The screen career of Waynne Williams spans more than half a century. And that doesn't include his first job involving film: as a 12-year-old, selling popcorn and ice creams in the aisles of Lower Hutt's King George cinema.
Enthralled by Cinema Paradiso-style visits to the projection booth, Williams was soon making home movies with an 8mm camera. A school trip to the National Film Unit’s studios in Wellington sealed his fate. “The moment you walked onto the soundstage there, with the lights on, the cameras, I just thought 'this is what I want to do'.”
In 1960 he left school at 15 to join the NFU. The teenager was seconded to work on commissions for the new medium of television: “The older guys at the time thought TV wouldn't really last the distance, so those jobs did go to the younger guys.” He learned the ropes filming stories on everything from the building of the Manapouri Dam, to the arrival in NZ of Miss World, and NAC’s first flight simulator. The first piece he directed solo was a 1965 segment for Pictorial Parade (episode 166), on a helicopter laying power lines in the Waioeka Gorge.
Then he joined WNTV-1, the Wellington branch of the NZ Broadcasting Corporation. In this period before permanent news crews, NFU personnel worked as stringers by default. Williams shot for many shows, such as regional magazine programme Town and Around. In 1964 he was a cameraman on the first episode of current affairs show Compass: an Ian Johnstone report comparing the futures of Dunedin (dying) and Hamilton (booming).
In November 1964, Williams joined a four-strong Compass team that spent seven weeks in Southeast Asia. It was NZ television’s first attempt at overseas reporting. In Vietnam they boarded US helicopters and planes to film Kiwi surgeons and military engineers at work, before joining South Vietnamese and US troops on the battlefront. Producer Gordon Bick later described Williams as "only 19, but a first-class operator".
By his early 20s, Williams was Head Cameraman at WNTV-1. His work ranged from filming Sir Edmund Hillary in Antarctica for the 10th anniversary of Scott Base, to student protests. In 1992 doco Here is the News Williams recalls subjects becoming increasing saavy to the power of the TV camera — including offering to burn a US flag on cue. In those days, international news footage arrived by plane. Footage of the 1969 moon landing was rushed across the Tasman on a chartered RNZAF bomber, allowing Kiwis to watch the landing two hours after the fact.
Williams also shot drama: he filmed New Zealand's first dramatic series, spy tale The Alpha Plan (1969), and was on the camera crew for groundbreaking TV series Pukemanu, framing the travails of a North Island timber town. At the end of 1971 he was awarded a special Feltex Award for his craft.
In June 1973, alongside reporter Shaun Brown, Williams found himself observing international high stakes drama onboard the frigate HMNZS Otago. PM Norman Kirk had sent the ship to Mururoa Atoll as a “silent witness”, to protest French nuclear testing in the Pacific.
Williams then crossed the ditch for a three year stint at Melbourne’s Crawford productions. As Head Cameraman, he trained Australian crews in colour shooting (using the experience gained from NZ's earlier adoption of the format), and worked on a run of fast-turnaround cop shows which were then the company’s staple (Homicide, Division 4).
He was cinematographer for Crawford’s The Box (1975), a movie spin-off of Tom Hegarty’s hit TV soap. The advertising for this racy behind-the-scenes look at a TV station went: “you won’t believe what comes off in the movie version of…The Box.”
In the late 70s — following a sojourn selling concrete in the UK, and meeting his Kiwi producer wife Anne — Williams returned to New Zealand, this time to Christchurch, where he worked for South Pacific Television. He shot across the channel’s slate, from news (Springbok Tour reports), comedy (A Week of It, McPhail and Gadsby) and arts (Kaleidoscope), to drama: sharing lens duty on Jocko and the Ngaio Marsh Theatre series, and camera operating on children’s drama Gather Your Dreams.
1986 saw Williams filming in Brazil for two months for globetrotting international co-production The Politics of Food.
When TV production shifted from Christchurch and other regional centres to Auckland, Williams stayed and joined fledging regional station CTV. There he worked as a producer and studio director.
In 1995 he was one of the team of Kiwi expats leading the establishment of Fiji TV, bringing local current affairs and Shortland Street to the South Pacific republic. The station was born after it was decreed that the nation ought to be able to follow its rugby team’s progress at the 1995 World Cup.
In Christchurch Williams directed on mid-90s youth science show Get Real (featuring a young Miriama Kamo) before returning to camera work as a senior cameraman for One News in Wellington (where he covered the first MMP election in 1996). In the late 90s he became Auckland Operations Manager for the bulletin. His wife Anne was then line producer for Shortland Street, meaning the couple had key hands in stoking the flames of NZ’s nightly screen campfire.
Despite enjoying "the theatre" of the nightly 6pm deadline, Williams missed camerawork. In 1999 he returned to Christchurch, where he has continued to work as a stringer for TVNZ, filming multiple Antarctic expeditions for Holmes and being on the (trembling) ground contributing images from the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake.
These days Williams runs Port Hills Productions with his wife Anne. Along the way he has trained and mentored numerous newcomers to the industry, including a young Phil Keoghan.
Williams estimates he has worked on around 10,000 news stories over more than half a century. He describes the technological shift from film to video as one of the major developments over that time. News footage no longer had to be processed before being broadcast; cameramen could get away with minimal lighting, and less cumbersome equipment; and sound could be recorded in camera. (Williams recalls a pre-OSH era when aerial shots of A Dog’s Show might involve a helicopter hovering with hundreds of feet of camera cable stretching from a large studio camera down to the ground.)
In 2015 Williams was recognised as a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the Queen's Birthday Honours, for services to the television industry.
Gordon Bick, The Compass File (Christchurch: The Caxton Press, 1968)
Tess McClure, ‘Wayne Williams takes Queens Birthday honour for camerawork’ (Interview) - The Press, 1 June 2015
Here is the News (Television Documentary) Director Carol Hirschfeld (TVNZ, 1992)
50 Years of New Zealand Television (Television Documentary) Director John Bates (Cream Media, TVNZ, 2010)