Kirsty Cameron has designed costumes for vampires, a Samoan dwarf, Katherine Mansfield and a whale-riding girl. Best known for her work on a run of acclaimed films, she also writes and directs her own — films she hopes have “resonance and gravity”, which have been invited to festivals in Europe, Aotearoa and the United States.
Cameron grew up in a converted sharemilker’s cottage in the Auckland suburb of Pakuranga — a cottage with walls lined with jute and grass paper (Kirsty’s mother is interior design tutor Nanette Cameron).
In 1983 Kirsty opened shop Vicious Fix in St Kevins Arcade, on K Road. Risk Unlimited soon followed, in central Auckland. After completing a fine arts degree at Elam, a love of clothes saw her styling photo shoots for Planet magazine. In her own artwork she was exploring video and installation. She also co-founded artist-run gallery Teststrip.
In the early 90’s Cameron began working in short film, alongside future collaborators Niki Caro and editor Cushla Dillon. Cameron would go on to style Caro’s documentary Footage, and was one of the many emerging talents cutting her teeth on Caro’s hour-long Montana Sunday Theatre drama Plain Tastes (plus another Montana drama — Overnight, which turned Cliff Curtis into a grungy rocker). Cameron would make her big screen debut on Caro's first feature Memory and Desire. She remembers it as "a profound experience that involved shooting in Tokyo, and having jerseys knitted in Mt Eden Women's prison".
From the late 90s, big screen projects began to dominate. The one that travelled furthest was Niki Caro's second feature Whale Rider. Amidst the acclaim, Cameron won her first Costume Design gong at the 2003 NZ Film Awards.
In the same period she was both production and costume designer on Harry Sinclair’s The Price of Milk, which features colourful images of Danielle Cormack wandering the hills, trailing a long red sari. Cameron was also nominated for her costumes on both rite of passage tale Rain and drama Channelling Baby. Variety called Rain — set in and around a seaside cottage — “an evocative mood piece, enriched by gorgeous visuals”; Meanwhile Cameron herself said of Channelling Baby: “it has guns, it has dogs, it has sex, it has stunts, it has Greek singers on ships. It has everything!”
Glenn Standring's vampire tale Perfect Creature provided a rich challenge: an alternate New Zealand that incorporated a Gothic European look. Cameron's costume designs incorporated "aspects of World War 1 and the 30s of Paris and Germany — a sort of utilitarian austerity".The film's look of faded grandeur reminded her of Rio de Janeiro, where she'd worked on a commercial.
Cameron followed the relatively big budget Perfect Creature by costume designing a quartet of films, variously examining the complications of family: Sundance-awardwinner No. 2, based around a Fijian family in Auckland; TV movie Piece of My Heart, whose then and now script featured costumes reflecting both the 60s, and the present day; misguided father tale The Hopes and Dreams of Gazza Snell, and After the Waterfall, about a man haunted by the death of his daughter.
In 2009 Cameron was nominated for a NZ Screen award for her costume work on child-centric drama The Strength of Water, shot in the Hokianga. She would win for The Orator - O Le Tulafale, filmed in sometimes trying conditions in Samoa. This tale of a taro farmer facing up to locals marked the first feature shot entirely in Samoan.
Cameron went on to design costumes for modern-day Aucklanders (the sequel to Sione’s Wedding), WWl-era pacifists (Field Punishment No. 1), a young Katherine Mansfield (Bliss), and Scots travelling the American frontier (Sundance-winner Slow West). Slow West won her a Moa award. "We made use of the down time in the film industry to put together an amazing team of cutters, makers, dyers and breakdown artists, constructed 90 per cent of the costumes in four weeks, then threw everything in our truck and turned up to do fittings on Michael Fassbender and Ben Mendelsohn with what we’d made, a skeletal crew, and our fingers crossed."
In 2015 she signed on to command the costumes for Jean, a drama about pioneer aviator Jean Batten. She won a New Zealand Television Award in 2017 for the biopic. The same year saw the release of Margaret Mahy adaptation The Changeover, and a nomination in the local film awards for production designing the movie of Eleanor Catton's novel The Rehearsal.
Cameron balances work for other directors with her own work as a filmmaker. She finds time to give back to filmmakers, both young and her contemporary, as part of her practice.
Cameron's first short film as director was 1999's Behind Me is Black, which she co-created with editor Cushla Dillon. It played at the 1999 NZ International Film Festival. The memory film weaves together Warhol-style images from the 70s, captured by artist Paul Johns.
Cameron went on to direct 2005 experimental piece The Swarm, which melds music with images of Halloween trick or treaters. In Cameron’s words the result “turns domesticated, quiet and ordered streets into something dangerous”.
The following year she wrote, directed and produced Cross My Heart, which won a place in the NZ Film Festival’s 2006 season of Homegrown shorts. The film stars Price of Milk’s Danielle Cormack as a sleep-deprived mother, taking her daughter on a haphazard birthday outing.
Cameron went on to make The Lethal Innocents (2007), a tale of bullying and metamorphosis featuring a teen (French-born model Avril Planqueel) who dances to a different beat. The so-called "suburban fable" follows "a girl who does not conform to the cliched ideas of teenage right and wrong”. Workshopped from a Cameron script using a largely amateur cast, The Lethal Innocents won invitations to festivals in Stockholm, Cologne, Chicago, and Aotearoa.
Cameron's fourth short Swansong (2012) involves a prodigal adult daughter returning to her estranged family home, with her own young daughter. The film was shot in Cameron's own family home. She says that "the house is treated as a character."
Profile written by Ian Pryor
'Kirsty Cameron - Wardrobe Designer' - Channelling Baby website
David Rooney, 'Rain' (Review) - Variety, 15 May 2001
The Lethal Innocents press kit
Perfect Creature press kit