Brian Brake is regarded as New Zealand's most successful international photographer. But before heading overseas to work for photo agency Magnum and snapping iconic shots of Picasso and the Monsoon series for Life magazine, he was also an accomplished composer of moving images. He shot or directed many classic films for the NFU, including NZ's first Oscar-nominated film.
This documentary revisits six eventful weeks in 1949. Led by cameraman Brian Brake, an all-star art team — James K Baxter as scriptwriter, composer Douglas Lilburn and painter John Drawbridge (all under 30; Drawbridge was 19) — attempt to make a 'cinematic poem' about an ascent of Mt Aspiring. Baxter's notes on the trip evolved into his poem In the Matukituki Valley. Aspiring features a lost script, Drawbridge's memories (he recalls storyboards for a snow cave light show here) and a surprise ending. View footage of the never-completed film after the excerpt.
This 1949 NFU film is a whistle-stop tour of Aotearoa that, per the title, takes in the full gamut of the scenic wonderland. Splendidly filmed in Kodachrome, there are lakes (Tutira, Manapouri, Te Anau, Wakatipu), caves (Waitomo), mountains (Cook/Aoraki, Egmont/Taranaki) and forests and farms aplenty, with the occasional city sojourn and an obligatory ferry shot. In the narration indefatigable nature is harnessed for man’s needs and appreciation. Of note is a sequence on gum-collector Nicholas Yakas, who shows impressive agility as he scales a giant kauri.
This 1972 NFU documentary follows three climbers (Hugh Canard, Neil Hamilton and pioneering guide Bruce Jenkinson) on an ascent of Mt Aspiring. Directed and photographed by Grant Foster (Land of Birds), the beautifully-shot short film heads up country in the Land Rover. Rivers are crossed in the sun, then the climbers rope up and get the pick axes out. It’s tea, food and harmonica in the hut, then a pre-dawn start (“hell it’s cold!”) before cutting steps and leaping crevasses up the “matterhorn of the south”. The film screened on PBS in the United States.
The rich scenery around Lake Wakatipu has inspired painters, postage stamps and director Peter Jackson. Shortly before leaving NZ in 1954, photographer Brian Brake headed south for the NFU to capture images of lake, mountain, tourist and miner. Amid the postcard perfection, Brake films mist-shrouded hills sliced open by mining, and a trio of skiers on Coronet Peak, travelling hand in hand. Tourists swap lake steamers for open top buses, en route to the Routeburn track; and one old-timer sets out on horse to pan for gold, via the abandoned mining village of Macetown.
After bad weather curtailed an ambitious film about Mount Aspiring in 1949, Brian Brake returned to the Southern Alps the following year to shoot Mount Cook — the first NFU film to feature Brake's mountain imagery in glorious blue and white colour. The wait was worth it: the longtime mountain-lover coaxes a succession of breathtaking images of the cloud-piercing mountain — plus a rollicking snow fight scene. The plot, what there is of it, centres on some skiers wandering closer to Aoraki/Mt Cook to get a better look, then demonstrating the joys of descent.
This 1972 National Film Unit production promotes New Zealand’s national parks, from the oldest — Tongariro (established in 1887) — to Mt Aspiring (1964). Besides slatherings of scenic splendour, the film shows rangers clearing tracks, 70s après ski activity on Ruapehu, and school children at Rotoiti Youth Lodge: skylarking, river crossing, and cornflake eating en masse. When this film was made there were 10 National Parks (there are now 14). “In all their variety they’re the heritage of everyone who’s heard the call and felt the freedom of the unspoilt land.”
Although generally regarded as New Zealand's most successful international photographer, Brian Brake also worked in motion pictures, as both director and cinematographer. At the Government's National Film Unit he directed the first Kiwi film nominated for an Academy Award (Snows of Aorangi). Later he worked for prestigious photo agency Magnum, and featured in photo journals Life and National Geographic.
Yvonne Mackay is a prolific director of New Zealand television, whose work has often focused on the arts and projects made for young people. She made history as the director of The Silent One (1984), the first New Zealand feature film directed solely by a woman. These days Mackay runs Wellington company Production Shed TV.
John Gibson composed his first major work at the age of 16. By the age of 24 he had done time as musical director at theatres in Dunedin and Auckland, and acted on-screen as one of the musical quartet in TV drama Heroes. Since then Gibson has composed music for a wide range of mediums, including television, theatre and dance, and co-composing Rain of the Children.