“If there’s one thing that has driven my passion for filmmaking," says Mike Single, "it is the desire to put the spirit of a place or subject in the lens. I’m drawn to natural processes — climatic, geological, historical and behavioural — because to me the processes that shape a landscape shape the inhabitants, whether they’re animals or people. It’s all intertwined, and observation is the key.”
Mike Single’s interest in cameras was forged as a child, while experimenting with his father's 8mm Bolex camera. At Napier Boys' High he was moved by landscape painters like Petrus Van Der Velden and his mother’s cousin, Rita Angus.
After leaving school and studying music, Single got a gig filming news footage with Terry Hooper, a stringer [part-time] cameraman in Napier. The mentorship provided an “instant and intensive learning curve”, as the two worked to file two or three stories a day. Film was expensive, and arrived in 10 minute magazines which took time to change. “I learnt to always be aware of what was happening around me — and more importantly, what's going to happen next, so that pressing the ‘rec’ button is disciplined and instinctive.”
In 1976 Single joined the TV One team at Avalon. Over a decade he shot everything from Springbok Tour protests to Country Calendar, skits for McPhail and Gadsby, and the music video for Dance Exponents classic 'Victoria'.
In his spare time he directed documentary The Red Checkers (1985), which followed three pilots training for the Royal NZ Air Force’s acrobatic squadron. The film got Single an invite to join the documentary department at Avalon, where he spent a year. By now he had done the first of many ski and mountain shoots that would become a Single speciality.
In the early 80s, TVNZ’s burgeoning Natural History Unit began producing acclaimed documentaries under the Wild South banner. Single would go on to direct a number of them. Castles of the Underworld (1991) revealed the hidden world of limestone caves — “like it had never been seen before”, as the film's narrator Peter Hayden put it; Young Mountains (1992) captured the Southern Alps; Mount Cook: Footsteps to the Sky (1994) climbed Cook, and collected a backpack full of awards at mountain film festivals en route.
Single was also the director of the Westland/Aoraki episode of Journeys in National Parks, an award-winning series marking the 100th anniversary of New Zealand’s national parks. The episode combined Single’s passion for the mountains with his aptitude for time-lapse photography. In the 1980s time-lapse technology required a bulky timer to be attached to cameras. Journeys also saw Single encountering the prevailing norwester wind that shapes the South Island. His 1990 documentary on the Norwester was a finalist at Wildscreen, the world’s leading wildlife film festival.
An enduring relationship had now been cemented with the Natural History Unit (which was later known as NHNZ, after splitting from TVNZ). The company’s international renown was founded on nature films, and whether working as cameraman, director or both, Single was ideally placed to bolster it. He compares himself to a tractor: "I work all day, all night, in any weather on any hillside, to get fresh images.” As commissions mounted to deliver content for global channels like National Geographic, Discovery and the BBC, Single could be found filming wolves and leopards for Animal Planet, and dodging rattlesnakes in the Mohave Desert for Life in Death Valley.
Human subjects have not escaped his gaze: from Megastructure engineers to BASE jumpers, to Shaolin monks (Inside Kung Fu Inc). Single has documented the devastation after the 2008 earthquake in China's Sichuan province, and followed both Extreme Tribes and Sir Edmund Hillary (for A View From The Top, a four-part TVNZ series on Sir Ed’s life).
His camera credits include an assortment of adventurous reality shows, from Survivor and The Amazing Race, to British entry Castaway (shot on Great Barrier Island).
Single has clocked over 30 trips to Antarctica since accompanying Prime Minister Rob Muldoon in 1982, for the 25th anniversary of Scott Base. His award-winning documentary Solid Water Liquid Rock (1992), which captured lava eruptions under the ice, was part of an acclaimed Wild South trilogy about the icy continent. At the 1994 NZ Film and TV Awards, he shared gongs for Best Director and Photography.
While directing Katabatic (1999), Single decided it was quieter to sleep outside, despite Antarctica's sometimes gale-force breezes. “The fierce winds made the tent flap so loudly that it was deafening — like trying to sleep underneath the engine of a huge 747 aircraft. Although it was still noisy outside, at least I was able to get some sleep.”
Another of Single's noted Antarctic titles is The Crystal Ocean (1999), which chronicles the thaw and freeze of Antarctic waters. The documentary tapped Single’s talent for capturing a landscape’s changing rhythms, and won him a 2000 International Emmy Award for cinematography. Single was out of range filming in the Aleutians when the award was announced. “Where Single goes there aren't any phones.” said then NHNZ head Michael Stedman. Single himself features on screen in behind the scenes documentary Single on Ice (1999) as he heads south to capture footage for Katabatic and Crystal Ocean.
In 2008 he directed and shot a 3D film for a purpose-built theatre at Aoraki-Mt Cook. He has also shot special venue films for Franz Josef Glacier and Christchurch's International Antarctic Centre. In 2015 he was co-director (with Anna Marbrook) of waka journey documentary Te Mana o te Moana.
Later Single took 3D cameras to the Pacific island of Tanna, for big screen documentary Yakel 3D. The film centres on Johnson Kowia, the 108 year-old chief of a traditional Vanuatu village. Yakel's 2012 debut at the NZ Documentary Edge Festival saw it beating out The Hobbit, to become the first 3D feature shot (Single) and directed (Rachael Wilson) by New Zealanders. Single was awarded Best Cinematography at the festival for his work.
Over 40 years of technological shifts, one thing has remained singular about Single’s craft. “From 10 minute rolls of film to 35 minute videotapes and now almost unlimited gigs of data on cards, knowing when to roll is still important ... as editors will tell you.”
Published on 29 January 2016
Updated on 30 March 2018
Daniel Jackson, ‘Honour has to go on ice’, - The NZ Herald, 9 September 2000
Naomi Murfitt, ‘Surviving the Polar Regions’, Polar Worlds website. Loaded November 2002. Accessed 29 March 2018
Mark Price, ‘Move over 'Avatar'’ - The Otago Daily Times, 6 November 2010
'Mike Single' NZ Crews website (broken link). Accessed 14 March 2016
'Mike Single' Linkedin website. Accessed 29 March 2018
'Mike Single' Internet Movie Database website. Accessed 30 March 2018