The New Zealand National Film Unit

American Cinematographer, March 1979 | Go to article overview

The New Zealand National Film Unit


Metamorphosizing through several incarnations during the past half-century, this government production group has used film to record New Zealand's history and tell its story abroad

Very little has been written on the history of film making in New Zealand. In fact, very few people know that there is a history of film making in that country.

Not long after the first motion pictures were publicly screened in Europe and the United States in the mid-1890s, cameramen in New Zealand were cranking their handles to put news events on film. It's believed that an Otaki race meeting was filmed around the turn of the century, and it's certainly true that by 1910 there were local newsreels being produced.

New Zealand's Government became involved during World War One, when it sent Charlie Barton to Europe as "official kinematographer". Some of his footage survived and was used in 1973 as part of the National Film Unit's television series "The Years Back".

The Film Unit's direct predecessor was Filmerait Ltd, a company founded in Wellington by A.A.P. McKenzie in the early '20s. While Rudall Hayward was making the first, silent, version of "REWI'S LAST STAND" in Auckland and the Waikato, McKenzie was processing the movie film shot by Cyril Morton and Bert Bridgeman in Wellington.

Morton had joined the Government's fledgling "publicity office" in 1923. Then attached to the Department of Internal Affairs, the office was in the business of making short films for local and overseas consumption. McKenzie's company provided the laboratory backup needed for such an enterprise.

After a fire in his Lambton Quay premises, McKenzie was advised to move "out of town", and he built a studio and processing plant in the eastern suburb of Miramar. His laboratory, display and advertising facilities were used by government and private interest alike-much as the Film Unit's facilities are used today.

The Depression saw a downturn in Filmcraft's fortunes. Morton stayed on as "Government film representative", but many of McKenzie's staff were laid off.

Filmcraft's principal client was the Tourist Department. For them, the company made travelogues, under Morton's guidance.

But by 1936, the pressure of meeting a weekly wage bill became too much for the company, and it was sold outright to its only major customer-the New Zealand Government. As the Government Film and Advertising Studios, under the Tourist Department, it took on a new lease of life.

For a couple of years the studios flourished, and then came World War Two.

A major film "ONE HUNDRED CROWDED YEARS", produced to mark New Zealand's Centennial, was underway in late 1939. It was decided this would be completed, but there were no further plans to continue Government film production. It was possible that after ONE HUNDRED CROWDED YEARS" the Miramar studios would close for good.

Stanhope Andrews, schoolteacher and writer, came forward to remind the Labour administration that it had in its hands a report on documentary film making by John Grierson, founder of the documentary school in Britain. If implemented, said Andrews, the report's findings on the value of state film production in wartime would be of inestimable value to the country's morale. To prove the point, Stanhope Andrews-with Cyril Morton's assistance-compiled and wrote a ten-minute film called "COUNTRY LADS".

A montage of newsreel shots of troop departures, "COUNTRY LADS" was distinguished by its low-key commentary (spoken by Andrews himself), its effective complementary use of narration and music, and its obvious sincerity. The very first film to be released with the presentation title "New Zealand National Film Unit", "COUNTRY LADS" so impressed members of the War Cabinet that Andrews was given the green light to proceed with his plans for revitalising the Government Film Studios, and making them an integral part of the war effort.

Andrews was appointed producer of the National Film Unit, with Cyril Morton as his assistant. …

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