Max Quinn first made his name in the 1970s as the cinematographer on a series of local historical dramas. But he has spent far longer circling the globe as a nature filmmaker. Along the way he has pointed his camera at penguins, whales and tigers, and captured the first images of a bonobo chimpanzee being born.
One of five brothers, Quinn was born in the King Country town of Te Kuiti. He grew up in nearby Benneydale, and later Wellington. Animals were a passion from early on. While older brother Keith was practicing his rugby commentaries, the shyer Max commandeered an 8mm camera, and began filming animals at the zoo. He went on to hone his camera skills filming mini-dramas and horror movies in the backyard.
At the age of 17, he joined the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation as a trainee film cameraman. Later that year he was transferred to Christchurch, sailing from Wellington on the Wahine just days before it foundered on the return journey. The following month Quinn was flown in to chronicle the aftermath of the 1968 Inangahua earthquake.
By the mid 1970s, television’s drama output was growing in leaps and bounds. So was Quinn’s career. During this period he was called on to be director of photography on a trio of historical dramas: award-winning TV movie Richard Pearse; kidult success Hunter’s Gold, shot largely in Otago; and the majority of Scots-Kiwi co-production The MacKenzie Affair. Quinn’s partner on the drama work was usually camera operator Michael O’Connor. In 1978 Quinn shot two feature-length murder mysteries for Ngaio Marsh Theatre, which sold well overseas: Died in the Wool, set on a remote sheep station, and theatre tale Vintage Murder.
After a year off to teach film at Canterbury University, Quinn returned to TVNZ in 1980. Now he reinvented himself as a director and producer, after completing an in-house training course. Though keen to do more drama work, Quinn soon found himself busy directing a range of children’s shows in Christchurch, including magazine show How’s That, What Now?, and After School (Quinn was there when the “wonderful” Olly Ohlson began delivering his immortal signature line “keep cool till after school”).
Aware of TVNZ’s small but talented Natural History Unit, based in Dunedin, Quinn angled for a job on Play School, aware it was made in the same city. Instead he got sidetracked in children’s programming, including a short foray into children’s drama. It may not be a coincidence that the only full-length drama he has directed has many animals in the cast: teenage horse tale Moon Jumper.
In 1987 he won his dream job. Quinn’s skills as a cameraman and director would work to his advantage as a natural history filmmaker. The nature footage that NHU specialised in often required small one or two person crews, working in cramped spaces and remote locations.
After helming children’s natural history shows Wildtrack and Bidibidi, Quinn was invited to make a film about emperor penguins in Antarctica. Quinn was keen, though he had no idea he would need to spend 11 straight months at the South Pole. Quinn directed two films from his stay (and shot material for a third); penguin tale Emperors of Antarctica, and The Longest Night, which chronicled the Antarctic winter. He and sound man Don Anderson stayed in a small hut, an hour's walk from the penguin colony, seven hours drive from Scott Base. For three months they worked in total darkness. Temperatures rarely strayed north of negative 25 degrees celsius.
While following the breeding cycle of the penguins, Quinn captured previously unrecorded footage of penguins deliberately breaking up sea ice, in order to keep feeding (Quinn recalls the moment in this piece). The groundbreaking but comical footage would screen globally for years to come, inspiring CGI-aided homages on YouTube. Emperors of Antarctica and The Longest Night screened as part of a trio of Antarctic films on Wild South, winning Quinn a best director award at the 1994 NZ Television awards (shared with his NHU colleague Mike Single, who directed the third).
Keenly knowledgable about Antarctic history, Quinn has gone on to work on 15+ documentaries involving polar regions, and established a reputation as one of the most experienced polar filmmakers on the globe. Among them, he has directed South Pole tale Into the Teeth of the Blizzard (featuring Peter Hillary) and three-parter Ice Worlds, which examines “the inherent differences between Antarctica and the Arctic”. The later show saw Quinn alone on the ice dealing with a hungry and agitated polar bear, in the minutes before an anesthetic dart finally put her to sleep.
It has not all been about snow and polar bears. Quinn has also filmed his fair share of whales, from directing 1996 award-winner The Lost Whales to spending 42 days on a rolling whale research ship, for 2012's Hunting the Ice Whales.
Quinn has kept busy directing, producing, and filming around the globe. While working for NHNZ — now owned by Fox, and one of the biggest producers of wildlife on the planet — he has shot material in Chile, Europe, the Pacific Islands, Greenland, across the United States, and in the Yukon (of a dog sled race). In China, he directed three episodes of series MegaStructures, which screened on National Geographic.
In 2009 he directed a two-hour Animal Planet special on tiger breeding in Australia, and another on Antarctic marine science (Expedition Antarctica, also for National Geographic). The following year he shot his first 3D footage, for TV series Jewels of the World.
In 2017 he finished a month in the Tibetan plateau, filming tarantulas and burrowing owls, while much closer to his Dunedin hometown, he used a Gopro to capture a fernbird feeding its chicks at Orokonui ecosanctuary.
He has also worked on shows for his old employers, TVNZ: helming three episodes of 2008 archaeology series What Lies Beneath, and as director of photography on the Peter Elliott-presented Primeval New Zealand.
In 2020 Quinn published his autobiography A Life of Extremes: The Life and Times of a Polar Filmmaker.
Published updated on 9 November 2020
Kim Dungey, 'Wild at Heart' (Interview) - The Otago Daily Times, 22 April 2017
Trisha Dunleavy, Ourselves in Primetime - A History of New Zealand Television Drama (Auckland University Press, 2005)
NHNZ website. Accessed 9 November 2020
Rachel Young,'Hunting the ice whales' (Interview) - The Press, 19 September 2012
'Chilly Cameraman Max Quinn' (Radio Interview), Radio New Zealand National website. Interview by Bryan Crump (Broadcast 29 August 2011). Accessed 29 March 2018