Hugh Macdonald's filmmaking career has taken him underwater, inside caves, and up the tracks of 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 with an 8mm camera — including slow motion footage of the high school rowing eight, which was used to help improve their technique.
His parents suggested the National Film Unit as the obvious place to find a job. After meeting NFU filmmaker Frank Chilton, Macdonald was offered a position. Beginning as a trainee in 1962, aged 18, he began working on the Unit's monthly film series Pictorial Parade, editing and writing narrations. By the end of 1963 he had 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 as "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 that 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 three 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 one grand vista played across all three screens. Audience reaction when the results first screened at the NFU made it clear the effort had not been wasted.
Two million 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. The film returned for the 2007 round of NZ film festivals, alongside Macdonald's documentary This is Expo, which explored the expo site where This is New Zealand had debuted. In 2014 Macdonald completed That was New Zealand, an affectionate hour-long documentary about the film's creation and success.
In 1972 Macdonald received 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 talks with 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 of its original length. In the same period he also directed award-winner Somebody Else's Horizon. Marking 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 the grandest of fashions, by helming the second and third episodes of local television's biggest production to date, The Governor (1977). His episodes included 'No Way to Treat a Lady', which 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 television 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 doco Primeval Survivors, and a series of shorts 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 won the grand prize at Canada's Hamilton International Animation Festival.
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; the trio of shorts were collected on 2009 DVD Fish Bay.
Back at the NFU, Macdonald had earlier produced his first feature film: 1984'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 he 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 Macdonald "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 it here). He teamed up with two other 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 to join them. 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 the former Dairyland visitor centre in Hawera. 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 awards.
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 January 2019
'Hugh Macdonald: Expos, epics and animated amphibians' (Video Interview), NZ On Screen website. Director Ian Pryor. Loaded 30 June 2015. Accessed 15 January 2020
Hugh Macdonald Film website. Accessed 15 January 2020
No Ordinary Sheila website. Accessed 15 January 2020
'Playing Favourites with Hugh Macdonald' (Interview) Radio New Zealand website. Loaded 1 March 2014. Accessed 15 January 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 January 2019