John Gibson composed his first major work at the age of 16. By the age of 24 he had done time as musical director at theatres in Dunedin and Auckland, and acted on-screen as one of the musical quartet in TV drama Heroes. Since then Gibson has composed music for a wide range of mediums, including television, theatre and dance, and co-composing Rain of the Children.
I would have to say it was amongst the most satisfying of collaborations I have had. John’s music is by turns beautiful, driven, dramatic, humorous, tender and always in the service of the film. Rain of the Children director Vincent Ward
This TV documentary sees director Peter Wells look at his life “through pansy-tinted glasses”. Motivated by the anniversary of his brother’s 1989 death (from AIDS) Wells’ film charts his path to becoming a pioneering gay filmmaker and writer: from growing up fascinated by colour and the glamour of royalty in conservative Port Chevalier in the 1950s, to baking, and deciding to come out when he was drafted to fight in Vietnam. As befits an artist whose credits include Desperate Remedies, the treatment is distinctive: a mixture of documentary, (aptly) flowery home movie, and quiet reflection.
In this 2001 documentary, popular columnist Joe Bennett goes behind the scenes of the “sausage factory” of Kiwi politics in Wellington – from The Beehive to The Green Parrot Cafe. Exploring the machinations of power in New Zealand, Bennett meets press secretaries, lobbyists, and spin doctors, from Helen Clark’s Chief of Staff Heather Simpson to press gallery reporter Barry Soper. The documentary marked a further collaboration between director Richard Riddiford and Bennett, after Jafas, where Bennett compared Auckland and Aotearoa's views of each other.
In June 1886 Mt Tarawera spectacularly erupted, and this documentary tells the story of the people who were caught in the catastrophic events. Around 120 people lost their lives, and the internationally famous Pink and White Terraces were destroyed. The documentary features an animated re-creation of the eruption, archival images, interviews with descendants of those involved, and readings from written eyewitness accounts. The author of the book Tarawera, Ron Keam, is also interviewed.
This Bill Ralston-fronted two part documentary looks at Auckland’s great family business empires: the Nathans (merchants and brewers), Myers (brewers), Wilsons and Hortons (newspapers) and Winstones (construction). With fortunes made in the pioneering days of the 19th Century, they created products that became household names and dynasties that dominated local commerce. Most failed to evolve and were picked off by the corporate raiders of the 1980s, but they left behind a legacy of fine homes, major buildings and community bequests.
In the 13th episode of Epitaph's second season, Paul Gittins goes digging in Waikumete Cemetery. The epitaph for 25-year old convicted murderer Dennis Gunn, hanged in 1920 for shooting the Ponsonby Postmaster, includes an intriguing inscription: "sadly wronged". Gittins unearths the story of a post office robbery, and the first conviction in New Zealand based on fingerprint identification. The judge called the print an "unforgeable signature". Before he died, Gunn claimed innocence: "if only my brother-in-law will speak up I will be saved".
In each episode of this popular TV series, actor Paul Gittins investigated the story behind the epitaph written on a gravestone. In this third episode from season one, Gittins visits the grave of Walter James Bolton, a Whanganui farmer who was the last man to get the death penalty in New Zealand. He was hanged on 18 February 1957, found guilty of poisoning his wife of 43 years with arsenic derived from sheep dip. Gittins meets Peter Waller, a campaigner for Bolton’s innocence, who claims to be his son. Bryan Bruce revisited the case in 2007 on his series The Investigator.
The devastating effects of introduced wasps in New Zealand, particularly on kaka (the forest parrot, here beautifully filmed) remain a serious issue. The horde of yellow and black marauders has left scientists struggling to protect animal and human victims. This film looks at the effect on the ecosystem of wasps, who compete with natives for honeydew and prey upon insects. Bandits of the Beech Forest won the Environment Prize for Best Film Illustrating Protection, Preservation or Conservation of Bird Life at the Festival du Film de l'Oiseau.
New Zealand’s first CGI short film gives “eyes on the road” a new meaning as a pair of eyeballs drive to a mind-bending purgatory. A collaboration between visual effects man John Sheils and his brother Michael, Scream was shot in early 1991; finally 25 minutes of footage was “brutally” edited down to three, and fulsomely scored by John Gibson. The sly ‘based on true events’ title-card nods to the makers’ ambitions to “treat animation like live action.” In 1994 it screened in NZ cinemas as opener to the ILM wizardry of Jim Carrey hit The Mask, followed by a number of overseas festivals.
On a holiday to Mt Tarawera, teenager Jenny (Katrina Hobbs) finds an odd shard of metal. In this third episode of the kids sci-fi series she meets its owner: 'Drom' — a survivor of an alien mission to deactivate a planet-annihilating space gun (aka Tarawera itself). They find themselves under siege from a Predator-like 'Guardian' of the gun. If Drom and Jenny and local kids Tessa and Lloyd (future What Now? presenter Anthony Samuels) can't defeat the mechanoid, catastrophe is imminent! The South Pacific Pictures series found international sales and cult repute.
BMX bikes, motorcycles, and home computers — as the opening titles demonstrate, this children’s adventure series features all the hardware an 80s-era kid could want. In the first episode, Sandra, Mike and their father move into the city, arriving just in time for two jewel thieves to crash into their lives after a daring heist at Auckland Museum, and a chase through the city. Scripted by Kiwi kidult king-turned-novelist Ken Catran (Children of the Dog Star), Steel Riders was later shortened to movie length for American video release, as Young Detectives on Wheels.
Director John Laing followed acclaimed romance Other Halves with an equally stylish but very different big city tale: a thriller in which three orphans plan an international heist to avenge the killing of one of their fathers. The expected diet of shootings, skulduggery and globetrotting accents is enlived by side trips to Geneva, songs from romantic interest Jennifer Ward-Lealand, and a cast of villains to die for (Peter Bland, Ian Mune, Anzac Wallace, Grant Tilly). When Dangerous Orphans was sold in Europe it set an early record for a New Zealand film.
This final installment of Hayden’s traverse across latitude 45 finds him in the ice-sculpted isolation of Fiordland. In this episode he travels through diverse flora (lush and verdant thanks to astonishingly high rainfall); and with botanist Dr Brian Molloy follows the footsteps of early bird conservationist Richard Henry. Mohua (yellowhead), takahe, weka and tiny rock wrens feature in the fauna camp. Reaching the sea, the underworld depths of George Sound house a world teeming with abundant life.
The first leg of Peter Hayden’s journey across latitude 45 south takes him across the Waitaki Plains and up to Danseys Pass. He visits the site of a moa butchery and the sunken circular umuti (cabbage tree ovens) of early Māori. Guided by colonial literature, he visits New Zealand’s tallest tree (a eucalypt, which he finds horizontal). Drought busting desperation of 1889 and the provenance of Corriedale sheep is also covered. In a riparian side trip, Hayden heads up the Maerewhenua River where gold miners succeeded only in ravaging the landscape.
This third episode in presenter Peter Hayden’s journey across latitude 45 depicts the “new gold” of the booming tourist trade. On the Clutha River, archaeologists race ahead of the construction of a dam, digging for a soon-to-be-submerged mining past. The road to Skippers Canyon induces vertigo. Hayden rafts through the Oxenbridge brothers’ tunnelling feat, a failed project aimed at diverting the Shotover River in the hope of finding gold on the exposed bed. Alan Brady is filmed in his newly-established winery, the first in a region now famed for its wine.
Central Otago’s broad, dry landscape is dominated by an extreme climate; it is scarred by wind, ice and industry. Deep mining shafts and long rusted sluicing guns pepper this second stage of Peter Hayden’s traverse across latitude 45 south. He visits the quartz covered Mt Buster, NZ’s highest diggings, where unseasonal blizzards often claimed miners’ lives. The layout of Naseby’s graveyard yields information on the hierarchy of the goldfields. The flora includes mountain totara, carnivorous sundews and a heather variety that grows horizontally. Hayden won a GOFTA award for his script.
The stars in an Auckland harbour master’s eyes are of the cowboy variety in this documentary that goes behind the scenes of the Western Districts' Fast Draw Club. The westie club takes literal inspiration from its name, as its members — from truck drivers to accountants — meet in the basement of a dairy to recreate scenes from the American wild west. Director Greg Stitt aimed to explore, “the fantasies ordinary people need to survive”; and his partly-dramatised doco details the impressive preparation (and passion) that goes into the live shows and stunts.
Heroes followed a band trying to make it in the mid-80s music biz. Teen-orientated, the show marked a first major role for Jay Laga’aia (Star Wars), and an early gig for Michael Hurst (with blonde Billy Idol spikes). Band keyboardist John Gibson co-wrote the series music; he later became an award-winning film composer. Margaret Umbers (Shortland Street, Bridge to Nowhere) was a non-musician in the cast (with Hurst), but since has sung regularly in a jazz band. A second series follow in 1986.
Long before the comedy of Flight of the Conchords, Heroes followed the triumphs and pitfalls of a band trying to make it in the mid-80s New Zealand music biz. It marked the first major role for Jay Laga’aia, and early leading parts for Michael Hurst and Margaret Umbers. In this first episode the band gets together as Dave (Hurst) ditches his covers band, flunks a TV audition, and hooks up opportunist flatmate Ron (Laga’aia), synth player Peter (John Gibson, who co-wrote the series music) and bass player Maxine (Umbers). Synth and leopard skin abound.
“These three birds are over half the world population of their species.” Peter Hayden’s narration lays bare the stakes for the Chatham Island black robin, and the Wildlife Service team (led by Don Merton) trying to save them. Merton’s innovative methods include removing eggs from nests – to encourage the last two females to lay again – and placing them in riroriro (grey warbler) foster homes. The black robin documentaries helped forge the reputation of TVNZ's Natural History Unit. Paul Stanley Ward writes about the documentaries here, and the mission to save the black robin.
TVNZ’s Natural History Film Unit was founded in Dunedin around 1977. The first Wild South documentaries began filming a year later. The slot's initial focus was on New Zealand’s perilously endangered birds, eg the Chatham Island black robin (then the world’s rarest bird). The results won local and international notice, and a loyal audience. Wildtrack was a sister series showcasing natural history for young viewers. Wild South ended in 1997 when the Natural History Unit was purchased by Fox Studios; it later became internationally successful production company NHNZ.