Highlighting New Zealand’s landscape and culture through an elaborate three-camera filming process, two memorable widescreen spectacles—one from Hollywood, the other homegrown, both thought lost for decades—can now finally be revisited on DVD.
Mount Cook’s majestic peak rising into view. Sibelius’s Karelia Suite reaching a climax. A long white cloud caressing the horizon. Those were the final, rousing moments of This is New Zealand, etched into the memory of audiences more than 40 years ago. Now, after an eye watering return to cinemas at the New Zealand International Film Festival in 2007, this fondly remembered film has at last made its way to home video courtesy of its director, Hugh Macdonald.
Commissioned for Expo ’70 in Osaka, Japan, the National Film Unit project, championed by the then Deputy Prime Minister Jack Marshall as the government sought alternative export markets, might have been just another tourism trailer had it not gambled on a technically demanding three-camera/three-panel process to deliver its conceptual vision of New Zealand to the world. Consisting purely of image montage and a multi-channel soundtrack—a dazzling assembly of visual and aural iconography, some of it clichéd, some of it bracing, all of it impressively amalgamated—the 20-minute film triumphed both overseas and at home, where it was seen by two million visitors to the New Zealand pavilion (over six months), and more than 400,000 Kiwis who attended a theatrical run across four main centres in 1971. Those screenings, however, were to be the film’s last for some time, as detailed in That Was New Zealand, a new 65-minute documentary covering the making and reception of This is New Zealand, as well as its rescue and restoration by way of Wellington’s Park Road Post and a new digital intermediate process.
Recently, advances in digital technology have seen the resurrection of another long-lost film known for its breathtaking widescreen images of the country: South Seas Adventure, a 1958 travelogue remastered to Blu-ray/DVD by Los Angeles-based outfit Flicker Alley. Neither film has been seen theatrically or otherwise for decades, though South Seas Adventure will be less familiar to Kiwis of that generation: as one of the last original three-strip Cinerama features, it also necessitated a three-projector set-up, and would have arrived here just as Cinerama theatres were being converted to single projector venues. (Due to rising costs and waning popularity, single camera films on 70mm prints became the Cinerama norm in the early sixties. Back then, according to film researcher David Lascelles, there were only two “true” Cinerama theatres left in the country equipped to handle South Seas Adventure: one in Auckland, and one in Christchurch.) By the time This is New Zealand had returned from Expo ’70 and was being readied for local audiences, Cinerama theatres and their trademark curved screens were no more, and special projector booths had to be constructed within existing cinemas to accommodate the film’s simultaneous three-reel presentation (plus a fourth reel for the soundtrack). 35mm and 16mm versions were printed and archived, though it wasn’t until 2006 that the three separate negatives could be recovered and composited onto a single anamorphic print for exhibition—its belated ‘redux’ beginning with a nationwide tour via the New Zealand International Film Festival, and culminating seven years later with this re-authored DVD release.
In discussing these logistical challenges with Macdonald, who asserts that the film would not have suited a curved screen even if Cinerama had still been around in 1971, it’s also apparent that This is New Zealand and South Seas Adventure differ quite dramatically in form and content. A speculative attempt by Hollywood to counter the threat of television in the fifties, Cinerama, while returning a sense of grandeur to the movie-going experience, was a short-lived gimmick, and the formal and narrative limitations of its travelogue series show. South Seas Adventure, the fifth and last of these travelogues, and one of so many films to tap into the West’s enthusiasm for South Pacific exoticism, begins on board an ocean liner berthing in Honolulu, before moving onto Tahiti, Tonga, Fiji, Vanuatu’s Pentecost Island, New Zealand, and finally, Australia—an itinerary mapped with all the rigid efficiency of a cruise ship tour. Each stopover, introduced via the baritones of Orson Welles, is narrated with factoids and anecdotes about the people and places in focus. The result is pleasant and pictorial without feeling particularly adventurous in scope.
Whereas South Seas Adventure is gently panoramic in its worldview, This is New Zealand is excitingly kaleidoscopic. Though boasting its fair share of awe-inspiring vistas and spectacular aerial photography—notably, a fly-over sequence approaching Christchurch, Wellington, and Auckland that’s uncannily similar to the cityscape shots seen in the New Zealand chapter of South Seas Adventure—the production’s boldest move was to exploit all three frames at its disposal and treat the widescreen as a triptych. This decision was a breakthrough for the filmmakers involved, with the idea of separating the full image into a medley of smaller visuals proving not only judicious from the point of view of shooting footage (it meant single camera units could be dispatched around the country independently, with the more complicated three-camera rig reserved for keynote and aerial shots), but also creatively galvanizing for those given the task of editing and scoring it. Some of the most innovative work on This is New Zealand is revealed in its shot construction, where diverse imagery is mixed and matched through the unifying principal of “theme, subject, movement, or symmetry”—a dynamic approach to editing that extends to the novel use of optical effects and a multi-channel sound mix described as a kind of “visual percussion” by Macdonald.
At one point, This is New Zealand takes the split-screen composition to its nth degree by transforming a simple nature sequence into a vast mosaic of flora and fauna—a flourish that recalls the thrilling use of image grids and multiplication in John Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix (1966), itself a late Cinerama attraction. South Seas Adventure, by contrast, employs a split-screen only once in its two hour duration: in a scene portraying Australia’s ‘School of the Air’, a correspondence school connecting pupils and teachers in remote outback areas via shortwave radio. As quaint and unimaginative as South Seas Adventure now seems—especially against the inventive visual design of This is New Zealand—its primary objective was to transport the audience to these faraway lands via the Cinerama experience, and its sweeping imagery certainly envelopes the viewer in that respect. Unlike 3-D, which enhances the depth and perspective of a shot, Cinerama mimics our natural field of view, and the “Smilebox” process that South Seas Adventure has been masked in for home video nicely simulates the film’s projection on a concave screen. Although the image appears distorted to begin with, one adjusts to the curved look quickly enough, and the overall effect remains a close approximation of a person’s forward and peripheral vision.
Perception, of course, is everything, and it must be said that South Seas Adventure’s journey through Polynesia, however immersive, is hopelessly romanticised— everything is set to ‘island time’, signs of colonialism are largely suppressed, and the culture is exoticised as if rendered in a Paul Gauguin painting. Even when the film makes the leap from the primitive charm of the smaller Pacific islands to the First World nations of New Zealand and Australia, there’s little doubt that what we’re seeing is brochure material. Orson Welles refers to New Zealand as “the world in miniature” in his voiceover, and the 20 minutes devoted to the country—roughly the same as the length of This is New Zealand—run with that theme. As Otago sheep stations, Lake Taupo trout fishing spots, and Rotorua hot pools feature routinely, so to do our primary industries and big cities, though only as a prelude to a Maori kapa haka performance, one of several Polynesian ‘cultural displays’ staged in the film. What appears kitschy here, if not paraded for its indigenous ‘otherness’, is at the very least acknowledged, the same of which can’t be said for the Australia depicted in South Seas Adventure: a modern, sporting, immigrant-friendly land of opportunity with not an aboriginal face or reference in sight.
Such whitewashing makes South Seas Adventure a relic of the past. Its cinematography, however, still holds great interest, particularly from a geographic point of view, with some of its most admired sequences showing off none other than the magnificence of the Milford Sound and Southern Alps. One of the airborne sequences takes us perilously through a saddle on the ridge of Mount Cook—now officially known as “Cinerama Col”—which Macdonald notes, from a story passed on by NFU cameraman and aerial photographer on This is New Zealand, Kell Fowler, was quite an achievement to film. “The area known as Cinerama gap in the Southern Alps is still called that because of this particular event. When it came to the day of filming, they only had a light Auster aircraft, and the Cinerama camera rig, as you can imagine, was huge, much heavier than the very heavy Technicolor rigs. It took the aircraft two hours of circling just to gain enough altitude to go through Cinerama gap.” His story is corroborated by Cinerama historian David Coles, who remarks on his audio commentary that the pilot, Harry Wigley, co-founder of Mount Cook Airlines, considered these charters “the most dangerous flying of his career,” and subsequently was asked to fly the route depicted in the film many times over. (Coles goes to add that Wigley’s ashes were scattered on Cinerama gap.)
This incident alone says something of South Seas Adventure’s historical significance and obscurity—the film, a uniquely cinematic record of New Zealand in the late fifties, has on account of its obsolete format, been all but impossible to view since 1966. (Except for a select few at John H. Mitchell’s custom made backyard Cinerama theatre in Australia, Coles boasts.) Incidentally, Macdonald has his own personal anecdote relating to its disappearance and ‘holy grail’ status among film boffins and historians. Working for a short period as a used film salesman after he left the NFU in 1985-86—a job which involved sourcing reject 35mm negatives for sound spacer required by the burgeoning film industry—Macdonald recalls the time he stumbled upon a discarded print of South Seas Adventure:
“I went around the various distributors I knew and said, ‘Give me you old prints.’ Among the films I destroyed was a print of South Seas Adventure. Initially, I was reluctant to destroy it, because it was such a historic film, but of course it couldn’t be screened anywhere because of its six-perf pull-down and it also ran at 30fps. It was also a typical Eastman Color print of the period, and had begun to fade very noticeably. So I set up a rig and wound off my 1,000 ft load. But when it came to the New Zealand scenes—there was an aerial over Wellington harbour and Cinerama gap, and possibly one other—I managed to save a strip of about two-to-three feet of the shots and keep them together as samples. Just recently I was trying to remember what the hell had happened to them. I thought I might have given them to the Film Archive. Fortunately, I had given them to my old friend John Bell of Time Cinema [Lyall Bay, Wellington], and he’s still got them somewhere.”
Macdonald and his National Film Unit crew, by turns, had their own cinematic record of New Zealand to reclaim. Up until 1987, the NFU made newsreels and documentaries to promote New Zealand’s cultural and scenic identity to the world, much of which is now collected at the New Zealand Film Archive. Like any other taxpayer-funded initiative, the NFU was open to scrutiny from 1941, the year it was established by the Labour government, through until its sale in 1990 to a subsidiary of TVNZ. During its operation, whether the NFU represented value for money in terms of tourism gains is open to debate. Though just as likely to offer calculated romantic visions of New Zealand (mixed in with ‘social problem’ narratives and old-world Maori and Pacific storylines not dissimilar from those in South Seas Adventure), what remains undisputable is the historical value behind the films it produced. Certainly, the importance of capturing New Zealand’s heritage on celluloid for posterity should not be underestimated, nor for that matter the proving ground that the NFU provided for filmmakers in a nascent feature film industry.
Watching This is New Zealand today evokes pangs of nostalgia for the innocence and optimism of the society it portrays—a notion that’s hard to reconcile with the nation’s ongoing insecurity with its place in the world. However, apart from the obvious fashion and technological throwbacks, there’s an immediacy to this ‘time capsule’ that derives as much from its high definition as its radical craft—indeed, there’s nothing quite like seeing history in full colour on 35mm film, as opposed to the black and white newsreel and early broadcast aesthetic that typifies our experience of New Zealand’s past on screen. Through the modernity on display, This is New Zealand exhibits a country moving forward at pace. The only constant is the unwavering beauty of its scenery, though even then, it’s no ordinary picture postcard. New Zealand isn’t framed as the mythological fantasy of Peter Jackson’s tedious Middle Earth blockbusters—movies also made under a tourism mandate—nor is it intensely spiritulised as the primordial landscape of Maori legend. On the contrary, it’s terra firma, present and attainable, more intimate than epic, and yet still poetic and blessed in its splendour. When it’s cut to an orchestral score, there are brief moments, dare I say, where the film is Malick-esque in its reverence for nature—before Terrence Malick was actually making movies, and before such a thing could be reduced to parody.
The bonus features on these DVD editions are smartly curated. The aforementioned documentary That Was New Zealand reunites as many of the personnel to have worked on This is New Zealand for its in-depth retrospective, and is especially thorough in its technical insight. (Macdonald’s website is also an excellent resource for this.) South Seas Adventure follows suit with a concise but detailed tutorial on the complex restoration of Cinerama productions—an informative walkthrough of the film-to-digital process that complements a number of interviews and archival featurettes from the Cinerama era. A lot of fun is the 20-minute short This is Expo (also directed by Macdonald), a behind-the-scenes look at the New Zealand pavilion in Osaka. Documenting the workings of trade and enterprise within a modish cultural showcase, the film is both fascinating for its record of the striking modernist architecture at Expo ’70 (including the famous ‘Geyser Room Restaurant’), and mildly amusing for its anthropological observations of Japanese encountering such native peculiarities as lamb burgers and milkshakes.
It should be noted that This is New Zealand was conceived for the big screen, and while its arrival on DVD is cause of celebration, the visual impact of the film is somewhat diminished even on a decent widescreen television, with the image height significantly shorter than that of a CinemaScope aspect ratio (4:1 vs. 2.35:1). As mentioned in the documentary, it’s one of the reasons why This is New Zealand was never considered for VHS. Macdonald has circumvented the problem of the reduced image size with the addition of an interactive feature on the DVD, allowing the viewer, with the use the angle function, to toggle between one of three panels isolated in full 16:9. The richness of the photography, though out of context, is better appreciated in this mode.
Macdonald has mentioned the possibility of a Blu-ray issue of this remastered version, and with its new digital life, it seems only a matter of time before This is New Zealand returns to an auditorium of some sort—as a permanent installation at Te Papa, perhaps? Though no more than a novelty, South Seas Adventure deserves a ‘homecoming’ cinema presentation of its own, and I understand a DCP is available of the film. Until then, it can be ordered as a Region Free Blu-ray/DVD combo via Flicker Alley or Amazon.com, while This is New Zealand can be purchased locally via hughmacfilm.co.nz or arovideo.co.nz.