Best known for his commercials work, John Day worked on ads for everyone from the Milk Board to the Interislander and the Royal New Zealand Navy — as well as directing a series of high profile promos for the 1991 census, starring Billy T James.
Raised in Wellington, Day got his first job as a cameraman in 1968, at state broadcaster the NZ Broadcasting Corporation. After working on everything from news and sports to music show Grunt Machine, he went freelance in the late 70s, just as Kiwi feature films were bursting back into life.
Day worked on a trio of movies as focus puller — the person who makes sure images stay sharp when actors and camera are on the move — including work on early hits Beyond Reasonable Doubt and Goodbye Pork Pie. He graduated to camera operator on 1981’s stylish The Scarecrow (working under director of photography James Bartle) and later did the same on the stylish Desperate Remedies (under Leon Narbey).
After growing ever busier on a diet of commercials and music videos, Day set up company Matte-Box Films in 1980. At Matte-Box he would produce and direct many award-winning adverts, plus the effects-laden video for Peking Man hit ‘Room that Echoes’. In 1988 he travelled to the then-troubled town of Ruatoria with fellow commercials heavyweight Lee Tamahori. There the two co-directed Herbs documentary The Power Of Music - Te Kaha o Te Waiata, which won a Special Jury Peace Prize at a documentary festival in France. Their footage also resulted in the video for classic Herbs track ‘Sensitive to a Smile’.
In 1990 Matte-Box Films merged with Tamahori’s company Flying Fish, with Day’s Matte-Box team joining Tamahori, Gregor Nicholas, and producer Brian Kassler. Flying Fish produced a wide range of content, from their main line in commercials through to occasional documentaries and television.
The year of the merger saw the completion of Day’s first feature as director (he also co-wrote the script, with Arthur Baysting). The Returning featured Phillip Gordon (Came a Hot Friday) as a stressed lawyer haunted by ghostly visions after moving into a country mansion. In an Onfilm interview, Gordon praised Day’s unusually welcoming and co-operative approach to filmmaking. "I felt totally involved for the first time". Reviewer John Parker praised the result as an "excellent erotic/psychological/ supernatural thriller", mentioning the film's "creepy distorted" use of the New Zealand landscape. Despite a muted response in local cinemas, The Returning won awards for Day and Gordon at fantasy festivals in Rome and Madrid.
In 1994 Day was contracted to Australian film company Texas Films to direct and produce TV commercials. After a couple of years overseas Day returned home and established company jd director, to make commercials. He then found himself spending 13 months as a camera operator on the main unit of The Lord Of The Rings, and sharing cinematography duties with Allen Guilford on TV series Good Hands - Lema Lelei.
Aside from his commercials work, Day also directed a number of television programmes, plus short film Perception, made with co-director Stefen Lewis (The Waimate Conspiracy) and children from Christchurch's Van Asch Deaf Education Centre.
In 1999 he co-directed Stars in Their Eyes-style talent show Get Your Act Together, presented by Rikki Morris, then followed it with townies-in-the-sticks series City Girls. His other directorial credits include one-off docos The Beatles Down Under, which explores the band’s 1964 visit to New Zealand, and The Hunt For The Pink And White Terraces, based around an expedition to rediscover the terraces at the bottom of Lake Rotomahana, which were buried by the 1886 Tarawera eruption.
John Day passed away on 7 January 2015, while travelling in India with his partner and friends. The following week Flying Fish posted a tribute on the company's Facebook page, thanking Day for "your contribution, your inspiration, your determination and for your outstanding sense of humour and optimism on life generally".
Profile updated on 4 March 2020
David Gapes, "Celebrated NZ director exits' M+AD! website. Loaded 15 January 2015. Accessed 18 January 2015
David Gapes, 'We find John Day's missing Billy T census ad' M+AD! website. Loaded 16 January 2015. Accessed 18 January 2015
Megan Jones, ‘Going in the right direction’ (Interview with Phillip Gordon) - Onfilm, February 1991, Page 11
John Parker, Review of The Returning - Onfilm, March 1991
‘Prime Presents: The Hunt for the Pink and White Terraces’ Throng website (broken link) Accessed 18 January 2015
'Flying Fish' Facebook page. Loaded 13 - 16 January 2015. Accessed 18 January 2015