NHNZ marks four decades of filming

NHNZ technical and IT systems manager Wayne Poll plays with an old editing desk at the company’s...
NHNZ technical and IT systems manager Wayne Poll plays with an old editing desk at the company’s Dunedin offices. Photo: Gregor Richardson
It was a battle at times, but after four decades a Dunedin-based company has grown from mainly filming birds to becoming an internationally respected creator of Emmy-winning wildlife documentaries.

This weekend NHNZ, formerly Natural History New Zealand Ltd, will celebrate 40 years since it began as the wildlife unit of TV One.

The company will hold tours today for people connected with the company and hold a party tonight for current and former staff.

NHNZ today employs 100 people, supports another 300 globally in various ways, and also has offices in Beijing and Washington, DC.

Technical and IT systems manager Wayne Poll, who has been with the company for 35 years, said the largest change in that time was technology.

The company stores 3.5 million video files at any given time and produces 60 to 70 shows a year.

"We can shoot a lot more now, because it’s not much of an added expense, unlike when we used film."

The awards it won  were confirmation from the industry it was on the right track, he said.

"There’s nothing like a couple of Emmy awards in the cabinet to tell potential customers you’re up to the task."

Of all the incredible footage the company had produced, recent shots of blue whales  were etched in Mr Poll’s mind.

"The cow rolls over, goes deep, and comes up under a school of krill with her mouth open and just consumes the whole school. Her throat pouch just balloons.

"We were the first people to have ever filmed a bull and a cow feeding together."

Film-maker Max Quinn said the technology was the most difficult change to adjust to.

"I’d never survive today. Technology I really struggle with; it’s just getting so complex."

Mr Quinn recently returned from filming in Mexico, Arizona and Central America, where he saw the likes of wild pumas and spider and howler monkeys.

The shoot also involved visiting what was known as a "bat volcano" in the Yucatan.

"Something like 3 million bats come out of this cave every night at about 6 o’clock, just as the sun is setting.

"That was a unique situation. It’s a real privilege."

Mr Quinn was also part of a NHNZ project in 1991 as the first team to spend the winter in the Antarctic with emperor penguins.

"It was pretty pioneering. Not a lot was known about the penguins at that time.

"I describe ourselves as instant experts. I did a film on the ozone hole and I actually knew all of the chemical equations. Then I filmed whales and suddenly became an expert on whales."

In the early 1990s, under managing director Michael Stedman, the company fought back from a potential shutdown to secure flourishing partnerships with Discovery Channel and its offshoots.

It was bought and sold many times in 40 years and is now owned by Canadian private company Blue Ant Media.

Mr Poll said  the changes in technology had, in certain ways, made it easier for young, bright film-makers to get their start.

"The best way to go out and film wildlife today is to go out and film wildlife. There’s such a low barrier to entry."



NHNZ History

1977 The wildlife unit that would become Natural History New Zealand (NHNZ) has its beginnings on TV One.

 1978 Unit produces first broadcasts in the form of six 15-minute programmes called Hidden Places.

 1989 The organisation’s Under the Ice the first wildlife film shot under Antarctic sea ice.

 1991 Michael Stedman takes over as managing director.

 1992 Max Quinn becomes first documentary film-maker to shoot over winter in Antarctica.

 1997 Fox Television Studios purchases 80% share in the company; name changed to Natural History New Zealand Ltd. Two years later, TVNZ’s remaining share also acquired by Fox.

 1999 Michael Stedman convinces State Administration of Radio, Film and Television to support NHNZ work in China, which was generally off-limits for international production companies at the time.

 2000 Mike Single wins Emmy award for outstanding cinematography for The Crystal Ocean, a documentary which looks at the dramatic cycles of freeze and thaw in Antarctica.

 2002 NHNZ establishes an office in Beijing.

 2006 Productions Buggin’ with Ruud and Equator receive two Emmy nominations each.

 2009 NHNZ is the only foreign crew allowed in the Sichuan region to film the aftermath of a massive earthquake that killed 70,000, and produces China Quake alongside Beijing Yuanchun Media.

 2010 NHNZ produces the first 3-D documentary to air on US television, with China Revealed: The Great Wall of China.

 2012 Fox sells NHNZ and subsidiary Beach House Pictures to former president and chief executive of Fox Networks Group, David Haslingden. In 2013, Haslingden also acquires Northern Pictures, creating the RACAT Group as a home for the three production houses.

 2013 Kyle Murdoch becomes NHNZ’s managing director after the retirement of Michael Stedman.

 2017 RACAT’s media holdings are acquired by international media company Blue Ant Media.

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