Film workers describe life tough but rewarding

IN THE INDUSTRY: Hil and Rodney Cook have been working in the New Zealand film industry since the early 1990s, and have a long list of credits between them.
IN THE INDUSTRY: Hil and Rodney Cook have been working in the New Zealand film industry since the early 1990s, and have a long list of credits between them.

It is a tough road to the red carpet, and you'll probably be exhausted when you get there.

A Victoria University study has investigated what the film industry is really like and found that, perhaps unsurprisingly, it is not all glitz, glamour and swanky dinner dates with Sir Peter Jackson.

Instead, more than 25 film workers and industry insiders interviewed for Glamour and Grind painted a picture of work that was often tough and underpaid – but rewarding enough to keep them hooked.

Victoria University's Dr Deborah Jones led the Marsden-funded study, which spoke to film industry groups and national and local government advisers alongside film crew workers.

They found it was an industry that demanded flexibility and long hours, where jobs ebbed and flowed, people often had to work for nothing to get a foot in the door, and huge demands were placed on relationships. Many workers had a partner earning a good income who was "effectively subsidising the industry", Dr Jones said.

More than in other fields, people accepted the work's difficulty but balanced the pain with the pleasure of working in an exciting industry.

"It's hard to get in, and then once you're in you have to be up for it all the time. In some ways it's a really horrible job, and in others incredibly fulfilling. There are other jobs that have this paradox, but this takes it to the extreme."

It was good if you could get a steady, well-paid job somewhere like Wellington's Weta Digital, but these were few and far between.

It opened up discussions about where the industry wanted to go, and if the workforce should unite for better conditions or continue with the flexible, unpredictable nature of employment, she said.

New Zealand Film and Video Technicians Guild Wellington branch chairman Dave Brown has worked in the industry for 30 years, beginning as a lighting technician on Goodbye Pork Pie.

It was similar to other creative industries like music in that it was great when you had a gig, but the downtime could be painful, he said.

"Most of us at some point or another have decided that there's a better way to make a buck, but there's something that always draws you back to it.

"It's all about being in the right place at the right time, and you're kind of relying on your reputation and your mates a lot to get the right job – and if you were to burn a bridge you would really suffer, because the industry is so small."

Film industry veteran and Dominion Post film reviewer Graeme Tuckett said it was good when a big feature film like The Hobbit was in town. But it was difficult for those who weren't working on a major project, because other big-budget productions often stayed away.

In recent years people had been expected to work longer hours for the same pay, and the gap between grassroots film-making and blockbuster productions was widening.

"It is driven by the people who are making the films, and the amount of money they have. We are the most heavily marketable industry in the country, given that we're not a unionised workforce."


She's a hair and makeup artist, he's a stuntman and their son is so familiar with film set protocol he's often used as an extra. Hil and Rodney Cook have been working in the New Zealand film industry since the early 1990s, and have a long list of credits between them.

They have both recently finished work on The Hobbit, and have travelled within the country and as far as Morocco, Thailand and San Francisco to work on films from Avatar to King Kong, Alexander and Push.

Mrs Cook was hired by Richard Taylor after her tutor at film school in London, where she was specialising in prosthetics, wrote her a glowing reference.

Mr Cook introduced the daredevil sport of rap-jumping – abseiling face-down – to New Zealand in the 1990s and got stunt work on the Hercules and Xena television series from there.

They met on The Lord of the Rings, and have juggled their film careers with being parents to Jaxson, now 8. This sometimes means only one of them will work on a film project at a time, and Mrs Cook runs a side hair and makeup business from home.

"You do have to think outside the square to survive in the film industry, otherwise I don't think you could do it really," she says.

They both love their jobs, but say the sometimes 18-hour working days – often for stints of up to a year on a big production – can be gruelling.

Because Mrs Cook does prosthetic masks, she often has to be at work at 4am and doesn't leave until 10pm.

The inconsistency of jobs means holidays are almost non-existent, Mr Cook says.

Contact Michelle Duff
Education reporter
Twitter: @michelle_duff

The Dominion Post