Though probably best known for shooting and directing commercials — including filming the classic Crunchie train robbery and Spot the Dog — John Blick’s career encompasses everything from documentaries to features (Solo, The Last Tattoo, The Frighteners).
Fresh from a Taranaki farm, Blick moved to Wellington aged 17, to work as a sound recordist at Government filmmakers the National Film Unit. On weekends he was discovering the world of foreign cinema and playing around with a handheld Bolex camera, alongside NFU friend Hugh MacDonald.
Soon Blick had found his place behind the camera, shooting a wide range of NFU material from horseracing doco Bred to Win, to interviews for the classic Story of Seven-Hundred Polish Children. The NFU was also contracted to shoot a wide range of material for television; Blick worked on current affairs shows, captured footage of the Wahine disaster, and had one of his earliest camera credits with children-in-nature tale The Island.
In the late 60s he crossed the ditch for the first of many overseas excursions, after a brief stint with commercial production company Peach Wemyss. His first foreign job was as a news cameraman for the ABC. Blick spent time filming animal scenes for Oz export Skippy The Bush Kangaroo, and commanded the second unit (whose job is to capture shots — often location material — which the main unit has no time for).
After falling in love with Asia, Blick relocated to Singapore in 1969, family in tow. Hong Kong was next. Over the next few years he spent most of his time shooting and directing commercials, thanks to some rudimentary Malay, universal gestures and goodwill. The variety of work was wide: everything from helping out on American-funded kung fu movies, to three months around Indonesia shooting a trio of docos with legendary Kiwi photographer Brian Brake.
By the mid 70s, the Kiwi screen industry was beginning an extended growth spurt. Blick was home in time to be part of it. After a stint with company Pacific Films, a hothouse for rising talents, he was tapped by Pacific alumnus Tony Williams to shoot one of the first features of the Kiwi movie renaissance: 1978‘s Solo. The film explores the developing romance of a solo father who is otherwise content on his own, communing with nature. Solo‘s low budget required shooting on 16mm, while the extensive location work included cramped lookout towers, far above the Whakamaru forest. An unexpected camera-fault later forced some reshoots. On release, veteran critic Catherine de la Roche called Solo New Zealand’s best film to date.
During this busy period Blick spent another year in Asia, formed equipment company Filmobile back home with Norman Elder, then set up a commercials company with Irish expat producer Pat Cox and American-born art director Bob Tomei. By 1980 the new entity was known as Partners Film Company. Blick got busy directing commercials for major clients like Toyota and Shell, and stacking up an impressive set of advertising awards, including a FACTS award, three Clios, and later 1994's Axis Tom Kincaid Advertising Award.
Blick’s talents would open up new opportunities in the United States. In 1984 his friend, director Bob Barton, invited Blick to shoot commercials in America. Over the next year he visited America every month, before relocating to Los Angeles for five years. Picked up by a specialist commercials agent and then headhunted, Blick directed national campaigns for Amtrak and McDonalds, while his family rented a Beverly Hills house whose history stretched from Marilyn Monroe to David Bowie.
On first arriving in America Blick had feared the locals would look down on New Zealand . But the reverse applied: “you’re regarded as ‘European’ and therefore more creative”. Soon he found himself competing on commercials against legendary cinematographers like Caleb Deschanel (The Black Stallion). Blick found American shoots more tightly-organised than home, more safety conscious, and better resourced — though with far less opportunities for directors to get creatively involved in conceptualising and post-production. “In New Zealand you shoot and edit ... it’s much more hands-on.”
One thing America did teach him was to be a clearer communicator. Gone were the days where Blick and Tony Williams sorted a shot with nary a word spoken: “In America I have to explain everything,” he told Onfilm in 1989. “A nod or a wink doesn’t go very far.”
By the early 90s Blick was back in New Zealand, balancing Kiwi and Stateside jobs. In 1995 he won the NZ Film and TV award for best cinematography on a feature, thanks to the moody imagery of his second movie The Last Tattoo. The noirish drama involved American forces in New Zealand during WW2, but the conspiracy plotline possibly proved too labyrinthine for an international audience. Soon after came an unexpected project: The Frighteners. Alun Bollinger had shot six weeks of this effects-heavy comedy horror before being injured in a car crash. Blick took over for a month, and when Bollinger was well enough to return to the set, the two ended up sharing the longest shoot in New Zealand film history to date. Blick also directed the film’s second unit.
Since then Blick has continued to shoot commercials both here and overseas – including classic Spot the Dog ads for Telecom, and Lee Tamahori’s series of Anchor mini-dramas. On the short film front, he shot Dorthe Scheffmann’s returning home tale The Funeral, and co-produced Us, the first film directed by his youngest son James (older son Jonathan also co-produced). The Blicks reconvened for follow-up Roof Rattling, which won invitation to multiple international festivals.
Blick began developing his own feature scripts while in Asia. These days, he has a number of projects on the go through company Shadow Play Films, including a historical adventure, a project co-written with son James, and a part-Asian drama which has won interest from ex-Miramax executive Ian Jessel.
Profile published on 12 October 2011
Duncan Petrie, Shot in New Zealand - The art and craft of the Kiwi cinematographer (Auckland:Random House, 2007)
Philip Wakefield, ‘Commercial Commuter’ (Interview), Onfilm, August 1989, page 16 (Volume 6, Number 5)