A pioneer of the commercial use of 16mm film in post-war New Zealand, Robert Steele is arguably a lost name in the local screen industry. A portrait photographer who was making amateur films in 1930, he spent several years in his native Australia before returning to NZ for good in 1937. Steele screened his films at workplaces and trade fairs, and was a major producer of commercials in the first decade of Kiwi television.
Director Michael Firth was an unheralded figure in the Kiwi film renaissance. His debut movie, ski film Off the Edge, was the first New Zealand feature to be Oscar-nominated. Noted US critic Andrew Sarris praised drama Sylvia, based on teacher Sylvia Ashton-Warner, as one of 1985's best films. Firth's subjects ranged from incest to fishing; his TV series Adrenalize sold to 50 countries. He passed away on 9 October 2016.
Toi Whakaari graduate Iaheto Ah Hi moved into features with hit comedy Sione’s Wedding, after time in comedy theatre group the Naked Samoans. His play Tautai — the tale of a car thief emulating his Tokelauan fishing ancestors — helped inspire 2010 ensemble movie Matariki, with Ah Hi himself winning an award in one of the main roles. Alongside his acting, Ah Hi has also had a long involvement in the Kiwi hip hop scene.
Greg McGee's first play Foreskin's Lament (1980) is seen as a watershed moment in the maturing of a distinctly Kiwi theatre. Since then McGee has demonstrated (with tele-movie Old Scores) that rugby can be the stuff of comedy as well as critique. He has also created or co-created a run of television dramas - including long-running law show Street Legal - many of them awardwinners.
After producing her first short film for Niki Caro, Rachel Jean worked alongside veteran producer Owen Hughes on a host of documentaries, plus the occasional drama. Later Jean went solo, producing TV series Secret Agent Men, and The Market. After time as TV3’s Head of Drama and Comedy, she became Head of Development at South Pacific Pictures.
There were times when the career of longtime National Film Unit director David Sims could have been cut short. Having survived close encounters with steam locomotives in mountainous terrain, he narrowly escaped being blown up, drowned and burnt alive at sea. Even filming a planned set-up on location had its hazards, as he found when his call of “action!” sent exploding rocks whistling by perilously close overhead.
Producer Fiona Copland is noted for quirky and ambitious films, many of them made with first-time directors. 2009's The Strength of Water won praise at festivals in Rotterdam and Berlin, while multi-stranded narrative feature Matariki arrived in New Zealand theatres in 2010 via the Toronto Film Festival. These days she is part of company Field Theory, with producers Philippa Campbell and Tim Sanders.
For more than 20 years, Haunui Royal has been driven by the desire to be part of a vibrant Māori voice in broadcasting. The director turned executive got his break at TVNZ in 1988, before directing everything from a long line of documentaries (The Truth about Māori), to entertainment (Havoc and Newsboy's Sellout Tour). Later he spent seven years as General Manager of Programming at Māori Television.
Owen Hughes segued directly from university to a job at independent production company Pacific Films. Since establishing his own company Frame Up Films in 1977, Hughes has gone on to produce 40 plus documentaries and many dramas. Along the way he has nurtured the talents of a number of directors early in their careers, including Niki Caro, Fiona Samuel and Jessica Hobbs.
The idea that New Zealanders often take for granted the depth of talent in the local screen industry is well illustrated by the career of Flux Animation founder Brent Chambers. Most Kiwis would have seen at least one example of his prolific output, yet few would be able to put a face or a name to his work. Chambers was tireless in building a competitive and viable international business, with a distinct local identity.