Hugh became an avid movie goer at the age of 10, when his family moved from the Ministry of Works camp at Lake Tekapo to Christchurch. He started making films at age 15 using a Bell & Howell Filmo Sportster Double Run Eight camera on loan from his uncle, Bob Watts. (The actual camera is shown on the left.)
While a student at Christchurch Boys High he filmed the school's rowing eight in slow motion so that they could analyse their style, but most of his films at this time were mini documentaries (the Canterbury A & P Show, making a bike track), attempts at mini dramas, comedies and animation, and experiments with double exposures to create ghosts. He was accepted as a trainee by the National Film Unit as soon as he finished school and in January 1962, aged 18, he went to Wellington and began training in all aspects of film production.
The Mauriora Maori Show
Hugh spent the early part of the 1960s learning how to script, write for and edit films at the NFU studios in Miramar, and how to direct them out while out on location. (His best teachers in this regard were the senior cameramen Brian Cross, Kell Fowler and Grant Foster.)
Locations for the NFU crews were many and varied. The first photograph of Hugh at work is from 1963 when he was working on a film of a Maori concert party, The Mauriora Maori Show, being filmed on the NFU sound stage.
By the end of 1963 he had begun to direct items for the NFU's monthly magazine for cinemas, Pictorial Parade. His first Pictorial Parade item was on the North Otago Centenary in December 1963. Hugh himself turned 20 that month. An especially interesting Pictorial Parade item he worked on in 1963 was Caves on the Coast which included the challenge of filming scientific discoveries underground.
Auckland to Haast – and some top dogs
Pictorial Parade screened before the main feature in New Zealand cinemas until 1971 when it was superseded by television news. By then Hugh had edited and/or directed over 30 items, ranging in length from 3 to 17 minutes. Items that can be seen online at the Archives New Zealand e-cast site include Auckland's New Arteries (Pictorial Parade 149, 1964); Top Dogs and New Hotel at Franz Josef (Pictorial Parade 152, 1964); and Westland's Finest Hour (Pictorial Parade 172, 1965)
Take A Ship
Early in 1964 two friends of Hugh's working in television approached him about spending two months directing a film for Chandris Lines on the experience of cruising from New Zealand to Greece. NFU manager Geoffrey Scott said that Hugh could not be spared from his Pictorial Parade duties. That seemed to be the end of the matter – until Chandris Lines' New Zealand representative Phil Holloway, a former Minister of Industries and Commerce, had a word with Scott's senior, the head of the Tourism and Publicity Department. Hugh got his first passport and in September 1964 boarded the passenger liner Ellinis in Auckland.
His first experience of filming the Ellinis coming into port was no cruise. As he recorded it:
“After five days sail we reached Tahiti. Very early in the morning we were lowered over the side in a long-boat to shoot the ship's arrival at Papeete. Three miles away from the island as the sun rose the sea was slightly choppy and the small craft tossed and heaved... Landing at the wharf brought problems. As soon as the long-boat touched the pier some agitated French gentlemen whisked us off to the customs shed where we spent three hours convincing these rather distrustful officials that we were not planning to film their nuclear installations. Under oath not to film any of the naval ships in the harbour we were released with our cameras and film unmolested.”
The rest of the voyage included more pleasant adventures, and Hugh chose Pete Seeger's relaxing guitar composition Living in the Country as fitting theme music for the final sequence of the film.
Hugh's flatmate, well-known Wellington folk singer Max Winnie, recorded the piece for the film after Seeger (in his typically generous manner) waived his right to payment for its use.
Trinidad and Tobago
The Ellinis cruised through the Caribbean, stopping at Curacao. Life in the Caribbean is the subject of Trinidad and Tobago, (1964), a short film by English director Geoffrey Llewellyn Jones, which made a big impression on Hugh. Jones's method of combining landscape, wildlife, streetscapes, and people at work and play, and editing it all carefully to a compelling musical sound track, eschewing narration, was to give Hugh ideas he could use in his own films. It was also Hugh's first introduction to steel band music, which he came to love and use on his own sound tracks.
The ideas that Hugh got from Trinidad and Tobago were more to the taste of senior producers at the NFU than the ones he got from another film that influenced him. Very Nice Very Nice (1961) is seven minutes of satirical commentary on modern life assembled from random strips of discarded film and sound found in the waste bins of the National Film Board of Canada. It was the first film made by Arthur Lipsett, who continued to experiment and push film boundaries for ten years, impressing and influencing directors Stanley Kubrick and George Lucas in the process, before ill health and other problems led to his early death. Hugh tried inserting a Very Nice Very Nice-style sequence into one of his NFU films, but the senior producers were not having a bar of it and it did not make the final cut.
Water to Burn; Roads to Roam
By 1966 Hugh was being given longer films to direct. The first was a Pictorial Parade item Water to Burn (Pictorial Parade 169). It was 10 minutes long and covered the construction of the Manapouri hydro-electric power scheme.
Roads to Roam was Hugh's longest film to date and his first in colour. It is a characteristically quirky 14 minute account of what could have been a deadly dull subject (the construction and use of New Zealand's roads). Hugh's enlivens it with his trademark puns, such as describing the important men heading the National Roads Board (which part-funded the film) as 'the Colossi of Roads'. Some of the soundtrack is music by the French pianist and composer Jacques Loussier that Hugh obtained from the NFU sound library. When Loussier was performing in Wellington in 1969, Hugh's colleague Arthur Everard invited him to visit the Film Unit. Loussier was delighted to visit but not pleased to find that his music (which had been composed specifically for another film) had been turned into an industry resource without his knowledge or consent.
Making Roads to Roam was also the first time Hugh worked with cameraman Murray Creed, in what was to become a very fruitful collaboration for Hugh, Murray and sound recordist Kit Rollings, where they revelled in being paid to make films in the most beautiful parts of New Zealand.
In 1967, a film of Hugh's, Life is How You Keep It, won the first of the many awards that his work was to gather over the years. This was awarded by the International Committee on Safety Films in Chicago.
[image – photo of the plaque of St Mark]
Hugh also enjoyed working with Auckland-based NFU cameraman Lynton Diggle shooting a tourist film on Auckland. This Auckland continues Hugh's line in affectionate but irreverent commentary on his country and its people. Images of the Auckland wharves with passengers waving goodbye from a liner and lamb carcasses being loaded on to a freighter carry the voice-over:
“Young New Zealanders like to travel overseas for new experiences. This is the ambition of every 18 year old office girl and the destiny of almost every 18 month old lamb … Both groups travel extensively, but the office girls usually return.”
The NFU entered This Auckland in several international film festivals, where it was very successful, winning awards at the 1967 Venice Biennale film festival, the Tourist Film Prize at the 1967 Prague festival, 3rd Prize at the 1968 PATA Conference, Taiwan, and an Award of Merit at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 1970.
A 24 July 1967 letter from Professor Luigi Chiarini (Il Direttore, Mostra Internazionale D'Arte Cinematografica, La Biennale De Venezia) informed the NFU that This Auckland was presented in competition in the tourist film category on 15 July, and that it had been “...awarded the Plaque Lion of St Mark … by the international Jury, with the following motivation: 'for the brilliant counterpoint of images and sound that reveal the personality of the director.' ”
This Auckland was not so well received by the film critic of the NZ Herald, who had already damned the film on 10 June 1967, saying “As a flippant and superficial essay This Auckland passes the time.”
New Zealand, South East Asia
[image - MC and HM filming in Singapore]
After finishing This Auckland Hugh was sent to Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaysia in late September 1966 to work on a television documentary on New Zealand's relationship with South East Asia, directed by John King, with cameraman Grant Foster and sound man Ron Skelley. Hugh and cameraman Murray Creed were the second unit, and everyone was working long hours.
Hugh wrote home from the Terendak military camp in Malaysia (where NZ troops were based) on 4 October 1966:
“We've had an exceedingly hectic fortnight with only one day off so far. Generally we seem to be working over ten hours a day, all through the intense heat and humidity of the day and often on into the night, consequently our relaxation hours have been allocated from 10 pm onwards. And the onwards part sometimes extends for some considerable period. But we've still managed to keep up the pace, largely because much of the work is intensely interesting, as regards the political and social situation in these areas.”
After Ninety Years
From the heat of the tropics Hugh went to the cool heights of the Denniston plateau, near Westport, to make the 17 minute documentary After Ninety Years. It covers the closure of the 'world's eighth wonder', the Denniston Incline railway, which had been carrying coal down to sea-level for nearly 90 years. Denniston and its remarkable incline were to provide inspiration for two later films after Hugh left the NFU.
Hamilton County Bluegrass Band
The musical sound track for After Ninety Years was recorded by Hugh's folk musician friends Max Winnie, Paul Trenwith, Colleen Bain and Colin Heath. Paul and Colleen were members of the Hamilton Country Bluegrass Band (formed in 1967). Hugh's NFU colleague Dave Jordan (also a folk musician) made Pictorial Parade 204 (1968) on the band, which helped launch their very successful career.
Hugh had been flatting and hanging out with folk musicians ever since he arrived in Wellington, and was the MC for Wellington's first folk festival, held at Labour Weekend 1965. These musical links were important for a film maker who pays as much attention to sound as image in his films, and the match between them.
Dave Jordan and Hugh worked together for much of 1969 writing and directing This is New Zealand (1970), a film which uses only music and natural sounds working in tandem with the images to convey a vibrant overview of life in New Zealand.