Profile image for Michael Hacking

Michael Hacking

Director, Editor

After three decades of making documentaries, Michael Hacking is well aware of the responsibilities of putting people on screen. "It can completely change their lives," he says. "Now with films on the web for everyone, everywhere, you need to be surer than ever you’ve made 'right' choices for your films, and your people."

Born in the United Kingdom, Hacking had a globetrotting childhood, including time in Singapore, Bermuda and Jamaica. He arrived in New Zealand in 1974. 

Hacking was working in the Education Department film library when his mate John Reid fixed a meeting with Pacific Films boss John O'Shea. "I had a great but slightly confusing chat with this godfatherly figure in his smoke-hazed office, emerging with a job to 'sort-out' the Pacific Films storerooms." The job soon included standby projectionist, camera assistant, assistant editor and finally editor. "Pacific was like being paid to go to the best film school in the country."

Hacking began at Pacific in 1974. "I learnt from two great English editors, Ian John (on Barry Barclay’s Ashes) and Rick Spurway (on Barclay’s Women in Power: Indira Gandhi). At the time, Pacific had dozens of films in production or development, some of them groundbreakers." Hacking was also helping filmmaking friends — doing stunt falls onto banana boxes for a John Reid commercial, and appearing as the long-haired hippie driving the VW in Waka Attewell’s A Nice Sort of a Day.

In 1977 Hacking did a stint in Spurway’s London cutting rooms. Back in New Zealand, Pacific’s TV commissions had "thinned out drastically". O’Shea encouraged Hacking to take up contract work for television, and in mid 1978 he joined full-time.

Soon Hacking moved from editing midday magazine shows to Country Calendar, after cutting the show’s spoof musical fence episode. Alongside a Country Calendar foot and mouth piece which fooled some viewers, he fondly remembers series The Deep End, with reporter Bill Manson trying out wrestling and the navy. One beloved episode saw roles hilariously reversed, with navy captain Ian Bradley inside a television studio, directing a TV drama.

Collaborations with director Bruce Morrison included the Pacific People series and an Annie Whittle musical special. Eight years later Hacking would edit his only feature: Morrison’s 1986 teen rebel drama Queen City Rocker.

"Every edit is a chain-reaction between the footage and your instinct, empathy and rhythm" he says of the editing process. "That goes for everyone else who’s shaping the film — it can be a miracle of 'negotiated perception' we get a final cut!"

At TVNZ, Hacking and cameraman John Toon were assigned to run film training courses for journalists. Thanks to a management keen on upskilling, both trained as directors. Hacking quickly found himself directing current affairs staple Close Up. There he learnt research was the first line of defence against inevitable complaints of lack of balance by public figures. "I always had to present and justify a complete shooting script to producer John Scully, before I was allowed out the door. Then came the equally tricky job of convincing battle-hardened journalists you had a story."

Hacking became a producer/director in TVNZ’s General and Special Interest department, where "nearly all" the small pool of journalists and production staff were multi-tasked over a wide range of shows, from Fair Go to Production Line.

By the time Hacking edited Queen City Rocker in the mid 80s, he was busy freelancing as a director, producer and writer, and cutting (50 plus) commercials. "By doing all these I could make a fulltime living, and each role added skills to the others."

Then came the chance to direct two episodes of the Peter Hayden-presented Journeys in National Parks. The series' style of featuring Māori storytellers and interpreters, along with mainstream scientists and managers, proved controversial for some viewers. "But both cultures had their own histories and ways of seeing the parks — so both told their stories in the series, which was hugely stronger for it."

The series taught Hacking much about shaping wildlife programmes, and the logistics of getting crews into remote places. It also kickstarted a new phase in his career. For the next eight years, most of Hacking’s screen work was for Natural History New Zealand, which would grow from small TVNZ department to major international producer of wildlife programming.

"I’ve directed or produced some wildlife 'firsts', from underwater sequences of enormous saltwater crocodiles to pygmy seahorses the size of a fingernail," he says. "Of course it was highly-skilled camera crews who caught these images — my job was to to give them the best chance at it. Someone said to me 'you directors are just like airline cabin crew trying to keep everyone happy at once'. Well, yes!"

In 1990 Hacking and his team set about recording images of a creature whose secretive life was little known, and unfilmed. The doco was Kiwi - A Natural History. Hacking directed and wrote.

"Back then video cameras could hardly see a thing in low light, infra-red cameras were huge, and the fastest film stocks had grain like flying saucers." Tests by Hacking and cameraman Swami Hansa of a military night scope proved definitively that it was noisy, bulky, and required a handy power socket. But after new image-intensifying equipment was demilitarised, the team were permitted to use it. The result of long nights filming wild kiwi, plus captive birds in specially designed enclosures, was several international awards.

Animals aren’t the only challenge. Filming large crocodiles for Old Enemies in the Papua New Guinea bush, Hacking, Kiwi cameraman Robert Brown and local crew were held-up and threatened with death, while Buddha’s Giants (2003) saw filming permits suddenly revoked, after guerillas bombed Sri Lanka’s international airport.

Buddha’s Giants‘s portrait of Sri Lanka’s endangered elephants would ultimately win a Finalist Award at the renowned Missoula International Wildlife Festival. "Like most films, it wouldn’t have happened without help from experts, enthusiasts, and skilled locals".

Hacking has also worked with Wellington company Gibson Group. Since writing and directing 2006 Anzac documentary Our Day To Remember, Hacking has helped develop and co-direct multi-screen and interactive exhibitions for Gibson in both France and NZ.

Profile updated on 22 September 2021

Sources include
Michael Hacking
NHNZ website. Accessed 22 September 2021