at the National Film Board of Canada. The Czech government refused to allow him to enter the country.
Making films about New Zealand wasn't always plain sailing. During the torturous process of completing There is a Place, Foreign Affairs officials demanded that he remove any suggestion the country wasn't perfect. The finished film is roughly half its original length. In the same period he also directed award-winner Somebody Else's Horizon. Celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Tourist and Publicity Department, the 18-minute film included excerpts from government tourist films dating back before the NFU's 1941 birth.
Macdonald segued into drama in grand fashion — by helming the second and third episodes of local TV's biggest production yet, The Governor (1977). His episode 'No Way to Treat a Lady' dramatised Governor George Grey's relationship with his unlucky wife. The co-production arrangement meant that the NFU provided the staff to make half of the six episodes, and developed all the footage. The Governor's other two directors were from state television. Macdonald followed it with offbeat parental primer It's Your Child, Norman Allenby. Playing in a Sunday night slot, it scored a Feltex Award for lead actor Ginette McDonald.
In the 80s Macdonald moved increasingly into producing — including this TV series on artists, nature documentary Primeval Survivors, and a series of shorts films for the NFU's new animation unit. Award-winner The Domino (1981) marked the first of many collaborations with animator Bob Stenhouse. In 1986, with fellow NFU veteran Martin Townsend, Macdonald co-produced The Frog, the Dog and the Devil, Stenhouse's fantastical tale about the 'demon drink'. Nominated for an Oscar for Best Animated Short Film, it took away the Grand Prize at the Hamilton International Animation Festival in Canada.
Later Macdonald produced Stenhouse's richly realised The Orchard. Based on a story by Joy Cowley, it scored a jury prize at the 1996 Chicago International Children's Film Festival. The Stenhouse/Macdonald team produced two further Cowley adaptations. They were collected on 2009 DVD Fish Bay.
Macdonald had earlier produced his first feature film in the mid 1980's: War Years, a compilation of Weekly Review newsreel footage from the Second World War. The same year also saw logging short Logger Rhythms, the first Kiwi short to use the Dolby Stereo process (Kiwi horror movie Death Warmed Up was released in Dolby the same year). For a number of years to come, Dolby experts in London used the work done by Macdonald and sound designer Kit Rollings to demonstrate how to record and mix sound in Dolby. Appropriately Macdonald's last film at the NFU as director was another tourism title: 1985's Right Next Door, which won another travel award.
Macdonald had long planned to leave the NFU at some point, and go solo. When Geoff Dixon set up commercials company Silverscreen in the mid 1970s, he invited Macdonald to direct for him. But Macdonald didn't relish the idea of a diet of only commercials. Starting in the mid 80s with company Hugh Macdonald Productions Ltd, he began producing and directing a variety of films, from staff training videos to corporate work, including more than a dozen films for the former NZ Dairy Board,and NFU sampler Toogood Tales, hosted by one-time Weekly Review narrator Selwyn Toogood.
In this period, the distributor of War Years asked "could you do anything else like this?" The director's first thought was of After Ninety Years, his 1967 Pictorial Parade documentary about the Denniston rail incline, and the self-sufficient West Coast community who lived nearby (Macdonald writes about making it here). He teamed up with fellow ex NFU staffers — writer/director David Sims and sound veteran Kit Rollings — to make a series of self-funded films for rail aficionados. Forming Memory Line Productions, the trio later invited cameraman Bruce Dunn on board. They went on to make and sell seven one-hour programmes covering aspects of Kiwi transport and history. The company's Denniston film sold over 15,000 copies.
Macdonald has also worked on a number of films and attractions for museums, including The Tanker Ride at Hawera's former Dairyland visitor centre. In 2006 he produced an instructional film to promote Musacus, an NZ-born musical education system that helps students learn keys via colour-coding, instead of notation. Directed and animated by Euan Frizzell, it was a finalist in the distance learning category of the 2007 New York Festivals.
In 2017 Macdonald's passion project No Ordinary Sheila was invited to the NZ International Film Festival. It went on to screen around the country. The feature-length documentary follows the adventurous life of his first cousin, nature writer and illustrator Sheila Natusch — or as Stuff reviewer Graeme Tuckett described her, "one of the most fascinating, storied, admirable and occasionally hilarious individuals you will ever have the pleasure of meeting".
Profile written by Ian Pryor; updated on 15 February 2019
'Hugh Macdonald: Expos, epics and animated amphibians' (Video Interview), NZ On Screen website. Director Ian Pryor. Loaded 30 June 2015. Accessed 15 February 2020
Hugh Macdonald Film website. Accessed 15 February 2020
No Ordinary Sheila website. Accessed 15 February 2020
'Playing Favourites with Hugh Macdonald' (Interview) Radio New Zealand website. Loaded 1 March 2014. Accessed 15 February 2020
Warren Barton, 'Videos for steam enthusiasts' - The Dominion Sunday Times, 8 September 1991, page 11
Peter Griffin, 'Digital dust-off for Godzone' - The NZ Herald, 29 March 2007
Graeme Tuckett, 'No Ordinary Sheila: The Kiwi doco that will leave you smiling' (Review) Stuff website. Loaded 18 October 2017. Accessed 15 February 2020