Lights, cameras and it's all action

By Helen Frances

Peter Jackson has attracted global players who are hiring New Zealanders instead of bringing their own crews. Photo / Supplied
Peter Jackson has attracted global players who are hiring New Zealanders instead of bringing their own crews. Photo / Supplied

The butcher, the baker, the candlestick-maker - throw in actors, director, producer, make-up artists, costume technician, camera operator, grips, set dressers, on-set data wranglers and a raft of other highly skilled people, and you have the set of a film in the making.

An ephemeral city in miniature, the production phase of a film is all go. Sometimes years of work have gone into bringing it to this stage. Post-production processes then get the film ready for market.

Since Lord of the Rings hit screens around the world in 2001, the film industry in New Zealand has grown; new digital technologies are changing the nature of some of the work.

A successful producer for 20 years, Robin Laing, MBE, is film materials manager on a year's contract with the New Zealand Film Commission. She deals with film-makers and their movies, "working at the crossroads of film and digital" as the industry moves through another technological transition.

Laing has seen the New Zealand film industry become a global player, significantly through the success of Sir Peter Jackson.

"What Peter has done, which is an absolute miracle, is he's given the capacity of the film industry in New Zealand a really high profile. And that has attracted a lot more work here."

Foreign film companies no longer bring their crew and supporting cast in such numbers, as they know they can rely on the skills of people here.

"That's been a big change and the sheer size of the industry has been a big change."

Laing says Weta Workshop and Weta Digital have created work that is hands-on and ongoing.

"They are employing a range of model-makers, and people are flocking from offshore to take up a lot of those jobs. You need very particular skills and they've trained a lot of people too."

Laing says while working in film in New Zealand can still be a hand-to-mouth, the industry continues to need new people and there are many areas of work, apart from the more widely known roles of director or cinematographer. People must love films, network persistently and be prepared to start at the bottom of the movie hierarchy. The role of runner is a good entry-level position. Teamwork is crucial, the hours long and the work demanding. Laing says there is no room for people who are in poor health or who are cynical - an attitude easy to adopt in a high-pressure environment.

While crew on set do much the same jobs as ever, she says digital film recording is changing work in post-production. Digital technicians and computer engineers are in demand. Highlights from Statistics New Zealand note that "in 2010 there were 3078 businesses in the New Zealand screen industry, up 15 per cent from 2009". Post-production activity has almost doubled during the past two years and is now worth $584 million.

Cameron Harland, general manager of Park Road Post Production, Miramar, says as more feature films are shot digitally, there have been developments in camera technology and the services to extract the camera data, check it and safeguard it.

"Park Road is actively focused on securing feature film post, while some of the Auckland post houses, such as Digi Post and Images and Sound, obtain a good pipeline of work from television as well as features," Harland says. "There has also been a growth in VFX companies offering services to local and foreign production - from Weta Digital at the very highest end, through to Workshop FX, Sauce and DigiPost."

The many parts in a VFX pipeline require specific skills and talent. For young visual-effects artists, there are roles in animation, compositing and lighting. The number of data wranglers has increased to deal with data generated by the move to stereoscopic 3D, which produces double the amount of data than 2D.

"These are the guys responsible for extracting data from digital cameras and securely moving that data to our servers, as well as managing and moving all data around our network."

Data wrangler Jeannie Yeung, 23, is 18 months into her role at Park Road Post. She made a smooth transition from a degree in multi-media systems engineering at Massey University, which included two internships, one at Park Road, the other at Weta Digital. She says optimism and energy - and needing little sleep or food - are attributes which help her in a job she absolutely loves.

A long-time fan of films, Yeung had wanted to be part of the industry since high school. The technical side of film-making suited her, as her strengths are in mathematics and science rather than art. She says no workday is the same.

"You've got to think on your feet, things are changing all the time, which means we don't have set processes; you've got to be happy to roll with it." Her group of six in-house data wranglers receives about 400 emails daily requesting different jobs from in-house, national and international sources.

"We are all ridiculously organised and tidy - not so much in our own lives, but with computers. Everything has to be in the right place and always named the right way."

They track everything and back it up (the precious work from film shoots and VFX); perhaps send deliverables via internet with very secure protocols; touch up commercials (they get four or five a day), scan films for quality control and problem-solve if something is wrong, such as a corrupt frame with a green line down the middle.

Hours can be long - her record is a 20-hour day. And the team has to be "a well-oiled machine", communicating effectively and getting on together.

While there are junior-level positions suitable for graduates and younger staff, Harland says: "There is also a need to have senior-level staff delivering at a world-class level. In some cases, we have had to seek [people] from offshore."

- NZ Herald

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