Born in County Durham in the UK, Collins arrived in New Zealand with her family as a three-month-old, and grew up on Auckland's North Shore. She was always 'making' things; when shopping with her mother, she was known to make a beeline for the bright, shiny side of fabric stores.
“I’d paint boring wooden bricks and make buildings, or collect rocks and twigs and make ‘rock’ mansions...and even now working in theatre and TV I’ll use unusual materials, and focus on a special or unique finish”.
As a teenager Collins was drawn to fashion design and architecture. She was accepted into Elam School of Fine Arts, and soon felt completely at home. In her third year the call went out for a designer to work on the opera Pirate Moon; Collins put her hand up. Her career as a designer had begun while still studying for her Bachelor of Fine Arts. In 1990 she became a resident set and costume designer at Auckland's Mercury Theatre, leading to work as a freelance designer for many of the city's leading theatre companies, including Inside Out Theatre and a Spectacle of One.
In early 1993 Collins took up the Moet and Chandon Artists Residency in the northern French town of Epernay. A Creative New Zealand Grant in 1995 allowed Collins to attend the Prague Quadrennial, a key event for designers of live performance. Tracey went on to co-curate three highly praised exhibitions of leading NZ performance designers for Prague: Part (2003), Blow (2007), and Fly Tower (2011).
In late 1998 Collins landed her first job in television, making costume props and a veritable mountain of armour for Young Hercules. It was a period of sustained graft: after Young Hercules came a season on Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, its hugely successful spin–off series Xena; Warrior Princess (1999) and finally short-lived sci fi show Cleopatra 2525.
Collins yearned to focus on design again. For the next three years high profile theatre performances dotted her CV, from costume and prop design for large scale live events — like Millennium spectacular This Is It at the Auckland Domain — to designing the costumes for tours of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2000) and Leah (2002) by The NZ Actors’ Company. Opera featured again, with co-creator and production design credits on the NZ Opera Company’s Viva Verdi (2001).
In 2004 Collins began a long working relationship with live-action superhero franchise Power Rangers. The world of feature films was calling too; the same year she joined the large team on The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, as set decoration workshop supervisor. Soon after Narnia came an offer to costume design ambitious fantasy series Maddigan’s Quest. Tasked with imagining a post-apocalyptic world that lacked mass industrial production, Collins investigated a number of cultures including African, Māori and Japanese, choosing natural fabrics and recycled materials to help suggest the characters made their clothes themselves. Collins was recognised for her work at the 2007 Air NZ Screen Awards, with a gong for Best Contribution to Design.
The high profile work kept coming. In 2007 she was production and costume designer for an episode of globe-spanning documentary drama series Captain Cook - Obsession and Discovery. The next decade saw Collins working as production designer (and in some cases costume designer as well) for many high profile Kiwi screen projects, including movies White Lies and Sione's 2 - Unfiinished Business. She won NZ Screen Awards for Best Production Design in 2009 and 2011 for adoption tale Piece of My Heart (directed by Fiona Samuel) and drama series This Is Not My Life. Both productions were widely praised.
This Is Not My Life posed a tricky design challenge; how to depict a New Zealand of the near future on a tight budget. Collins and her team created a language of ‘lean’, ‘mean’ and ‘clean’. “Every single prop and it’s placement was carefully considered”, says Collins, “and often pared right back visually to evoke that gated community feel”. She used a minimal palette of pale mauve, pastel green, and shades of grey; Collins found inspiration in the quiet streets of Auckland suburbs like Albany.
Bliss – The Beginning of Katherine Mansfield offered similarly rich material, albeit from a much different era. Again she joined director Fiona Samuel, this time in bringing to life the late nineteenth century rooms of Wellington, London and Bavaria as the script imagined the young Mansfield’s awakening as a writer and modern woman. Collins wanted to "capture Katherine’s moods and passions" with the sets, and help create “a timeless feeling of youth wanting to explore the world that’s waiting out there”. Keen to avoid dressing up rooms Edwardian style, which “can often appear busy, fussy and sometimes inaccessible to our modern eye”, Collins chose to evoke Katherine’s sense of freedom and passion. She personally designed all 84 pieces of artwork that appear on various walls in the tele-movie, enhancing the “emotional tone" of each room.
In 2013 Collins found herself camped in the Te Urewera bush for feature film White Lies. Written and directed by Dana Rotberg, the film showcased the images of legendary cinematographer Alun Bollinger. The drama places a Māori healer amongst the world of 1920s Pākehā privilege. NZ Herald critic Peter Calder praised the result as a "cracker yarn about life and death", with "superb production design..take a bow Tracey Collins". And so she did, with a Best Production Design gong at the 2013 NZ Film Awards.
Collins’ next project was designing costumes for When We Go to War, a mini-series commemorating the 2015 Gallipoli centenary. The critical reception was more muted, but again Collins attracted special comment; Dominion Post critic Jane Clifton noted that “the series’ costumes and set teams’ efforts are more than enough consolation, it’s simply gorgeous, light and bright … challenging the sepia toned clichés we’re accustomed to”.
In the same period Collins worked on further series of Power Rangers, designing everything from dinosaur museums to alien spaceships.
Profile written by Gabe McDonnell
Tracey Collins website. Accessed 26 September 2016
Peter Calder, 'Movie review: White Lies' - The NZ Herald, 22 June 2013
Jane Clifton, 'Cliche-ridden Kiwi TV war drama saved by costumes and sets' (Review of When We Go to War) - The Dominion Post, 29 April 2015
Ella Francis, '10 Favourite Things: Beauty and truth' (Interview) - The NZ Herald, 28 June 2013
Nick Grant, 'This is This Is Not My Life' (Interview) - OnFilm, September 2009
Maddigan's Quest press kit
'Bliss: The beginning of Katherine Mansfield' (Television Programme) Director Fiona Samuel (MF Films, 2011)