Mike O'Connor was a teenager when a legendary film sparked an eureka moment. Epic Lawrence of Arabia mesmerised him when he saw it on big screen 70mm at Wellington's Embassy Theatre. "I was hugely affected by its scope" says O'Connor, "the story, the characters, the script, the setting, the soundtrack — and, of course, its amazing cinematography." That was the moment he decided he had to learn the craft of cinematography.
O'Connor started shooting movies on an 8mm film camera when he was 15, soon after emigrating from Cape Town, South Africa. His Irish parents had moved to New Zealand after their friends spoke highly of it. O'Connor was never short of actors to perform in his films; he was a keen actor himself, having toured with a professional production of Oliver in South Africa as a young teen.
When he was 17, O'Connor joined the NZ Broadcasting Corporation in Wellington as a trainee in the film camera department. He went on to work for the broadcaster for 22 years, filming news and current affairs (This Day), sports, documentaries (Frontier of Dreams, Cave Creek), general interest programmes (Country Calendar) and drama — from award-winning miniseries Erebus - the Aftermath, to a run of kidult classics.
At age 25 O'Connor got his big break, working as a camera operator on iconic childrens drama series Hunter's Gold. The show follows a boy trying to find his missing father, amidst the 1860s gold rush in central Otago. It was the first Kiwi series filmed entirely on location; O'Connor spent three months in Queenstown with a large crew, shooting six days a week. "The Otago locations were just stunning to work in. It didn't matter which way you pointed the camera," says O'Connor. "One of the funnier things that used to happen was when we were shooting scenes with the posse looking for the bad guys. Only half the actors could properly ride a horse so a simple group shot of the posse riding past camera became fraught with horses going left and right, and riders ending up in a bush."
Hunter's Gold sold well overseas, helping spur another period drama series, The Mackenzie Affair. This colonial outlaw drama kicked off a long period of working on several of New Zealand's most enduring dramas.
In 1978 O'Connor was camera operator on murder mystery Ngaio Marsh Theatre - Died in the Wool, before graduating to the role of cinematographer (the person who leads the camera crew) on children's adventure series Gather Your Dreams. It was another international success story. He carried on to award-winning kidult series Children of Fire Mountain, in 1979 and then worked on roughly half the episodes of police drama Mortimer's Patch. One of his most challenging — and beloved — gigs was classic sci-fi series Under the Mountain. The series utilised special effects to transform humans (the Wilberforces) into giant slugs slithering underneath Auckland’s volcanoes.
The Wilberforces caused some trouble on set. "The actors playing the roles were made up with a pallid facial colour. They had to maintain a very strange unearthly look on their face but when we were shooting their scenes, it became a major achievement for them to not catch each other’s eye and erupt into laughter — six to eight takes of a shot were not uncommon. The outtakes were hilarious!"
The list of iconic dramas O'Connor worked on continued to grow in the 1980s and 1990s. Another highpoint was 1987's Erebus: The Aftermath, where he faced the challenge of crafting compelling images from a "sterile, static, courtroom-like setting". The mini-series follows the commission of enquiry into the 1979 Air New Zealand fatal crash in Antarctica. "The script was in strict lockdown and no complete episodes were allowed on set on any one day for fear of litigation," he recalls. O'Connor won a GOFTA award for his camera work.
O'Connor has also been entrusted with lead camera duties on a number of co-productions, from period shows The Adventurer and Raider of the South Seas, to modern-day harbour story Deepwater Haven. In the same period he was cinematographer on popular primetime drama series Marlin Bay, set in a Kiwi resort and casino, and shot an episode of Kurt Vonnegut s Monkey House where a single line of risque dialogue caused such infectious laughter, production had to be shut down for half an hour. He was camera operator on the Emmy-nominated debut episode of Hanlon.
Documentaries and factual series fill pages of O'Connor's CV. The many high profile titles cover everything from music (Ten Guitars) and sport (Trio at the Top), to social issues (Leaning New Stuff) and murder (award-winner Murder on the Blade?). O'Connor was nominated for an NZ Screen Award for this 2005 documentary on dance group Black Grace. He was a camera operator on long-running series Heartland, following Gary McCormick as he explored New Zealand towns, and award-winning history series Epitaph, for which he shot nearly 40 episodes.
Documentary Māori Battalion - March to Victory (1990) marks another personal highlight for O'Connor. He travelled to Europe, the Mediterranean and North Africa following five veterans of the 28th Māori Battalion as they revisited their old battlefields. "It was a privilege to be with them and share some of their emotional experiences. The one thing I always enjoyed about doco work was being with people and in places I normally wouldn't be in."
In 2002 O'Connor directed documentary Dalvanius, which saw him travelling with entertainment legend Maui Dalvanius Prime, then in his final stages of lung cancer. "He allowed us to follow him visiting some of the people and places that had been prominent in his life. It was an amazing experience." O'Connor has also directed a trio of documentaries for Natural History New Zealand — on deep diving, Tuvalu and emergency rescues.
He has been cinematographer on three feature films: Barry Barclay's genre-stretching Feathers of Peace and two movies shot in Canterbury: 2009's China Cup and 2012 comedy For the Sake of a Hat. He has also worked on travel show Destination New Zealand, and long-running culinary series New Zealand on a Plate.
In an illustrious career spanning over 50 years, O'Connor has witnessed huge changes in camera technology. But he worries that with the arrival of digital cameras, "a lot of the craft of lighting is being lost" — and that cinematographers are losing the chance to ensure their images turn out as originally intended. "So many 'look' options are being built into the cameras that it's become open slather on the final imagery. Now it's possible to drastically alter the picture by the post-production house. That happens a lot with commercials."
These days O'Connor has "eased back a lot" from camerawork, and eased into listening to classical music and playing the piano.
Profile written by Natasha Harris
Published on 31 January 2019
Robert Boyd-Bell, New Zealand Television - The First 25 Years (Auckland: Reed Methuen Publishers, 1985)
Ngā Taonga Sound and Vision online catalogue. Accessed 31 January 2019
Twenty-Ninth Wellington Film Festival programme. Editors Jackie Hay and Bill Gosden (Wellington: New Zealand Film Festival, 2000)