Variously credited as Kellar, Kel, or (most commonly) Kell, Hugh McKellar Fowler was born in May 1935. At the age of 20 he joined the New Zealand National Film Unit as a cameraman trainee, learning his craft alongside experienced cameramen. Almost all filming then was in 35mm black and white. Fowler's first assignment appears to have been assisting with the filming of news item Ross Sea Appeal – Children Meet Hillary (1955). Over the next 15 years he filmed or assisted with filming about 50 items for the NFU's long-running magazine-film series Pictorial Parade.
He travelled the country as one of the three-man camera team that toured with the British Lions Rugby team. Seven matches were filmed and quickly released as shorts to the country's pre-television picture theatres, followed soon by the documentary feature record of the tour The Lion and the Kiwi (1959).
At the time he joined, creative roles went unacknowledged in NFU films, but a policy change about 1962 saw screen credits re-introduced (except for impractical situations such as multiple-item magazine films). His first screen credit was for the colour soil conservation film Glenmark (1962).
Use of colour film was increasing, especially for tourist and trade promotion films. Among his early 35mm colour films were Hill Country (1960), made for the New Zealand Wool Board, and Holiday for Susan (1962) and A Northland Summer (1962), both made for the NFU's parent Tourist and Publicity Department.
In late 1963 he was sent to Antarctica to film the frozen continent over summer. The resulting film, One Hundred and Forty Days Under the World had its premiere screening in Christchurch in November 1964, and was submitted for consideration in the documentary section of the Academy Awards. A cut had to be made to the 34-minute film so that it could qualify in the short film category. In February 1965 the NFU received a congratulatory telegram announcing that the film had been nominated. It was only the second NZ film to be nominated for an Oscar, but, like the first (Brian Brake's Snows of Aorangi), was unsuccessful in securing the coveted statuette.
By the time of the ceremony Fowler was off on a new adventure, travelling with director Ron Bowie to film a typical voyage on one of the ships of the Crusader Line carrying New Zealand produce to the Philippines, Japan, Hong Kong, and Red China. This, too, resulted in a lengthy short film Over the Sea and Near Away (1966). Before setting out Bowie and Fowler did not know if they would be allowed to film in China, anticipating strict security and close scrutiny. Their fears went unrealised and they found many officials helpful. It was recalled prior to a preview screening that "tea-drinking was a prime requirement in deciding arrangements, and when the time came for returning home, Kell Fowler was almost awash with the liquid."
The publicity value of visiting film makers did not escape the attention of tea-drinking officials in New Zealand either. The NFU was often called upon to assist visiting film crews by loaning the services of its cameramen. In early 1966 Fowler assisted a visiting team to make scenic films for the American market. Two years later he was cameraman on comedy short The Taking Mood (1968) sponsored by oil giant BP.
In the Spring of 1968 shooting began on the NFU's most ambitious project, the three-screen Expo 70 film This is New Zealand. The script called for a series of low-level aerial shots to be filmed by three synchronised cameras running side by side on a special tripod, a task that fell to Fowler. The magnificent vistas left a lasting impression on all who saw the film.
Returning to film in Antarctica in 1969, Fowler narrowly avoided the fatal helicopter crash which claimed the life of NFU film director Jeremy Sykes.
In 1974 Fowler was one of the camera team that worked on the official feature film of the Xth British Commonwealth Games at Christchurch. Colour television had been introduced to New Zealand in time to ensure live telecasts, in colour, of all events. Not surprisingly the NFU's official film Games 74 found a diminished audience when screened in picture theatres many months later.
If competing with television seemed a lost cause, then joining with it offered new opportunities. The NFU joined with Television One to produce ambitious six-part historical series The Governor. Fowler was lighting cameraman on the first episode.
When opened, in October 1978, the new NFU studio complex in Lower Hutt was not fully completed. One of the theatres was used as a sound stage in which was constructed an elaborate set for the drama Jack Winter's Dream by James K Baxter. Fowler was lighting cameraman on this film, and had a family interest, being a cousin of Baxter.
As the NFU settled into the new studios Fowler continued to work as a cameraman, but from 1984 his role become more of a supervisory nature.
Kell Fowler did not live to see the sale of the NFU to Television New Zealand take effect. After a period of ill health, he died at Te Omanga Hospice on 9 February 1990.
Writing and Original Research by Clive Sowry
Fowler, Hugh McKellar (Death Notice) – The Dominion, 7 February 1990, Page 39
Sisson, Stephen, 'How They Made Film "This Is New Zealand"' – The Evening Post, 19 June 1971, Page 40
'Seatoun Man Dies In Antarctic Helicopter Crash' – The Evening Post, 20 November 1969, Page 36
'Christchurch In Film' – The Press, 26 February 1968, Page 12
'Red China's New Deal Image Of Co-operation Exciting To N.Z. Film Unit Men' – The Evening Post, 3 May 1966, Page 28
'Notable Success By N.Z. Film Unit' – The Press, 7 November 1964, Page 16
'Colour Film Of Summer In Antarctica' – The Evening Post, 27 November 1963, Page 9
'Life in N.Z. – New Productions Of Film Unit' – The Evening Post, 30 March 1960, Page 20
Photo Caption – The Otago Daily Times, 25 August 1978, Page 1