For the past decade the University of Otago has
collaborated with NHNZ in a documentary film-making venture
that, at its core, strives to produce good storytellers. Shane
Jane Adcroft and Carla Braun Elwert with a tuatara. Photo
In 2001, the University of Otago launched a postgraduate
diploma in natural history film-making and communication.
Back then, the inaugural class comprised a dozen students. A
decade on, the partnership with NHNZ has catered for 96
graduates, who have produced 62 documentaries and won 40
Good storytelling, says Lloyd Davis, communication director
of the University of Otago's Centre for Science.
As head of the course, Prof Davis (also a biologist with more
than a passing interest in evolution) has witnessed a few
mutations in the past decade.
Though the postgraduate diploma qualification still exists,
the course was expanded in 2008 to incorporate a master's
"As opposed to the one-year diploma, most of our intake now
is into the master's programme. Effectively, the papers they
are taught are the same; the difference is the master's
requires an academic thesis component," Prof Davis explained.
"In essence, the programme started in 2001 when it was
realised there was an opportunity. I was in the zoology
department at the time and NHNZ was taking a few of our
graduates - or from botany - but they lacked film skills.
"Alternative to that, NHNZ was taking people who'd been
through the industry, but knew little about animals; back
then NHNZ was largely a natural history and wildlife
production facility but it is much more diverse than that
"We thought, why don't we have a course that is value-added.
Why not take graduates of university biological and science
programmes and give them a year's crash-course in film-making
so they at least had an understanding of the skills they'd
need to take to a place like NHNZ."
Almost immediately, students' films (produced as part of
their course work) started winning awards, Prof Davis points
"And they were going up against significantly sourced
material produced by National Geographic and Animal Planet
and so forth. I think that came back, in part, to our
emphasis on story-telling.
"If you look at the science communication programmes around
the world, in particular the documentary film-making ones,
the thing that distinguishes ours is the emphasis we put on
story-telling. We don't resile from that.
"We are trying to meld bright, creative people. We are very
different from any other course in the university in that
straight marks will not get you in. We do require marks but
we also require applicants to produce a portfolio that shows
they are creative."
NHNZ managing director Michael Stedman says the course is a
strong example of a town-gown partnership.
"The benefits are real. The graduates have had the advantage
of a world-class academic education, together with being
immersed in a world-leading production company ... The Otago
graduates are excelling in what they do.
"We know all too well how challenging natural history is in
the television industry; we've got to ensure the film-makers
we're putting out there are ready for it in every way. They
need to be creative, adaptable and tough."
NHNZ contributes to the course in a number of ways - from
producers mentoring the students' documentaries to general
manager John Crawford advising students on business affairs
and head of IT Wayne Poll providing vital technical advice.
Graduate Jane Adcroft, who completed a master's in natural
history filmmaking last year, gained an internship at NHNZ
and now works as a freelancer for the company, researching,
writing and post-directing, says the course was an "enormous"
"Like lots of people who do the course, I have a background
in science, so it was all new to me. The course was
incredibly challenging, especially the story-telling units.
We all know what a good story is - it seems like it would be
an easy skill to grasp. But learning how to break that down
into elements and then translate it on to screen is still an
ongoing learning process for me."
Ms Adcroft and Carla Braun Elwert produced Love In Cold
Blood last year, their film about a tuatara earning them
awards for "Best New Zealand Film" and "Best Emerging
Film-makers" at the Reel Earth Film Festival and "Best
Newcomer" at the International Wildlife Film Festival; they
were also nominated for "Best Newcomer" at Wildscreen 2010
and the Roscar Awards 2011.
"Carla and I made Love in Cold Blood together. It sort
of came out the blue. We were looking for common ground on a
topic that both of us would be new to and picked up a New
Zealand National Geographic with a tuatara on the cover.
And that was it - we realised we wanted to make a tuatara
film," she explains.
"For both Carla and myself it's been a massive career swing.
Both of us have a background in science: I used to be an
environmental consultant in Western Australia before packing
it in to move to Dunedin for the course. Now I work at NHNZ
and Carla works for a film company in Germany called
"There are some people who do the course and go and do
something non-communication-related afterwards, but it
absolutely colours everything else you do. The course really
focuses on story-telling - in edit, in camera, in scripting -
and I think that's a skill you take with you no matter what
• To celebrate the decade past, NHNZ is hosting a cocktail
party on November 16 during the University of Otago's
inaugural ScienceTeller Festival (www.scienceteller.com), being
held from November 15-19.
• Following the NHNZ event is the 2011 master's students'
film premiere at the Regent Theatre starting at 6.30pm, which
is open to the public.