Shot in New Zealand: The Art and Craft of the Kiwi Cinematographer
Random House, $55.00,
Shot in New Zealand is a handsomely produced survey of the work of 12 New Zealand cinematographers, ordered alphabetically from Warwick “Waka” Attewell to John Toon. Based on interviews with the cameramen (the dominance of males in the profession is noted), the book is profusely illustrated with superbly reproduced colour stills. It is clearly aimed at a general readership, with technical details explained in laymen’s terms and an absence of critical or aesthetic theory. Though comparable ventures have been undertaken elsewhere – author Duncan Petrie has himself published The British Cinematographer – this is the first such study to appear locally.
A relative newcomer to New Zealand, Petrie is best known for his studies of Scottish cinema. That this is a non-native view of the subject is not evident in the text, however, which is not only scrupulously accurate in its historical and geographical detail but also evidences a rich familiarity with the cultural context of the filmmaking practices described.
In an introductory chapter, Petrie sketches the history of cinematography in New Zealand and identifies some of the factors (such as harsh light, variable lighting conditions, low budgets, and – until recently – lack of a sophisticated infastructure) that have made it distinctive. The cinematographer chapters that follow have a set pattern: biographical details, then brief plot synopses of each of the major films with comments on aspects of the camerawork. Snippets from interviews are spliced into Petrie’s narrative, or at times placed in sidebars. By and large Petrie deals only, as his title indicates, with films shot in New Zealand, but occasionally he discusses overseas productions such as The Portrait of a Lady (photographed by Stuart Dryburgh). Each chapter ends with a select filmography.
This is not a critical work. Though he takes sideswipes from time to time at some films (Chunuk Bair, Death Warmed Up, The Leading Edge, User Friendly, Jack Brown Genius, Chicken, Strata, Trespasses) that have failed on account of their writing, performances or direction, Petrie virtually never ventures negative critical comments on the cinematography. This is no doubt out of politeness towards the cameramen who have contributed to the project, but also evidences Petrie’s belief that the standard of cinematography in New Zealand is generally high, and at times higher than that of other creative aspects of the production.
Probably the greatest strength of the book is the insight it provides into the working methods of lighting cameramen and camera operators. The text is peppered with descriptions of tricks of the trade, from the graduated filters Attewell used to enhance the blue of the Central Otago skies in Starlight Hotel, to the perilous positioning of operator Graeme Cowley in the back of the Mini with the camera bolted on a piece of 4×2 as the car careered down the platform of Wellington Railway Station in Goodbye Pork Pie, to Donald Duncan’s photographing of Lucy Lawless in Xena with a “strong, soft light source right in her eyeline” and the use of “anti-fill” (black flagging of light) on one side of her face to increase contrast. Such details invite us to appreciate the subtlety and dedication to craft with which the imagery of local film and television is created.
Petrie frequently celebrates the ingenuity with which New Zealand cinematographers in an underdeveloped industry and on limited budgets have met the technical challenges proffered by the projects they are working on. There is undoubtedly much truth in the no 8 fencing wire myth here, but it should not be overstated. Thus Petrie cites Michael Seresin’s use of silk stockings over the lens for diffusion on Sleeping Dogs, a practice later followed by Cowley since proper diffusion filters were unavailable. Such use of stocking material was, however, not an innovation and had been common practice in the British film industry for some years.
Petrie also lauds the versatility of New Zealand cameramen, able to move easily between features, television dramas, documentaries, commercials and music videos, and also to shift back and forth between the various roles of director of photography, camera operator and gaffer (lighting electrician) depending on the nature of the project. To a large exent this has been necessitated by the small size of the industry (which is hardly unique around the world), but there is undoubted truth in the view that New Zealand filmmaking has benefited from the absence of rigid job demarcation.
The cinematographers interviewed repeatedly stress that their job is to interpret and realise the visual wishes of the director and to serve the dramatic needs of the story. It is in demonstrating this process at work that the language of Shot in New Zealand is too often inadequate to the task, being platitudinous or falling away into vacuous generalisation. Thus “Seresin gave Sleeping Dogs an appropriately dramatic look”; Attewell’s cinematography affords Starlight Hotel “an added grandeur and atmosphere appropriate to the drama”, while Cowley’s on Carry Me Back “is very effective throughout at framing both the city of Wellington and the verdant rural landscape of the South Island in a suitably picturesque manner.” On Goodbye Pork Pie, the text informs us, “a combination of careful camera mounting on the car and a great deal of mobility … provided an inherent dynamism that helped to drive the narrative and involve the audience.”
This weakness links with the book’s failure to advance and sustain a central thesis. Petrie tells us that the cinematographers he is profiling “deserve to be recognised, alongside their fellow image makers in the fields of painting and photography, as creative artists.” Yet he is never able to make a convincing case for this proposition, sympathetic as we may be to its intent. On the one hand, there is, again, the limpness of language. “His intuitive and deep understanding of the complexity of human beings transcends the barriers between drama and documentary, fact and fiction,” Petrie writes of Alun Bollinger, “allowing him to craft striking images that, irrespective of mode or genre, convey this understanding of the human condition.” But, on the other hand, the book’s problems here are entangled with the very nature of filmmaking as a collective endeavour. We can readily study the work of painters and still photographers in terms of subject matter and style; with cinematographers it is very difficult to do so.
Some cameramen in the past have made their name through pioneering particular styles: the velvety low-key of Lee Garmes, the wide-angle deep focus of Greg Toland, the mobile, intimate location shooting of Walter Lassally, the soft natural-source lighting of Nestor Almendros. Others, as Petrie mentions, have enjoyed fruitful long-term collaborations with particular directors, like Sven Nykvist with Ingmar Bergman and Vittorio Storaro with Bernardo Bertolucci. Perhaps because of the nature of the industry, cinematographers in New Zealand have not been able to develop distinctive stylistic preferences in these ways; they have, rather – as Shot in New Zealand so clearly demonstrates – exercised flexibility, subordinating personal aesthetics to the perceived needs of a wide variety of projects in different formats and genres, and working with directors of very varied visual predilections.
How, then, can we recognise them as artists? Acknowledging their technical expertise and mastery of the craft is easily done, but how can we grasp any personal vision separate from that of the director whom they are serving? In what way is it possible to compare, say, Stuart Dryburgh with Rita Angus or Robin Morrison as interpreter of the New Zealand landscape?
It is not surprising, perhaps, that an introductory survey for a general audience does not tackle the difficult questions that critical analysis of a collective and industrial art form like the cinema pose. Yet by failing to do so, Shot in New Zealand can make only a minor contribution to a developing understanding and appreciation of New Zealand visual culture.
Russell Campbell interviewed British cinematographers for his book Practical Motion Picture Photography.