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We meet natural history filmmaker Alison Ballance.
The first time I see Alison Ballance she is looking slightly furtive. I have arranged to meet her at Natural History New Zealand's premises. So it is that at 9.30 on a grey, cold Dunedin morning I see a woman ducking into the NHNZ entrance. The sculpted lion and unicorn in the royal coat of arms above the portal of what was once Dunedin's police barracks gaze down in imperial disapproval.
Although I don't know Ballance yet, I have heard her speak. On an earlier Saturday, on Kim Hill's programme on National Radio, Ballance gave an account of how she spent the last two months, filming first on the Galapagos Islands, off the coast of Ecuador, and then on the uninhabited Pacific coral atoll of Palmyra, for what will be an episode in a six-part documentary series Equator.
The Galapagos and Palmyra make for an instructive contrast, she tells Kim. Palmyra is an island oasis in desert ocean; the Galapagos, bathed by the cold, nutrient-rich waters of the Cromwell and Humboldt currents, is a desert archipelago in a fertile ocean.
They are also great camera fodder: places of pure spectacle, with engaging, photogenic and unwary wildlife, and magnificent landscapes.
Palmyra has coral reefs, abundant sealife, and seabird colonies. And, weighing in at up to 13 kilograms, it has the world's largest land invertebrate, the robber crab a creature for which Ballance developed some affection. I had a waterbottle from Honolulu with a picture of a voluptuous Hawaiian maiden on it, she tells me when we meet. And there was one robber crab in particular that was always be wrestling with the bottle, trying to steal it. I don't know if it wanted the water or the picture.
The Galapagos, a naturalist's mecca, have land tortoises of great age, a number of finch species (whose adaptations helped inform Darwin's thoughts on evolution), flightless shags (which Darwin missed seeing), and aquatic iguanas, which graze on seaweed and rid themselves of excess salt by sneezing, and look like they have terrible sunburn . It has seals, sealions, penguins and seabird colonies.
The Galapagos, it is true, are much filmed, but Ballance and her team had a point of difference. Along with two Panasonic high definition video cameras (worth around $150,000 apiece, and purchased for the Equator series) they took a light-weight jib, or crane, and a tracking dolly, allowing them to 'fly' over their unfazed and largely immobile subjects. Our style for this show is slow and lyrical, says Ballance. Hi def video lets you see fabulous detail in the pictures, so we thought, let's take time looking at the pictures, and let's give the production a theatrical pace rather than a music-video pace.
Now for her pains, all those 12-hour days filming under the broiling sun on barren slopes of the Galapagos, Ballance has been sentenced to six weeks before a video screen. Seventy hours of video must be meticulously logged into her laptop. Every clip has to be described. They overshot, Ballance owns up, but our librarian will be able to sell that footage forever.
Her only time out will be the underwater footage. Jeanie Ackley, the show's assistant producer, will do the underwater stuff; she's a marine biologist. I can say I like a particular shot, but she can tell me, That's an abudefduf which really is a genus of fish or whatever.
Faced with 70 hours of sitting before a screen, is it any wonder that Ballance sometimes drifts in a bit later in the morning? It has become her custom to leap into her car in the mornings and breakfast at a local surf beach frequented by yellow-eyed penguins, sealions and sometimes the odd leopard seal calling by from Antarctica.
Now there's a reason to live in Dunedin: wild beaches on your doorstep. I am the only person there, and yet I can still drive to work in 20 minutes.
If in the mainstream world of film, New Zealand is internationally known for Miramar Studios, Peter Jackson and Wellington, then in the world of natural history filmmaking the equivalents must be Natural History New Zealand, Michael Stedman and Dunedin.
From its premises in that Victorian barracks now grafted internally onto the building alongside NHNZ has a number of film crews operating world wide at any one time. NHNZ now employs around 120 people: a mix of full-time and freelance. It is a profitable enterprise for its owners, and it has critical acclaim. Pass beneath the lion and unicorn and into the foyer of NHNZ and you will find yourself in a gloating room, with a wall of framed certificates and a glass cabinet of trophies, including the Emmy won by Ian McGee (another Massey alumnus) for an episode of Twisted Tales.
But you have to ask yourself as you fly in by noisy turboprop from Christchurch how did it come to be here? Cut it how you may, Dunedin remains a small, remote southern university city with a bracing climate.
Happenstance is the answer. Natural History New Zealand had its beginnings back in the days of that somewhat fusty state monopoly, the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation. In Dunedin the NZBC maintained a production studio where programmes like Play School and Spot On were produced and a local television station. So when populations of kakapo were found in Fiordland in the 1970s it was Dunedin staff who were called on: news reporter Neil Harraway, news cameraman Robert Brown, and sound operator Adrian Kubala. (Harroway and Kubala remain NHNZ employees; Brown does freelance work for the company.)
Five minute news items about wildlife became 15-minute specials. Then Neil Harraway visited the BBC Natural History Unit and said, Hey we could do that here. Soon Dunedin was turning out full-blown documentaries under the aegis of natural history unit of its own.
Success bred success, and by the 1990s the point at which Ballance joined it the Natural History Unit was celebrated for making the documentary series Wild South, had won a clutch of awards . . . and was owned by a state broadcaster whose principal interest had become dismembering itself.
As a part of Television New Zealand the Natural History Unit had begun making shows for overseas sale, but at that point TVNZ wasn't interested in having an in-house production facility, explains Ballance. Our future needed to be somewhere else. Michael Stedman, our Managing Director, realised this before anyone else and spent a year looking for someone to buy us.
That someone was Fox Television Studios, which purchased 80 percent of what we now know as Natural History New Zealand in 1997 and the remaining 20 percent a little later. Michael Stedman remains NHNZ's Managing Director.
You should blame Jacques Cousteau, if anyone, for what Ballance has become. Ballance may never have had a childhood ambition to make documentaries, but she thinks Jacques Cousteau who left an entire generation of young women yearning to be marine biologists might be implicated in her decision to pursue natural history and to enrol, first off, at Auckland University, which runs a marine laboratory at Leigh on the east coast north of Auckland.
But Auckland University's zoology department felt large and impersonal, and when it came to her masterate Ballance picked Massey, where she had heard there was more of a community feeling.
Quite what she would do her masterate eluded her. Land snails New Zealand has a multitude of species interested her, but she could see certain drawbacks: I wanted to do the little ones, incredibly small and complicated. None of them had names. They had shorthand titles like punctid n. sp. 31, and I realised I was going to have to spend all my time peering down a microscope wondering what the hell these things were.
Then, after talking with Professor Brian Springett, Ballance fell under the sway of Mike Rudge, of DSIR Ecology Division. Rudge's particular fascination was the feral sheep of the remote and bitterly cold Campbell Island. Ballance had no particular feelings about feral sheep, but she was eager for the adventure of Campbell Island.
If you were to take that turboprop aircraft from Christchurch to Dunedin and persuade the pilot to keep flying roughly south, in another hour or so you would look down onto the grey-green scrub-covered peat of unpeopled Campbell Island. Situated 600 kilometres from New Zealand, Campbell covers 11 square kilometres, with a western coastline fringed by sheer cliffs and promontories.
Sheep had been introduced to Campbell Island in 1895, and it was farmed up until 1931 and then abandoned, together with its 4,000 sheep and 20 cattle. By 1960 the sheep numbers had declined to around 1,000, but then the population began to grow. In 1970, in answer to concerns about the damage the sheep were doing to the island ecology, a fence was erected across the waist of the island and most of the sheep to the north were shot. By the early 1980s the numbers of sheep on the southern half of the island were burgeoning, and another cull was planned.
Mike Rudge was interested in the growth and age structure of the sheep population. How had the population changed in response to selection pressures? What had happened that the population should be growing so rapidly after having declined for so long? He wanted a suitable master's student to find out.
Professor Springett remembers Ballance preparing thoroughly and then effectively disappearing off the face of the earth. Our contact was a once-weekly radio schedule to discuss her progress.
Ballance wintered over on the island (when the late John Skipworth, one of Ballance's thesis supervisors turned up after a rough boat trip to be shown her progress the island was deep under snow), her time on the island coinciding with the cull on the southern half of the island.
Which she remembers as a time of dead sheep and more dead sheep: dead sheep she would have to dissect. Dead sheep from which she would have to take the jawbones, which, boiled and cleaned, would, through their tooth eruption and tooth wear, be used to measure the age of the sheep when she got back to New Zealand. It got very macabre. There were carcasses everywhere. It was cold on Campbell Island, and my hands were always wet. It got to the point where I'd look forward to having my hands in a fresh carcass to warm them up. Or I'd be having lunch and realise I was leaning on a dead sheep.
Then there was the cleaning of the jawbones. Ballance shared quarters with the staff of the island's meteorological station. The smell of boiling mutton is foul. Everyone else would leave the weather station when I was boiling jawbones. Then the cook would go, it's roast mutton for dinner tonight, and I would say, 'Well I don't think so.'
The experience would be the trigger that turned Ballance vegetarian. It would also turn her into a published writer. On her return to New Zealand Ballance wrote up her experiences as a story for Air New Zealand's in-flight magazine.
For a while, after her return to New Zealand, Ballance's career trajectory looked a little wobbly: dribs and drabs of contract work followed by periods of unemployment. You don't just walk straight into a job as an ecologist, says Ballance matter-of-factly. But she also set about gaining the hands-on, practical experience she lacked. Working for the Wildlife Service she walked transects through South Westland forests, logging the birds she encountered. As a volunteer she helped in the search for the South Island kokako rumoured to exist on Stewart Island, and she helped trap ferrets and cats in the Mackenzie country. Eventually a job found her.
Ballance had applied for a job as field technician with DSIR's Ecology Division. They looked at me and said we don't think you are field technician material. Instead, on the strength of her masterate, that published article, good English grades from school, and the endorsement of Mike Rudge, Ecology Division created a position for Ballance as an information officer. There she stayed for four-and-half years, during which, she says, I also collaborated in some field research to keep me sane, mostly on wetas and rock wrens.
Soon after handing in her thesis Ballance had been interviewed for a position with the Natural History Unit. Peter Hayden [another Massey alumnus and a contemporary of writer, cartoonist and playwright Tom Scott] interviewed me and I didn't get the job, but I said to myself there's this place called the TVNZ Natural History Unit and they make documentaries. In fact they make Wild South documentaries. I thought 'I'd like to do that'. Three years later the NHU came calling: would she be interested in a job as a researcher? But at that point I was about to go backpacking in South America for four months. When the circumstances finally fitted, it was five years on from her first interview: five useful years during which she had come to know almost everybody working in ecology and conservation. Someone would say, I think I might like to film wetas and I'd say this is who you need to talk to, where you need to go and this is the time of year, and time of day, she says.
About filmmaking, she knew little. When I started, 'producer' and 'director' were Hollywood terms. But she soon came to understand that she wanted to direct. Directors have this creative freedom.
Ballance's first documentary as director and writer was Invaders of Paradise, a compilation from the NHNZ library covering the many exotic species deer, possums, rats and suchlike that now, through a series of bad decisions, says Ballance, make New Zealand their home. Her first documentary as producer, director and writer this time Ballance had a camera crew at her command was about wetas, Return of the Demon Grasshopper.
And then I did a show, which took three years to film, on kakapo: one year on Little Barrier Island and two years on Codfish Island.
Ballance had acquired a reputation for hardihood: I have a tolerance for hard field work that most people at work don't share. You can put me on an island for six months and I am quite happy to live in a tent and carry heavy packs.
Her first overseas break was the Deserts episode of the Wild Asia series. They asked 'Do you want to do the desert show?' and I said yes, but I changed it to desert and high grasslands, because dry grasslands are such a major ecosystem in Asia. I also knew how hard it would be to make an entire show about the desert.
In 1998, seven years after the fall of the Soviet Union, Ballance and a crew were in Mongolia following the migration of the demoiselle crane and filming the Przewalski horses, or takhi, as they are known locally. For several months the six Mongolians and three New Zealanders traversed the country, passengers in a rundown jeep and a very rundown van. With designs based on World War II jeeps these could run on 76 octane petrol that would have been the death of a Japanese vehicle.
The parts were completely interchangeable. The drivers just had a big tin of nuts and bolts and screws and if anything broke they'd fix it. We once did a complete head gasket change in a paddock, says Ballance.
I used to despair that we broke down so often. Our Mongolian fixer, on the other hand, would say how great it was that our drivers were such good mechanics. One of Mongolia's other peculiarities is the local cuisine, heavily centred around mutton.
Someone must have thought 'If there is one place in the world where they eat boiled mutton and only boiled mutton and they eat it three times a day, then that'll be Mongolia', says Ballance. 'So why not send Alison there?' The nice thing was my camerawoman was also a vegetarian and we did have our own cook. I lost a lot of weight, and I when I got back to New Zealand I was fond of saying, 'If anyone offers me boiled rice and tomato soup I will throw it at them.'
While the animals themselves haven't taken to demanding salaries or residuals, keeping a camera team in the field is expensive. Wild Asia was a blue chip series of documentaries; blue chip meaning shot in the grand manner, of high moral intent and big budget. To film her single episode of Wild Asia, Ballance spent three-and-a-half months in Mongolia and three weeks in Nepal, and her assistant producer spent two months in India. Equator though smaller budget is also blue chip.
For prestigious ventures like these NHNZ must stitch together partnerships (unlike its state-funded rival the BBC, which need not bother with such details).
For Wild Asia that meant teaming up with NHK (Japan's BBC equivalent) and Discovery Channel. For Equator the co-production partners are NHK, Discovery HD, and France 5.
Ballance has established a particular relationship with NHK: she is often asked to edit and repurpose NHK's documentaries for the international market. The Japanese appetite for nature programming is incredible. They revere nature and the small things in the world, like butterflies, flowers and birds.
Every week NHK will run a new natural history documentary of between one and two hours in length.
To a New Zealand way of thinking these are very slow and full of detail. The Japanese want to know what every animal is. If you show something and don't mention it in the script, they will caption it in the subtitles.
The European sensibility is similar. They like wildlife shows. They like information. If you try making a 'whizzy-bangy' show for the Germans they'll send it back and say we need it slower, partly because it takes a long time to say anything in German.
The American market, on the other hand, has an appetite for the fast-moving shows, where the wildlife on display is 'weird', 'whacky' or titivatingly life-threatening. Don't even bother pitching a show on birds to the Americans. They'll just say, 'We don't do birds', Ballance says, whose assignment before Equator was Animal Face Off for Discovery Channel.
The idea was to pit two big charismatic animals against one another and see who would win in a virtual fight to the death, explains Ballance. Saltwater crocodile took on great white shark. Hippopotamus took on bull shark. Lion took on Nile crocodile.
Animal Face Off drew on NHNZ's vast library of stock footage, supplementing this with models and computer animation.
We had a team of fabulous model makers in Auckland called Glasshammer, the people who made the animated whales for Whalerider. They made life-size aluminium skulls of all of our animals and mounted these on stripped-down diggers powered by a massive hydraulic system. Then we'd get in a couple of experts, one for each contender, and we'd run a series of tests.
Bite Force Tests, overenunciates Ballance. For the croc and the shark they built a huge water tank and they'd take them into the water and would have them attacking things like canoes. All of which is fun, but not really her calling.
I will work on a show like Animal Face Off, but it's not where my satisfaction lies. This Equator series is a chance to work on a show I really believe in.
Animal Face Off is a long way from The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, (1967 76).
The sixties and the seventies were the days, as many a baby boomer will attest. Jacques with his hat, his nasal-but-charming French accent, and that of-a-time John Denver theme song. Marlon Perkins in Wild Kingdom (1963 71) travelling the world in search of adventure, exotic wildlife, and the occasional bout of mud wrestling with crocodiles. Walt Disney giving mom, dad and the kids their fill of heavily anthropomorphised animals, whether in documentary narratives or as the characters in animal stories.
In the 1980s ecology and saving the planet became more recurrent themes, and a series of technological advances began to change the nature of what a natural history documentary might set out to achieve.
Natural history documentaries were always an improvement on reality: an animal's life and behaviours viewed in close-up reduced to 50 minutes of footage as seen through a telephoto lens. But with microphotography, macrophotography, infra-red photography and computer graphics people were able to experience the natural world in ways unavailable to even the most privileged observer. Audiences could now fly with migrating geese, take in an insect's view of the world, or eventually visit the simulation of a bygone world in the BBC's Walking with Dinosaurs (1999).
The 1980s was also the decade that cable TV entered the market with the launch of Discovery Channel in 1985.
Discovery Channel's first programme to air was Iceberg Alley, its first original programme, Ivory Wars. In June 96 it launched Animal Planet, the first of what would become a portfolio of channels, which now includes Discovery Travel & Adventure, Discover Health, and the Science Channel.
Discovery is now hooked up to 85 million homes in the United States and to 126 million homes in 70 other countries around the world. (Indeed the Discovery Channel's market penetration and documentaries it screens are one reason public broadcasters give for failing to screen documentaries themselves.)
Like the Discovery Channel, NHNZ has also broadened its offerings, which now encompass nature, science, adventure, health and people. And its blue chip offerings are balanced by cheaper content, often tailored to the timing of the ten-minute ad break. Peter Haydon welcomes the expansion content: I don't regret the natural history has been so popular over the years, but I wish science had had more of a go over the years. There are incredible stories out there to be told.
A tour through the warren of passageways and studios reveals something of the variety of work going on.
In one studio, post-production work is being done on Up Close and Dangerous, a programme for Animal Planet featuring wildlife camera operators getting very close to their subjects. A series of screens flicker as footage is digitised.
In another, work is being done on the soundtrack of The Diva Mummy, which features forensic scientists investigating 2000-year-old Han dynasty mummies from China. Lords and ladies lived in up in luxury, intones the narrator, dwelling on the alliteration, while a soundtrack of cymbals and synthesisers builds unease, and the lurid green titling floats above the flickering, scratched sepia film footage.
We call this eye candy, says Ballance. In the vaults are thousands of hours of wildlife footage that can be turned to all manner of uses, from high-end documentary to product advertising.
Ballance is not alone in admitting to being influenced by the natural history documentaries she saw in her formative years. A generation of environmental activists would say the same. And theirs were the pre-computer, pre-cable TV years. How much more important has the role and form of the natural history documentary become when we are so much more citified and disconnected from the natural environment?
Professor Brian Springett is fond of beginning his first-year lectures with a cartoon of a character transfixed by the glory of a sunrise on his television screen while the real thing is visible out his window.
Natural history documentaries inevitably construct and frame particular points of view. In filming the Deserts episode of Wild Asia Ballance and her team tried valiantly to avoid filming people and their intrusions into the landscape. Nature unadulterated has been a natural history documentary convention.
But you couldn't do that. The nomads are as much part of the grasslands as anything else and they have been for thousands of years. People on their horses kept riding past the demoiselle cranes as we were filming them. We got very few shots of people, but that was what everyone wanted to see when we got back.
Natural history documentaries can't be too pessimistic; audiences prefer uplift. But by giving audiences what they want you may create false perceptions. You run the risk of showing everything is okay when it isn't, says Ballance.
But people do gain appreciation and understanding and you don't have any desire to save things until you have some understanding and can form a bond.
(The most famous example of a natural history documentary creating reality is Disney's 1958 White Wilderness. In a deplorable piece of nature fakery, they took lemmings to a precipice above a river and herded them off, making them, quite unfairly, a byword for acting on a self-destructive urge.)
Are nature documentaries good for the environment? Can watching one change your world view or alter your behaviour? Perhaps.
A survey conducted in the United States found, as you might expect, that environmental concern was a good predictor of wildlife documentary viewing, but also that watching television nature documentaries to a slight extent:
... contribute[d] in unique positive ways to
pro-environmental behaviours, above and beyond the influence of a host of demographic, contextual and various television use variables, as well as the attitudinal measure of environmental concern.*
So are we seeing the documentaries made by NHNZ? Generally not. NHNZ professes to having great difficulty in getting TVNZ to screen its documentaries, and those that are screened often end up in graveyard slots.
Professor Springett believes the popular heyday of the nature documentary fell in the '70s and '80s.
By 1990 the year in which Moa's Ark, a four-part documentary fronted by botanist David Bellamy, was screened documentary fatigue was setting in, though whether this was among viewers or programmers and advertisers he is less certain.
NHNZ are, of course, at a remove from the ratings game that determines what runs when, but natural history documentaries have been known to rate well and to bring in a slightly older male demographic that is tough to reach.
Wild Asia, which did manage to get a prime-time slot TV3 on Wednesday at 7.30 pm against Coronation Street on TV One gained a respectable 17 percent of those aged 18 to 49.
Public television is awash with 'reality' series: houses are renovated, gardens remade, celebrities sent to play games with one another on tropical islands. But do we get to see reality series that matter? Will New Zealand audiences see Equator?
If the public broadcaster feeds us a diet of pap, then the problem is that it then takes an enormous effort to get hold of real information. I find it very depressing to think that we might only get the dumbed-down version, says Professor Springett.
Although there are some measures which show the world's ecological situation to be improving, generally things look grim. We are, ecologists tell us, living in the time of environmental degradation and mass extinction.
Ballance sees hope for places like the Galapagos and Palmyra.
In the Galapagos tourism is tightly regimented, based on boats, and time ashore is restricted to certain trails and certain hours, and is strictly supervised. Palmyra is uninhabited (except for conservation staff) and difficult to get to.
These places still have their problems. In the Galapagos the fishing community engages in shark-finning and is lobbying for longline fishing, a notorious cause of seabird deaths. Palmyra is infested with rats and a recently arrived scale insect is killing the island's stands of Pisonia trees.
But the problems are fixable. Ballance is less sanguine about the ecological prospects of some of the other places she's been.
In 2003 Ballance filmed Tigers: Fighting Back, visiting three Wildlife Conservation Society projects one in India, one in Thailand and one in the Russian far east.
There's no one-fit answer. What you have to do in India to save tigers is completely different to what you have to do in Thailand which is completely different to what you have to do in Russia. You are dealing with a predator that requires a huge range and is going to come into conflict with people and their livestock.
In India, they say you have to put them in a national park and remove the people. In Russia, the home range that a tiger requires is so vast you have to come up with solutions that allow people and tigers to live alongside each another. The Sikhote-Alin Biosphere Reserve where we were filming is only big enough for 25 tigers and even those spend most of their time outside the reserve.
In Thailand the problem lies in managing a tiger population with no regard for territorial boundaries. You aren't dealing with one country, but maybe two or three, says Ballance.
In their darker moments, she says, scientists see little hope of tigers surviving in the wild.
Her own favourite place is an environmental success story and it's not that far distant from Dunedin. Cleared of possums and rats in the 1990s, Codfish Island, offshore from Stewart Island, is a sanctuary for a small-but-growing population of kakapo. As a documentary maker Ballance knows them well, though she still has unfinished business: she hasn't yet managed to film kakapo mating, something no one has ever seen. While on the island she, like the kakapo, lives nocturnally.
It is an amazing experience to lie on the ground, look up at the stars, and listen to all the seabirds flying in and the kakapo booming. This is what New Zealand used to be like before we mucked things up.
If ever there was a case of a person fitting their job, then Ballance fits hers. She gets to be creative and to work with other creative people whom she admires. She gets to spend time in places few of us will get to. And they pay me! she says, in mock astonishment.
She likes getting home to Dunedin, but when she leaves for Ecuador in a few months to film in the high Andes and revive her rusty Spanish there will be a spring in her step.
It used to be more complicated when I had a cat and chickens, but I don't have them any more, she says.
I just walk out of my house and shut the door.
* Holbert R.L., Kwak N. and Shah D.V. (2003). Environmental Concern, Patterns of Television Viewing, and Pro-Environmental Behaviours: Integrating Models of Media Consumption and Effects.
Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 47(2) 177-196
He's got that sort of Bill Clinton, rubbery face, broken nosed look ... a huge collection of flaws that make up quite an attractive face, Tom Scott told the Southland Times in 2003. Scott, the satirist and playwright was casting the Dunedin showing of Daylight Atheist, his one-man play about his alcoholic father.
Who could better for the role than his friend the talented Peter Hayden, the Head of Special Projects at NHNZ? He was the first actor I thought of.
The friendship dates back to the 1960s when Scott, Hayden and Rob Robinson, the current Commissioner of Police, were bench mates in physiology.
It was at Massey University that Hayden the boy from Hawkes Bay who wanted to become a country vet discovered the stage. He joined the Drama Society, took part in capping shows and saw his first professional theatre production at Manawatu Little Theatre, which probably turned my head a little .
Hayden graduated with a BSc, but his aspirations had shifted. He headed to Wellington to drama school, and to acting gigs with Circa and Downstage. He joined television, becoming the token male in the all-female cast of Today at One. Sharon Crosbie, the programme host taught him his chops as a script writer. She has the quickest wit of anyone I know. She is the master.
The move to Dunedin came in 1980. I was brought down for six months to write a couple of scripts. Michael Stedman [NHNZ Managing Director] asked me to give them a bit of a hand with the first series of Wild South, and I forgot to leave.
This was a time, he says, when New Zealanders knew little about the natural history of their country. Hayden himself was not atypical: The animals I knew were enclosed in fences. A wellspring of curiosity was there to be tapped.
At the Natural History Unit, Hayden teamed up with photographer and naturalist Rod Morris, who had started work on the same day he had. Their first collaboration was producing a documentary about the saving of the black robin, which was then on the brink or extinction. The story told by the footage they had was, on the face of it, straightforward: Staunch guys in shorts racing up and down cliffs, saving these little black powder puff birds and transferring them to another forest that wasn't falling down .
But Morris and Hayden could see that the footage also contained another more titillating narrative. Of the five robins in existence, three were males and two were females, only one of which was laying. To minimise risk, the first bird to be transferred was a male. The following day a pair were transferred.
But when the new male arrived, he looked around, thought where am I, and went up to the top of the nearest tree to announce himself as the territory owner. The little single guy who had been there from the night before, snuck in, courtship-fed the female, and basically stole her. The same thing happened the next day: the new male of the second pair went up to the top of the tree and the new loner male came in and stole the female. So you had a wife-swapping situation. The birds became characters. I think that was our first break-through story, using the footage to tell some good science, but also to take you into the personalities of the animals involved.
The 1990 television documentary series Moa's Ark, fronted by David Bellamy and in large part engineered by Hayden and his fellow alumnus Ian McGee, was a high point. But then came a decade during which TVNZ took very little from NHNZ, though not for want of our trying, says Hayden, who now has hopes the TVNZ Charter will lead to more NHNZ work being seen locally. He would particularly like to see more science documentaries: I wish science had had more of a go over the years. There are incredible stories out there to be told.
His early nature documentaries are now the stuff of folk memory. A lot of people have a great memory and loyalty for the shows they have seen, enjoyed and grown up with. People come up to you at university and say the reason they are there is because of it. It feels like you made a difference at a time when you could make a difference.
Created: 05/04/2006 | Last updated: 27/05/2008
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