When cinematographer John Cavill was 15 he noticed something at a rugby league game. "I saw a cameraman doing his thing and thought 'wow, that looks like a cool job'".
Cavill was born in Christchurch. His family moved around a lot and he attended several primary schools. At Hillmorton High he loved physics, thanks to "an exceptional teacher" and an interest in all things mechanical. After that fateful rugby league match, encouraged by his parents, he went into the offices of the NZ Broadcasting Corporation and asked for a job. David Kay was the Operations Manager at the time; he told Cavill to "go away, get my University Entrance then get back to him".
Cavill did just that, and in 1978 he auditioned for the NZBC as a camera operator. "In those days they would take people into the studio, show them the ropes, put them behind a camera and see how they did".
From a field of around 30 applicants Cavill and one other person got the nod. Cavill learnt his multi-camera skills in-house, on programmes across all genres, from light entertainment shows like That's Country to comedy shows (McPhail and Gadsby) and live sports events. "They spent a lot of money training me, I was sent to Wellington to do a drama course for two weeks...they really were the glory years of New Zealand television".
Cavill’s mentor Geoff Clements — or ‘Gack’ as he was known — had a saying: "cameramen...we are the spitfire pilots of the industry". Cavill acknowledges that to this day he still relies on the fundamental skills instilled by Clements.
In 1982 Cavill travelled to Auckland to work for Northern Television, a contender in the race for a third TV channel. At TVNZ, handheld cameras were scarce, but Northern TV had acquired state of the art cameras, and used them extensively. Handheld cameras opened up the world of productions shot with a single camera, and that was the kind of work Cavill wanted. In 1986 he went freelance as a director of photography, and started his own Steadicam business (which he is still part of today). Corporate videos and TV commercials became his bread and butter.
In 1995 producer Chloe Smith put Cavill forward as a second unit cinematographer for the second season of Renaissance Pictures’ series Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. At the end of the season Cavill took a chance and asked the producers if he could be the main cinematographer on an episode. The production team "called my bluff" and said yes. Michael Hurst (who co-starred in the show as Iolaus) was directing the episode, his first for the show; Cavill vividly remembers standing with Hurst on Bethells Beach on his first morning as cinematographer, shaking with nerves and asking himself "what were they thinking?". (Cavill worked with Hurst again on 1997 TV drama Highwater; Hurst starred as a commercials director fermenting trouble in a backwater town).
Cavill has enjoyed a long working relationship as a cinematographer with Renaissance Pictures, shooting alternate episodes over seasons three and four of Hercules and Xena. In 2001 Cavill returned as cinematographer for Xena's final two episodes.
Cavill credits Rob Tapert — the New Zealand-based American who co-founded Renaissance — for the decision to film multiple blockbuster series in New Zealand, and argues it was a vital step in the industry’s development. "Those sets were like the most expensive film school. I believe that Rob Tapert is singularly responsible for where we are today as a film industry in New Zealand".
He also worked on the behemoth that was The Lord of the Rings trilogy as a second unit cinematographer, and is proud to have shot much of the Helm’s Deep battle which features in the second movie. "Nearly three months of night shooting, and probably the biggest night lighting set up ever done in New Zealand".
Cavill met director Leanne Pooley back in his Northern Television days. Later he shared camera duties on both Pooley’s Springbok tour documentary Try Revolution (2006, with South African Michael Yelsith) and Haunting Douglas (2007, with Simon Raby), an intimate portrait slash biography of choreographer Douglas Wright. Cavill enjoyed the working relationships behind these projects but confesses to being a "drama guy" more than a documentarian.
Cavill shot a number of later episodes of Jay Laga'aia crime series Street Legal, and worked on the visual effects unit for locally-shot fantasy Bridge to Terebithia. He joined the team on Vincent Ward’s notoriously difficult colonial epic River Queen (2004) after cinematographer Alun Bollinger was injured, but only worked one day before internal dramas ended his involvement.
In 2009 Cavill signed on to shoot on the second unit for the first season of Rob Tapert’s Spartacus From 2010 to 2012 was one of the show's lead cinematographers. He ranks the show as a career highlight: "A fantastic show, a benchmark series for me".
In 2015 Cavill reunited with Tapert as one of the cinematographers on comedy horror series Ash vs Evil Dead. The same year Cavill shot the second season of American docudrama Making of the Mob, which recreated Chicago in and around Auckland. He won a Gold Award for his work from the New Zealand Cinematographers Society.
In 2017 Cavill flew to China to start filming Chinese-US co-production Scars of Nanking. He found himself prepping the TV drama singlehanded when the director was stalled due to visa issues. Making of the Mob director John Ealer stepped in at the last minute. In spite of the challenges of the situation, Cavill’s camerawork impressed. The drama about an infamous Japanese invasion won him a 2018 Daytime Emmy Award for Cinematography, and a Silver Award for Cinematography from the NZ Cinematographers Society. He also received Honorary Accreditation to the NZCS.
That same year he was nominated at the Madrid International Film Festival, for his work on short film A Woman's Right to Shoes, and joined the TV adaptation of Māori action movie The Dead Lands. Cavill shot the first episode among others, sharing cinematography duties with David Paul.
Cavill has extensive experience in shooting aerial footage; aviation and aerial photography are among his passions.
Profile written by Gabe McDonnell; published on 29 November 2019
John Cavill website. Accessed 29 November 2019
Ian Pryor, 'Michael Hurst' NZ On Screen website. Accessed 29 November 2019
Haunting Douglas (Television Documentary) Director Leanne Pooley (Spacific Films)