Welsh-born James Harris played an important role in the founding of the National Film Unit in 1941. A well-educated, versatile filmmaker equally at home behind the camera, operating a splicer or wielding a pen, he spent 26 years with the NFU, mostly as a senior director. Photo credit: Archives New Zealand, reference AAQT 6401 A23,729
Where all jobs overlap no one is indispensible, and also general versatility makes the studio a good training ground, the film-making job being seen whole. James Harris writing in Screen Parade, January 1945
The ‘Young Giant’ is Kaingaroa Forest: the largest plantation in the Southern Hemisphere, and one of the largest exotic forests in the world. 1,300 square kilometres produce “50 million cubic feet of timber a year” for pulp, paper, and building. Directed by Brian Cross, and made by the NFU for the forest’s then-managers — the New Zealand Forest Service — this documentary showcases the industry in the pines: scrub clearance for forest extension, burn-offs, machine planting, pruning, felling, grafting, and kiln-drying cones to extract seeds for sowing.
This 1966 edition of National Film Unit’s magazine slot heads to Christchurch International Airport to explore weather measuring devices being launched there. Helium 'Ghost Balloons' are sent into the sky by an outpost of the United States' National Center for Atmospheric Research. Meanwhile Christchurch weathermen send up hydrogen balloons, read satellite data, and provide a flight plan for a U2 reconnaisance plane from the US Air Force. The pilot’s preflight routine involves breathing pure oxygen to prepare him for the ultrahigh altitude plane’s steep ascent into the sky.
This short film is a lively animation by Fred O'Neill starring a cast of craggy characters made from that ubiquitous children's play dough of the 1960s and 70s: plasticine. Figures cavort and morph to the music in varied sight and sound gags. There's no real narrative, and contrary to the title, it is in fact a celebration of the limitless possibilities of the materials. Figures and shapes form, and transform delightfully, constantly moving, fighting, and dancing against hand painted backdrops. Dunedin-based O'Neill did almost everything on the film himself.
Galaxies away from images of tar-addled lungs on cigarette packets, this film offers an unusual public health message about smoking. Set to rhyming couplets, the plasticine hero tries out to see if he has the right stuff to fly a rocket to Venus. There he battles the demon Nicotine, and (long before Avatar’) convinces Venusians to destroy their tobacco trees. Shot in 35mm by pioneering animator Fred O’Neill, Space Flight was made for theatrical release. For reasons unknown the Health Department, who commissioned it, didn't want the film to go on general release.
This 1962 film about geothermal power generation begins with animated sequences telling the Māori legend of how the North Island’s volcanoes were created. Then it explores the “crazy idea” of volcanic power, and how New Zealand might harness its potential. At Wairakei, roads have collapsed and the ground can rumble: “nothing is ever quite predictable on this battleground for power”. Nearby, steam is used for heating, hangi, bathing, and … growing pineapples. The animation was handled by Mike Walker (later producer of Kingi’s Story), of Levin-based Morrow Productions.
In the 1950s, driven by a desire to power around the shallows of the Mackenzie Country's braided rivers, inventor and "South Island sheep man" Bill Hamilton developed an improved method of jet boat propulsion. This NFU film explains the concept and Hamilton demonstrates the 'turbo craft': cruising Lake Manapouri, waterskiing Lyttelton Harbour, and heading up the Whanganui. Then it's spin outs and shooting rapids (and deer) with Commander Philip Porter from the icebreaker USS Glacier...who clearly loves the smell of the Waimakariri in the morning.
This edition of the NFU's long-running magazine film series boards the Wellington to Auckland 'experimental express', to test its 11 and a half hour trip claims. Then it's south for the opening of Christchurch Airport's new modernist terminals, designed by architect Paul Pascoe. At Waitangi, ships and a submarine from the New Zealand, Australian and British navies train, and Waitangi Day is commemorated. A reel highlight is Australian Formula One champion Jack Brabham meeting jet boat inventor Bill Hamilton, and trying out a 'Hamilton turn' on the Waimakariri River.
An elegiac profile of artist Eric Lee-Johnson, by Maurice Shadbolt, is the high point of this NFU magazine film. Johnson gave up a lucrative commercial career to pursue his vision of a New Zealand art moving beyond European tradition; and he is observed chronicling abandoned homesteads and churches, built in remote reaches of Northland's Hokianga harbour by early Pākehā settlers. There's light relief in coverage of a chimpanzees' tea party at Wellington Zoo, while a suitably breathless piece looks at a new industry manufacturing fibreglass boats.
The Cathedral Bells ring out in Christchurch as New Zealand celebrates the coronation of Elizabeth II. Inside the cathedral and in other places of worship, like the chapel at Longbeach Estate (near Ashburton) and the picturesque St James church at the foot of Franz Josef Glacier, the faithful give thanks (including pioneering mountain guides Peter and Alex Graham). Outside, the day is marked by processions and military parades in the main centres (filmed on 2 June 1953). In Wellington Governor General Sir Willoughby Norrie commands "God Save the Queen!"
Tuberculosis and the Māori People of the Wairoa District was screened for the first time in 1952. It is one of many health education films made, but was unique in that it was a collaborative production involving the New Zealand Department of Health, the Ngāti Kahungungu Tribal District Committee and the National Film Unit. At this time, the death rate for Māori from TB was 10 times that of Pākehā. Turi Carroll (knighted in 1962) a respected Ngāti Kahungunu leader, narrates much of the film.
This 1950 edition of the Weekly Review series welcomes the touring British Lions rugby team in Wellington, where speeches are given on the wharf. It was the first post-war tour by the Lions (notable for the debut of their iconic red jerseys — not able to be discerned in this black and white reel!). Then it’s down to Canterbury Museum to explore displays of moa bones, cave paintings and the relics of the moa hunters. Finally it’s up to the farthest north to visit Te Rerenga Wairua, for a look at life keeping the ‘lonely lighthouse’ at Cape Reinga Station.
This Weekly Review features: An interview with Sir Peter Buck in which Te Rangi Hīroa (then Medical Officer of Health for Maori) explains the sabbatical he took to research Polynesian anthropology, a subject in which he would achieve international renown; Landscapes: The Lakes at Tūtira sets the stunning scenery of the Hawke's Bay lakes to verse by James Harris; finally Southern Alps: RNZAF Drops Building Materials hitches a ride on a Dakota full of building materials being parachuted in to workers at Mueller Hut on Mount Cook.
This edition of the National Film Unit newsreel series promotes a newly established New Zealand industry: the manufacturing of domestic ware. It shows the process of producing a cornucopia of Crown Lynn-like crockery — plates, cups, saucers, teapots, vases, etc. Machines make and glaze plates, while technicians cast irregular shaped vases, make prototypes for items such as Toby jugs, hand paint, and apply transfers. For, as the title suggests, the potter's wheel and handiwork still have their place, even in the age of mechanical reproduction.
This jaunty early National Film Unit film promotes the alpine scenery of Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park and its recreational opportunities. It includes slalom at the 1946 New Zealand ski champs, ice-skating at Lake Tekapo, comic pratfalls in the snow, a mass snow-fight and ... landscape painting. Dancing at the Hermitage Hotel is "a good way to loosen the muscles after skiing". As well as human interest, the film features the expected majestic mountains, glaciers, and avalanches, as well as curious kea at Ball Hut, and amusing dogs in snow-glasses.
This edition of the National Film Unit’s wartime newsreel series tracks the 1000s of New Zealand prisoners of war being repatriated from Germany, shortly after VE Day. “Men from all over the world are here. Waiting to get out. Waiting to get back to their homes …” The ANZACs travel to a transit centre in Brussels, where they enjoy “a first real beer in years” and go sightseeing, before crossing the North Sea to be hosted in England, where thoughts turn south. The reel ends with a rousing rendition of the Māori Battalion marching song in an English pub.
This intense newsreel reports from the war in the Pacific in Easter 1944, as American, Fijian, and New Zealand soldiers battle the Japanese in the Bougainville jungle. Cameraman Stan Wemyss found himself isolated with a Fijian patrol, amidst casualties and under fire from 'Japs'. He later recounted being so close to the action he could hear troops talking in two languages he couldn't understand; at one point he lays down his camera to pitch a grenade. Grandfather of future actor Russell Crowe, Wemyss was awarded an MBE in 1947 for his services as a war correspondent.
New Zealand Munitions was the 26th National Film Unit effort, and the longest made in the Unit's first year. The NFU was established in August 1941 to make films illustrating New Zealand's war effort. Completed in December of that year, this is a classic propaganda piece. As World War II intensifies, New Zealanders are reassured that the country has the heavy industry required to supply its army. Factories are converted to wartime needs and munitions pour out. A suitably bellicose script informs viewers "This is our striking power: men and munitions."