Much of Thomas Robins' early work for the screen was aimed at the young — initially as a children's presenter, then as the driving force behind a run of shows made with David Stubbs, his partner at production company KHF Media. Since 2015, the pair have began aiming their work at an older audience.
Winner of a 2010 International Emmy Award, the pair's first collaboration Reservoir Hill was a pioneer in utilising new technology to engage audiences. The plot of the web series mystery changed direction from week to week, depending on input from online viewers.
Robins was born to English parents in the county of Cornwall. But after they moved downunder, he grew up in Napier. While studying various topics at Otago University he auditioned for a live comedy gig, then got a trainee cameraman job with Ian Taylor in Dunedin. As Robins puts it, "I was photocopying a piece of paper and he said he wanted me to host the show [Squirt]. I owe him heaps".
His on-screen debut — a small part in classic movie Heavenly Creatures — ended up on the cutting room floor. But the experience was not a complete waste; directors Peter Jackson and Costa Botes invited him back to recreate the life of legendary filmmaker Colin McKenzie for their eye-opening TV movie Forgotten Silver (1995). McKenzie is said to have been the first person to make films with synchronised sound; but things went pear-shaped after he began making an ill-fated movie of Salome on the West Coast. Forgotten Silver won the Critics Prize at the 1996 Venice Film Festival.
The same year, Robins began presenting the first of multiple seasons of children's show Squirt. Credited as Tom Robins, he introduced a medley of children's cartoons alongside a CGI penguin named Spike, who was brought to life using motion capture technology.
Robins was seen in the opening of both blockbuster Return of the King (playing Deagol, who finds the all-powerful One Ring in a river, then just as quickly regrets it), and later the first Hobbit movie (playing young Thrain), plus un-PC comedy series Seven Periods with Mr Gormsby (as an ineffectual teacher).
But by 2003 he was working increasingly behind the scenes, and creating productions of his own. With 2004 children's show Freaky, he created an anthology style series which featured three short tales per episode. Robins directed most of them. Based on tales of supernatural or otherworldy forces, Freaky also sold to ABC in Australia.
The idea of short tales was developed further when Robins created and directed The Killian Curse (2006). Each episode featured three stories, with high schoolers battling creatures ranging from werewolves to warlocks. This time the tales were linked: the students have all been cursed by a vengeful school principal who died decades before. Working with a primarily teen cast could be challenging: "It was like having 21 teenagers of my own." A second season followed in 2008. In the same period Robins was often directing many episodes of satirical sketch show Facelift, which featured actors in prosthetics.
In 2009 Robins set up Wellington company KHF Media, with former National Film Unit editor David Stubbs. The pair's first collaboration, eight-part web series Reservoir Hill, would prove a dramatic launchpad for the company.
The mystery-thriller series centred on a teenager (played by Beth Chote from The Killian Curse) who discovers she is the dead ringer of a student who recently went missing. Online viewers texted or sent advice via social networking site Bebo to help guide the lead character through the plot. Robins and Stubbs found themselves both consumed and energised by the show's tight schedule: scripts were signed off by Thursday, before each episode was filmed and put online via TVNZ OnDemand at 5pm the following Monday.
Reservoir Hill won a 2010 International Emmy for Best Digital Programme for Children and Young People. The episodes were later compiled into a TV movie, shorn of the interactive elements that had featured in the online edition. A second series followed in 2010, also Emmy-nominated, subtitled Everyone Lies. There were also Reservoir Hill remakes in Spain and Sweden. Online viewers would also help sway the plot on a later web series that Robins directed: chalk and cheese travel tale Road Trip.
Robins and Stubbs followed Reservoir Hill with three seasons of young adults TV series Girl vs. Boy (season one can be watched in full here). The romantic comedy followed an inquisitive teen, as she variously investigates a disastrous relationship breakup, becomes poster girl for her seaside suburb, and encounters a delusional school principal.
In 2015 Robins co-produced feature-length documentary Belief: The Possession of Janet Moses. Combining interviews and reenactments, the film explored the 2007 exorcism which resulted in the death of a Wainuiomata mother. Belief won a Moa Award for Robins' KHF partner David Stubbs.
With 2017's Catching the Black Widow, it was Robins' turn to take the writing and directing reins. The telemovie was inspired by Lee-Anne Cartier, who set out to prove that her brother's suicide was actually a case of foul play. The Listener's Fiona Rae praised the acting of Aidee Walker (as Carter) and Katherine McRae, arguing that the telemovie built "a convincing and creepy picture of [Helen] Milner’s lies versus Cartier’s single-mindedness".
Next came another project based on a true story. Telemovie Kiwi dramatises the rise of racehorse Kiwi, who won fame at the 1983 Melbourne Cup.
Robins has also found time to direct Te Papa attraction The High Ride, as well as episodes of The Brokenwood Mysteries and car show AA Torque Show. His one-off documentary The Banker, The Escorts and the $18 Million was nominated for Best Popular Documentary in the 2011 Aotearoa Film and Television awards. The docudrama chronicled the misadventures of ASB fraudster Stephen Versalko.
Updated on 7 May 2021
KHF Media website. Accessed 26 September 2018
Talia Carlisle, 'A career steeped in movies' (Interview) - The Wellingtonian, 9 April 2015, page 12
Fiona Rae,'Catching the Black Widow details Helen Milner's downfall' (Review) - The Listener, 29 July 2017 (broken link)
Evelyn Saunders and Marcus Gillezeau, 'Reservoir Hill - A Case Study with David Stubbs & Thomas Robins', Firelight Productions, 2013
Mark Stevens, 'Kiwi show Reservoir Hill gets Emmy' Stuff website. Loaded 25 September 2014. Accessed 26 September 2018
Unknown writer, 'Reservoir Hill gets ground-breaking remake deal in Sweden‘ - Onfilm, October 2013
Unknown writer, ‘Wellington classroom makes terrifying TV' Stuff website. Loaded 11 March 2008. Accessed 26 September 2018