Raised in Pukerua Bay, north of Wellington, Mitchell Hawkes studied law at Waikato University in the early 90s — before a short stint at a consulting firm led him to the worrying realisation that "this could not be the rest of my life". After studies at Auckland’s South Seas Film and Television School, he got early screen experience at Wellington regional station Capital Television, where his direction of news bulletins attracted the attention of veteran TVNZ producer Norman Sievewright.
Hawkes headed to Auckland to work as a studio director on TVNZ staples like One News, Breakfast, Fair Go, and Holmes (where he won a Qantas Media Award for a story on the 1998 coalition breakdown between Jenny Shipley and Winston Peters, shot live outside the Beehive).
Around the millennium, Hawkes directed episodes of popular TV3 youth show Ice TV. He was also in the director's chair when Jaquie Brown began her first ongoing television gig, as co-presenter of late night music show Space. on TV2. At university Hawkes had been a student radio DJ, music editor of the student magazine, and a contributor to Rip It Up. "I wanted to get into music TV. I said yes to any music show going".
Hawkes quickly established a reputation at the helm of music TV coverage. His credits range from a 21st birthday documentary on the Flying Nun record label, to Rockquests, Silver Scroll ceremonies and concert specials: Ed Sheeran, Stan Walker, The Finn Brothers, Gin Wigmore, Hollie Smith, and System of a Downs' Serj Tankian. Among the gigs that stand out are Lorde’s first show at Vector Arena, and a Shihad concert at Aotea Square, where mist rose from the crowd in the rain. "I love directing concerts. But they're only as good as the band."
A concert featuring the Topp Twins and the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra won the Best Entertainment Programme award at the 2010 Qantas Awards. Coverage of the Vodafone NZ Music Awards from 2000 onwards has scored Hawkes two NZ Television Award nominations for Best Multi-camera Direction, and two wins. The 2009 Music Awards show saw him capturing The Mint Chicks performing Ray Columbus’ classic song 'She’s a Mod'.)
Hawkes has directed two high profile tribute concerts. With Nigel Carpenter, he covered star-studded post earthquake concert Band Together in Christchurch, which saw the pair nominated for an AFTA Award. Dreams Lie Deeper featured a collaboration between Dave Dobbyn and Wellington’s Orpheus Choir, paying musical tribute to the victims of the Pike River Mine disaster. Sunday Star-Times critic Grant Smithies called it "one hell of a documentary. Raw, touching and blessedly unsentimental."
With his youth and music TV credentials, Hawkes was a natural choice to direct C4’s high-rating Rocked the Nation series (2008), counting down the Top 100 moments in Kiwi music. Two follow-up series charted 100 pop culture and sporting moments (the latter for TV3). Hawkes wrote a book for Random House to accompany the pop culture edition.
A tour film on music-comedy crossover act Wilson Dixon (aka comedian Jesse Griffin) scored Hawkes a nomination at the 2012 NZ TV Awards; comedy is another genre to feature regularly on his CV. Hawkes' comic credits include news review show Best Bits, wrap-up special The Year that Was, and the live Comedy Gala and AotearoHA.
Hawkes' extensive experience filming live events has also been utilised in the "adrenaline experience" of primetime shows like New Zealand’s Got Talent and the Kiwi version of The X Factor — where his work also included directing the auditions and performance footage. Although the flagship show was a "lot of fun", the 2015 controversy over bullying comments made by two X Factor judges proved a particularly stressful moment. "Just hours before we were going live we were told there were going to only be two judges. Everything is built around a format, so we had to create a new one on the fly with 13 cameras and a huge audience tuning in to see what had gone down."
Non-primetime series for which Hawkes has directed include Māori TV's Coast, kids show What Now?, book show The Good Word, nostalgia series The New Old, and There and Back, which revisited stories from Kiwi TV archives.
In 2015 Hawkes began the Latta years of his career, directing clinical psychologist Nigel Latta in Nigel Latta Blows Stuff Up (where Latta did experiments exploring scientific concepts behind phenomenon like extreme weather), and The Hard Stuff with Nigel Latta (which looked at contemporary issues from technology to housing).
Hawkes told NZ On Screen in 2017 that his motivation was now "to tell stories that potentially have a really positive effect." He nominated the suicide episode of Hard Stuff as an example; viewers got in touch to say they had reached out for help, after watching the programme.
In 2016 Hawkes formed production company Ruckus Media with Latta, and a frequent colleague, producer Arwen O’Connor (who Hawkes had first worked with on Ice TV). The following year the company partnered with TVNZ to make ambitious live broadcast What Next?, as Latta and John Campbell and a panel of experts explored the future of Aotearoa. For Hawkes the challenge of filming in a studio environment five nights live, as hosts interacted with live votes, data and panelists, was "massive". The same year Ruckus worked on Mind over Money with Nigel Latta, exploring the psychology of money.
In 2017 Hawkes won a Best Director NZ TV Award for Born this Way: Awa’s story, which was first made for TV1's Sunday programme. It traced a Wellington teen’s gender transition from male to female. Said Hawkes: "I hoped that when others watched they would simply see a normal teenage girl who had an obstacle to becoming who she truly was." The following year Hawkes scored awards at local documentary festival Doc Edge for both Born this Way and Stan — which follows singer Stan Walker as he deals with major health upheavals.
Hawkes' career has ranged from broadcast television to the fragmented audiences of the digital era. In late 2017 he reflected that many of the basics remain the same. "Viewers will always watch content – so that's my job: to keep telling stories that people want to watch."