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Natural History New Zealand: The wild bunch

Reality TV is old-school: Natural History New Zealand has been doing it for decades, bringing the weird, wild and wonderful into our living rooms. They’ve learned what viewers like, how to build happy relationships with US media monoliths and proved there’s more to New Zealand than birds. Amanda Cropp meets NHNZ’s wild things. Plus upping the wow factor and an outsider’s view.

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Wild things Michael Stedman, Peter Hayden, Andrew Waterworth and Craig Meade.
Photograph by Mike Heydon • Illustration by Dean Proudfoot

Reality TV is old school: Natural History New Zealand has been doing it for decades, bringing the weird, wild and wonderful into our living rooms. They’ve learned what viewers like in Germany, Japan and Venezuela, how to build happy relationships with US media monoliths and proved there’s more to New Zealand than birds. meets NHNZ’s wild things

Violence is in and sex is out. When it comes to wildlife documentaries, Natural History New Zealand programme developer Craig Meade knows what audiences want.

“Predators with big gnashy teeth that commit large-scale violence on other animals really pull the ratings.”

Meade is also up on international likes and dislikes. German viewers hate snakes and inspects, Japanese are creeped out by spiders, and Americans aren’t keen on birds, fish or horses. “They don’t like animals that have eyes on the sides of their heads because on TV you can only see one eye at a time.”

As for sex, when a US channel suggested a programme about animals mating, Meade quietly ignored it. Having grown up in the States he is keenly aware of how extraordinarily prudish Americans can be. “This is a culture where you can’t show pictures of a toilet or play the sound of a toilet flushing, depending on which executive producer you’re dealing with.”

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Sophie Buck filming Bactrain Camels on Mongolia’s Tul River for Wild Asia. Photograph by Alison Ballance/NHNZ

That finely tuned sense of what sells and what doesn’t has helped turn NHNZ into a world-leading documentary maker, selling into 229 countries and territories worldwide. Turnover is expected to hit $40 million next year and in 2009 the company’s 100 staff will make 60 hours of programmes, a tenfold increase on the early days.

The New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation established the Natural History Unit in Dunedin back in 1977 to make documentaries like Wild South, but by the time managing director Michael Stedman took the helm a decade later the unit’s future looked as shaky as that of the endangered birds it was filming.

For Stedman it was a case of adapt or die. He thought demand for wildlife programmes would eventually peak (which it did in the late 1990s), so he branched out into telling science, history and travel stories. While other much bigger and better-known wildlife documentary makers like Partridge Films in the UK went belly-up, NHNZ endured, turning out about 50 documentaries a year and winning more than 200 awards for its work.

“We’re now a factory that supplies documentaries and we have a reputation internationally for being on time, on budget, and always better than expected.

“I remember a German saying to me ‘the only thing you have in New Zealand is birds—and they’re all dying.’ So we had to prove to the world that we could do more than just birds.”

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Cameraman Curtis Rodda at the World Financial Centre in Shanghai for Megastructures. Photograph by Max Quinn/NHNZ

The move into new genres gained pace after NHNZ was bought by Fox TV Studios in 1997, and although wildlife programmes still make up a third of output, a company promotional DVD shows just how much it has diversified.

Along with dramatic shots of a five-tonne charging elephant and an endearing clip of a tarantula skittering across the tarmac on a desert road, there’s footage of a 2,000-year-old Chinese mummy, human cannonballs who “eat fear for breakfast and have lunch with danger”, and a computer-generated tsunami slamming Honolulu.

NHNZ is onto its third series of I Survived telling survival stories, ranging from the man who amputated his own leg when it got stuck in a crank shaft to a woman jammed in a snow-filled garbage can by her enraged ex-husband. At the other end of the spectrum there’s Weird Edens, a six-part US$6 million-plus co-production with Japanese broadcaster NHK about the strange plants and bizarre animals that evolve in island communities.

These days the focus is firmly offshore with only ten percent of footage shot in New Zealand, and this year film crews will work in more than a dozen countries including exotic locations such as Iceland, Kenya, Madagascar and Brazil.

NHNZ has long had offices in Washington, DC and Beijing, and in 2008 it acquired a majority shareholding in Beach House Pictures in Singapore, a strategic move Stedman says was designed to assist NHNZ’s expansion into the Asian market.

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Ed Jowett swimming alongside of an Antarctic iceberg for The Crystal Ocean. Photograph by Jeanie Ackley/NHNZ

Considerable effort has gone into forging strong relationships with the state-owned China Intercontinental Communication Centre and China Central Television, and Stedman reckons NHNZ currently creates more programming in China than any other production company.

Carefully cultivated relationships undoubtedly helped facilitate the filming of a one-hour special about the massive earthquake that last year killed 70,000 people in Sichuan province, a huge coup given the stringent restrictions on foreign film crews.

The push into Asia has also seen NHNZ team up with Korean broadcaster MBC to produce a programme about the wildlife in Korea’s demilitarised zone, one of the last remnants of the Cold War and one of the world’s most heavily-guarded borders.

Peter Hayden accepts the need to provide what clients want. “Otherwise you won’t get the next gig. You might not end up telling the story you wanted to tell in the first place, but whoever is paying for it legitimately has a say in how the story is told

Stedman is keen to further extend the company’s global reach by investing in Australian, South African and South American production houses, so NHNZ becomes a “one-stop shop” for international broadcasters. “Instead of supplying three to five percent of channels’ [programming] needs, we’d like to supply 15 percent.”

In 2007, NHNZ shifted from Fox TV Studios to come under the umbrella of Fox International Channels, and Stedman says it’s a much better fit. “FTS was a drama film-based studio, and documentary was something they didn’t fully understand. It was just an oddity, whereas FIC are far more aligned to the sort of stuff we do.”

He says Fox gives him “colossal” autonomy and dismisses suggestions that American ownership has led the company to become Disneyfied and too commercial. “We’re very much a New Zealand company, we’re thought of as a New Zealand company, and we trade as a New Zealand company. We’re New Zealand in everything we do internationally and we’re not just lost in some big amorphous thing.”

As for the commercial emphasis, Stedman sees nothing wrong with that. “It simply means we’re making documentaries that appeal to the audiences they’re intended for. There’s some stuff we wouldn’t stray into—sensational documentaries about things like children with two heads, that’s not our bag.”

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Ed Jowett with camera equipment and Emperor penguins in Antarctica for The Crystal Ocean. Photograph by Jeanie Ackley/NHNZ

That said, about 70 percent of NHNZ income is generated by the US market, and there’s no denying the American influence, right down to the use of the term ‘vice president’ in staff titles.

Peter Hayden, an old hand at NHNZ who is currently series producer of Weird Edens, accepts the need to provide what clients want. “Otherwise you won’t get the next gig. You might not end up telling the story you wanted to tell in the first place, but [whoever] is paying for it legitimately has a say in how the story is told.

“As the cable universe gets more and more fragmented and Discovery finds more and more small channels nipping at their heels, they’re having to be more competitive and more prescribed about what they want, so the executive producer’s role is to have a very strong opinion about everything from editorial and the look of the graphics to the sound and the music. Style as well as substance.”

As an example, he describes how former Shortland Street actor Craig Parker received coaching to Americanise his vowels for the voiceover on a Megastructures programme after the client requested an ‘Asia/Pacific’ accent.

The recession too is influencing programme making. Because cable and satellite channels are less reliant on advertising they haven’t been as hard-hit by the economic downturn as the big networks, and viewer numbers in the US are growing as people hunker down in front of the telly rather than pay for entertainment outside the home.

Meade says channels want either low-budget formats that can be churned out for years, or expensive high-end blockbusters like Weird Edens that will hook in viewers on a Sunday evening and hopefully keep them through the rest of the week.

“It’s the mid-level shows that are the hardest things to sell right now because they don’t have the promise of huge success, nor are they cheap enough to be relatively risk-free,” he says. Disaster stories were really big, but now broadcasters want “up and positive shows,” and science is hot too.

With channels ever on the lookout for another Steve Irwin there’s big demand for shows built around talented presenters, so Meade regularly trawls YouTube for scientists and other experts with the gift of the gab.

The History Channel has shown an interest in his latest find, an American entrepreneur who combs the Himalayas for World War 2 aircraft downed during supply runs to China. He gathers any personal belongings in the wrecks and, using the planes’ serial numbers, identifies the servicemen who were on board and tracks down surviving relatives.

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Camera crew filming at Adelie Penguin colony in Antarctica for Icebird. Photograph by Robert Brown/NHNZ

“When I pitched it to the History Channel I got about one sentence in and they said ‘Just answer one question, can you make 70 hours? If you can’t, we don’t want to hear any more.’ I said ‘Yeah, there are 1,000 planes, we can do 70 hours.’”

There’s still demand for wildlife programmes, although it isn’t easy satisfying the voracious appetite demand for predators with big teeth. “There is a rather limited number of these animals, so companies like us are caught in this tight little circle running from tiger to lion to bear to wolf to shark to tiger to lion which turns into quite a farcical merry go round. But if you can find something amazing about an animal, something new you can say about it, there’s room for it.”

That search for a new approach spawned NHNZ’s highly successful Most Extreme series (about the animal kingdom’s highest jumpers, biggest diggers, etcetera). Meade says channels also want new wildlife series shot in high definition because the 40 percent of the US television audience that now owns HD TVs doesn’t want to watch programmes of animals in fuzzy old standard definition.

And Meade is exploring the possibility of NHNZ using its CGI technology to create computer games that complement its TV shows. “The channels we work with use a lot of games on their websites, the idea being that between broadcasts it’s a way of maintaining the relationship with the audience.”

Broadcasters currently buy games made in Eastern Europe, but Meade says they often bear little relationship to the TV shows they are purportedly about, and NHNZ wants to create games that better reflect programme content.

Typically for every 30 hours of footage shot only one hour is actually screene. NHNZ earns about $500,000 a year by selling some of the 40,000 hours of images amassed in its film library to other documentary makers, cellphone companies, tourism operators and educational institutions.

NHNZ programmes are licensed for educational use in the USA, UK, parts of Europe and Africa, Australia and New Zealand, and the company is working on further distribution deals via online stories and server-based delivery direct to schools.

Stedman says those subsidiary income streams all help the bottom line and he is confident the company can ride out the recession, having already been “beaten up” badly when the US dollar hit 82 cents against the Kiwi. “A lot of New Zealand companies went out the back door and if you can survive that, you can survive most anything.”

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Cameraman Alex Hubert with an orangutan in Borneo for Orangutan Island. Photograph by Chris Kugelman/NHNZ

His survival plan involves future-proofing the company in terms of staff. It jointly runs a post-graduate diploma in science and wildlife filmmaking in conjunction with Otago University, so there’s a new generation of filmmakers to take over from the old guard, at least a dozen of whom have been with NHNZ since it was founded.

Stedman’s commitment to keep the company at the top of its game will also see it shift to the former Dunedin Convention Centre in Melville Street, which will get a $5 million makeover. The new state-of-the-art headquarters will be funded in part by the sale of NHNZ’s current premises, the historic Garrison Hall in Dowling Street, an imposing stone edifice that has hosted the likes of Mark Twain, Roald Amundsen and Dame Nelly Melba.

The old building has been the home of television production in Dunedin since 1962 but Stedman is pragmatic about the move. “We’ve learnt a lot from our own endangered species that have their back to the wall because they can’t adapt.

“Everybody that comes here talks about the atmosphere of the place, but when you analyse it through, it’s not about the building. It’s about the people.”

Upping the Wow factor

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Photograph by Alan Dove

Computer-generated special effects are now an accepted part of feature films and NHNZ is investing heavily in new technology to up the ‘wow’ factor in its documentaries.

Over the past two years it has spent about $2 million on equipment such as low-light and high-speed cameras, and in-house animation and graphics systems.

Sophisticated graphics are now an integral part of documentary storytelling and NHNZ has entered into a number of creative partnerships to meet the expectations of an increasingly tech-savvy audience.

Washington-based animator Pixeldust Studios recently established a small studio in NHNZ’s Dunedin premises so designers in both countries can collaborate on computer-generated imagery that will bring dinosaur fossils to life for new dinosaur series Jurassic CSI. And last October the company signed an agreement with ETRI, a Korean ICT research and development institute which will provide NHNZ with 3D visual effects technology to test and use.

Weird Edens executive producer Andrew Waterworth says the technology will enhance their ability to televise the lives of extinct creatures such as the moa and Haast’s eagle, and the series will have four minutes of computer generated imagery per episode. “CGI takes you into a world you could not otherwise see, and cannot capture on film.”

Waterworth is equally enthusiastic about NHNZ’s $400,000 Phantom camera which shoots at 1,000 frames per second, so something like a kea rotating its head almost 360 degrees as it shakes water off can be viewed in ultra slow motion.

“The human eye normally sees 24 frames per second. With this, you’ve got time to see things you haven’t seen before, and you have time to relish it.”

Waterworth says animals are less inclined to be spooked by an inanimate Iconix mini-camera inserted into their environment on a six-metre pole, so crews can film intimate detail that would otherwise be impossible to obtain—and that’s just what broadcasters want.

“In the US, 300 million people watch on average four to five hours of television a day with more than 100 channels to choose from. In New York it is 200 channels. All the networks are looking for something that will punch through and have that wow factor.”

In announcing the ETRI deal, NHNZ general manager John Crawford talked of new technology that would “blur the boundaries between reality and fantasy”, which raises questions about how far to push digital manipulation of documentary material.

Waterworth admits that’s still up for debate, and says another production house copped some flak for recreating missing pictures of the famous Hindenburg airship fire. “Certain parts of the view were not captured on film, so they got a CGI artist to fill in the gap. It raised considerable debate about whether this was a good idea. The programme makers said it was justified because it helped to realise the drama of the event. If you put subtitles onto the picture saying some aspects are CGI, you lose the drama of the moment.”

Waterworth says the old journalistic current affairs-style documentaries he grew up with are rare and using the term ‘documentary’ to describe what NHNZ makes for cable television is something of a misnomer.

“A true documentary documents real life and presents it in as unvarnished a way as possible, so you get a gritty sense of how this family lives. That’s very different to what we do.

“We’re in the business of entertainment, and that’s why in recent years we’d refer to ourselves as factual programme makers rather than documentary makers. We’re storytellers and entertainers and in that context CGI plays a perfectly valid central role.”

Younger tech-savvy viewers are apparently more likely to be perfectly comfortable with that. Craig Meade performed an experiment where he showed a group of viewers a close up shot of a man being bitten by a rattlesnake. “I asked everybody in the room if it was real. Everybody over 30 thought it was real, and everybody under 30 said it was CGI. It was real and I worked out they had milked the snake until there was no venom left. But the under-thirties weren’t fussed about the possibility it had been done digitally.”

One thing that won’t change regardless of all the new technology is the need to film in some remote and even dangerous places, and Michael Stedman is always mindful of that.

“I made a commitment to the people who work in this company that they would be the best equipped they could possibly be, because we send them into harm’s way. I never want to have a phone call in the middle of the night and at the end of it say to myself ‘I wish I had …’ There are people who die in this business through lack of planning and preparation.”

During the filming of Bite Me, virologist Dr Mike Leahy travels off the beaten track to get close and personal with creatures that specialise in biting, stinging and otherwise invading the human body, and the crew includes a paramedic whose assistance has not been required—so far.

But there are occasional reminders of the risk. Several years ago producer Judith Curran was attacked by a leopard on location in Africa and evacuated to hospital by air ambulance for treatment to a leg wound.

And the hazards of filming in out of the way places can be long-lasting. American filmmaker Lawrence Cumbo, well known for his award-winning documentary Search for the Afghan Girl, moved to Dunedin to work for NHNZ last year, but was off work for weeks with a recurring disease contracted from drinking yak’s milk tea in Nepal.