Is this success…?

NZTECHO  Autumn 2015 Issue 64 Point of View

Cinematographer Waka Attewell had financial insight early on in the TV and film industry. He built a studio, ran a production company making TVCs and brought property, he even invested in trees. So why then is paying the mortgage still a struggle?

Waka Dave Benge ACC TVC (2).jpg
Cinematographer Waka Attewell has been around long enough to know the turns and roundabouts of the TV and film industry. Waka assisted by Dave Benge c 1983.

Am I the right guy to be giving advice around having financial security in the TV and film industry?  Well, I’ve traded out of the two dark holes the financial industry blessed us with, so perhaps I am. You see, for me, coping financially hasn’t been so much as putting money aside for a rainy day but, rather, investing in a few concerns outside the film industry.

However, while a bit of forward thinking can see you through the rough patches, it’s actually about first finding that balance between work and life. There’s an old saying that goes ‘find the thing you really love and you’ll never have to work another day’. In other words, find that delicate balance between a career and having a life in this thing called ‘the film and TV biz’ (which I still believe is about the highest end of the creative spectrum that you can get.)  So sure, there are high rewards, but the downside can also be very low. Mental health issues in people in the TV and film industry can be way beyond normal levels if compared to other industries. In no small part is this due to increasingly stressful work and economic conditions. It helps to be a little mad to contemplate a life in the ‘film and TV biz’!

Continue reading “Is this success…?”


Picking it up where we left off

NZTECHO Autumn 2014 Issue 60 Point of View

Think 1980s’ Top Town and the days when TV shows could bring families and communities together. Despite ongoing commercial challenges we face in this industry, content should still be king writes cinematographer Waka Attewell, or even just sometimes at least.
Cinematographer Waka Attewell has been around long enough to know the turns and roundabouts of the TV & Film industry
Gazing out on the windswept tundra of free-to-air TV and as people stay away from it in droves, it is a hard push to find an argument for devoted viewership. Meanwhile on the other side of the planet some of the best quality TV ever is being created by the likes of HBO and AMC.
Could this not be us we have to ask? The answer is yes it could be us, yet entrenched orthodoxy seems to be still dictating the requirements … more cooking shows anyone?
These death throes of sane TV programming got me thinking. I am fairly certain that my cultural and political awareness was formed in the Pacific Film Unit’s tearooms. I would like to think with taste and good judgement too. The 1970s invited an excuse to fight, we tilted at windmills and believed our opinions and self aggrandizing would make a difference.
Someone came up with the quaint notion of doing all the thinking before the camera came out of the box – this dictum kept things pretty much on track for a few decades. Ridiculous hours and unrealistic schedules didn’t matter, the money was not all that regular but there always seemed to be enough.
With our TV programme making there wasn’t a sense of ‘what does the broadcaster want’ but a sense of ‘what can we offer’ – preferably something that would invoke thought and debate? The film and TV business fitted nicely into the grand plan, with the desire of building something solid and everlasting. A voice of the people-type ideal with community shows like Top Town and Country Calendar ruling the ratings. Little did we realise that the neoliberals were out the back filling the ‘Kool-Aid’ vats with their toxin – we were fiercely ambitious and hopeful and everything seemed possible until the late 1980s crashed and burned.
The notion of ‘just getting by’ was challenged by the commercial imperative that came knocking. It went something like this, you conclude that the way forward is this fancy new corporate model and you studiously obey (stopping just short of commissioning your own ‘mission statement’). Suddenly you are quoting jobs on fast food, fruit juice, fashion and car commercials. You quickly became horrified at the guy you once knew when you catch yourself waxing lyrical in the advertising agency about ‘brand recognition’ and before you know it ‘you’re whisking up a treat’ and nodding sagely along with the discussion about the ‘society we live in’ as you adroitly add to the problem gambling while name dropping ‘demographic’ and pretending to know what ‘appetite appeal’ actually meant. You particularly like the American accent in the room as it makes you feel worldly and while you are having an out-of-body experience you agree to do the three 30-second cut downs gratis. The yank has the economic speak down pat, he talks of ‘risk adverse’ and ‘cheap money’ (actually what he means is cheap people).
The ‘delusions of grandeur’ isn’t so obvious yet as half truth is the new currency. This quickly becomes the new normal as a $10,000 limit on a credit card (you didn’t ask for) arrives in the fast post. The TV channels think it is only about making money, which is quickly followed by formula programme-thinking (a stencil imported from the US) – then the new radical concept of ‘cashflow’ is introduced to the mix (this tends to happen when the banks get involved). Suddenly you are pitching like mad and churning out stuff for the broadcasters they thought they wanted. Old problem here is if you give a broadcaster what they ‘want’ it is usually not what is ‘needed’ – there is an all but brief moment when a tax break makes NZ feature films possible.
We all look back fondly on this time as the ‘national cinema era’. Well that was the last 30 years.
So as the economy heads again for that moment when the proverbial ‘they’ talk up the recovery whilst avoiding the words ‘train wreck’, ‘run away debt’ or ‘fiscally challenged’ – let us spare a thought for when the boom hits and what we want to rebuild and let us be careful with whom we crawl into bed with and gift our craft skills and our finances to. As you already know the final outcome will probably leave you hanging off the debt cliff
while just a few still prosper.
So rather than enslave ourselves again into a service-type role, how about we think of these interesting times as just-interesting-times by firstly resurrecting the wreckage of ‘national cinema’. Then let us make some TV programmes that have a bit of content (if TV don’t want it then stream it on the internet) and get back to the old wisdom of doing the thinking before the camera comes out of the box.

My Year of the Hobby

TAKE (NZ Director’s Guild Magazine)  Spring 2011


A distant village nestles up against the hills – smoke from cooking fires curl against the morning light. A craftsman begins his daily task. The forge is hot, the metal glowing red, he beats the iron with slow rhythm whilst turning the work and forming the blade. The apprentice looks on with awe. The village goes about its day. Come weeks end the Blacksmith will be rewarded for his skill – the village folk appreciate and nurture him, he is needed.

PHEW busy year! Drinking like a lizard, laying bricks in Beirut – work-work-work, I love this business – it fills my life with joy, hope and possibilities and you might think wealth? Bugger – Nothing in the bank. Alas – deals, minimal rates, minimal gear, double bunking – cost of living through the roof and much less offering in the commercial sector.

The year kicked off well – then I’m told at the end of the shoot, by the first-time-producer, “There’s not enough to pay you,” the lost puppy look made the news even more risible. I make to say this is my livelihood but I’m struck speechless – the ‘first-time-producer’ can’t make a $110,000 (NZFC) budget work for the shooting crew. I guess I’ll just have to await the big movie call when the ‘first-time-director’ is famous.

It’s become a bit of a tradition in my village where you do the work and you get paid – um, err… but not this time or the time before or the one after that? You could try the argument that ‘experience counts for something?’ – yet the government tells us we’re a low wage society and can’t do much about that. I guess they mean be proud of this fact and wear the badge with honour, after all Hollywood comes here to take advantage of this ‘low wage’ society and a gigs a gig eh? Ever felt like you’re being used? Yes I know you need the job so working 14 hours x 6 days a week and doing more than what you are paid is what it takes – ambition is blind until the boss’s best friend’s daughter gets the promotion ahead of you when she’s only been in the biz 6 months… yep, not fair. Oh and then you sign that contract that has you working 7 days a week where the OT is cancelled out every Monday morning… choices? Not many.

The arts managers, funding bureaucrats and advertising executives take their weekly wage while the film and TV grunts in the trenches support the delivery of product… not to mention the scripts we read and the late night mentoring (read unpaid).

But what would you expect in a country where the star struck government does a deal with a Hollywood studio at the expense of the local workers? Share the wealth? I mean that’s so yesterday and socialist and if you don’t like it go get another job – there’s plenty of film school graduates. Experience? What’s that? By the way, in case you haven’t noticed, the government has recently rewritten immigration policy inviting all comers. This can only mean less work for locals… this used to happen in the 80’s – the ruse went like this – bring a movie onshore, employ a NZ crew then fire them in the first week, the replacement crew are already pre-booked and making their way to Heathrow; now you don’t even need the pretence of local employment the crews arrive here as a complete unit and its now out of Mumbai – the paperwork reads Co-Pro – tidy – but OSH issues aside apparently you might even be lucky and get paid?


 The phone rings – TVC: a 3 day shoot – some real money! The call has a BUT attached – as in: before the TVC there’s a couple of freebies – music clip and a website promo both, all up, should take about 3 days? I hear myself saying ‘OK’. Then after a few weeks the TVC becomes a real job – miracle? I’m told (i.e. no negotiation) we now work a 12 hour day, the budget won’t work unless we do. ‘So what happened to the Blue book and the Pink book?’ – ‘Oh this is government work’. I again hear myself saying ‘OK’.

A few days go by: ‘I reckon we can shoot this TVC in a half day now that we have the 12 hour shooting day – 6 hours should do it? – (stunned silence) – ‘I should also point out we don’t pay commercial rates anymore’. Should I mention the five people hanging around the monitor, that nearly out number the crew? Should I mention the battle fought over the 8 hr day by our ancestors? Should I put my head down and just shut up?

The arts managers, bureaucrats and producers vet the business and choose the content and the way we work – (this fits nicely into the corporate ideal) only problem being is we’re now down that slippery slide again – lets call it what it is – low-wage-work in a low-wage-business in a low-wage-society… some call it ‘business as usual’. Feel like you’re being used?

My career is now my hobby but diversify I must – live TV – Sports – pictures – live to air – you cant stuff it up – hell! – experience must count for something? …minimum wage? Bugger.

This TV and film making hobby could make an old hand a bit grumpy, I might have to go back being a Blacksmith.

A mate

ADMEDIA  Feb 2011

Charlie Sutherland 1952 to 2011




A few weeks back I was driving through Wellington’s Courtenay Place – something caught the corner of my eye… a figure, a mere flash of a person. Straight away I knew it was Charlie… I had to do the traffic swerve and the parking – Charlie waiting for a bus? – I don’t get it… he was still there when I finally made it out of Blair Street. He smiled – I asked him if he was ok? – he smiled again and said NO… a man who is obviously hurting saying NO whilst smiling is a haunting image.

 We promised to catch up – he wasn’t at home anymore – we promised to have a beer… if I hadn’t had another meeting to go to I would have had a beer there and then… after all the old Paradiso was just there within reach… I felt like hugging him but he looked distant, fragile… his immaculate suit looked a size too big.

I had him on the list for a few weeks then Christmas got in the way… bugger.


RIP Charlie… you became more than just another Adman to me you went beyond a colleague… you became a mate – a rare beast in this advertising game.

Waka Attewell.



It’s perfectly legal – but is it ethical?

ONFILM  August 2008

Waka Attewell has spent a good part of his career telling epic stories involving things you use to wipe your nose, wipe your bum, scrape your teeth; he’s driven the world’s best automobiles through hundreds of miles of crashing surf; he’s even hurled ‘the amber liquid’ down the throats of sports celebrities. Now he’s having second thoughts…


I’d like to believe I’m immune to its seduction: I already know all the tricks, I can tell whether it “does get in” or not. It barks at us from the back of buses, radio, TV, print, and web. We take it for granted… until confronted in the supermarket by 23 washing powders – only then we dredge up the subliminal thing from the hidden recesses and we reach for the one that makes the “whites whiter” and the Advertising Industry can claim success. But hey, we’re consenting adults, we’re educated, we have freedom of choice, no harm done.

Zoom back 15 or so years – I’m sitting at a board room table in a flash advertising agency – the guy opposite is the client. He’s explaining to the grinning, nodding meeting the social benefits of gambling to the wider community, especially the small towns of the depressed rural sector. I’m white knuckles on the arms of the chair repressing every urge not to crawl over the table and smack the bullshit out from his mouth. The copy writer is taking notes and nodding earnestly… Welcome to the world of advertising.

In the late ’70s I built a production company on hope and naïve idealism. It was a hand to mouth existence, then my first long term relationship crashed and I questioned whether I could ever be responsible enough to have kids. I fell into a black hole that completely consumed me, then at the low point I saw an ideal life of glamour that didn’t require much thought beyond blind ambition; the advertising dollar whispered as ‘Muse’.

The ’80s hit town like a tornado, I was re-invented and I had a life making TV commercials – I had money to burn, I was on the treadmill of debt, profit, tax and more debt. The banks loved us all. Enter the world of long lunches (tax-free) and exotic location trips (expense account) – I’d gone from a semi-real world of documentaries to TV commercials, a world of glib half truth. It didn’t immediately worry me: I mean, we were doing important work like selling lawn mowers, cars, toilet paper, beer and fruit juice. I promised myself I’d eventually return to the important stuff.

Yeah right!

I over-achieved – I got particularly good at making food look more than it was, brighter, juicier and more yummy. This sumptuous produce trend put pressure on the growers; I’m positive it encouraged the use of chemicals. It also shifted the what we eat and the way we do it.

But what I really yearned was the call that would include me in the elite, the chosen few. After more dedicated time on the used car front, breakfast cereals and gadgets to clutter the home, the call finally came – my chance to work with the famous dark-sugar-fizzy-drink from the USA! International sports heroes were cast to slam the stuff down their necks and endorse the life-style that the waisted bottle embodied.

We made up stories and told them with complete conviction, we created myths and legends around inanimate objects, we created desire and needs where none had previously existed. We shifted history for our own purposes. I was in pig-shit-heaven.

A client has a bunch of imported cars that have just arrived as deck cargo, but they’re a bit shabby. Solution – paint a bold stripe down the side, slam a cheap stereo in the dash and call it the “Spirit of New Zealand”. Within a week of the TV campaign you could see the results; exciting and seductive stuff. We believed we were shifting “our culture” to a better place. Under our guidance cafes placed tables on the footpath, even though it wasn’t us… We redefined ourselves; like when that guy from the bush re-invented the ‘Kiwi bloke’ by taking a Japanese 4×4 for a spin through the mud; the fact that behind the scenes he smacked his Missus didn’t matter – why should it? – there were bigger things at stake; besides “what happens on tour stays on tour”.

The corporate world supplied the abundance and like obedient whores we dutifully serviced its needs. The mirror glass, the men wearing European design, the women with big hair and perfect figures; risky business was the name of the game – ‘mission statements’ were displayed boldly, you felt like you could save the world and “do good work done well”.

We worked in the realm of truth in the sense of the half truth of it all… half truth in the sense that only a bit of the real truth was revealed, yet the telling bit that wasn’t true was expertly hidden from view and what you couldn’t hide you gave a wee bit of a spin.

We played dress up – we became urban cowboys and perfected the ‘just so’ tear in the jeans – a perpetual three-day-growth was essential. We lunched with all the other production companies and, while we tried to steal each others’ clients, the famous Wellington restaurant tried to steal our money. It had its own perverse honesty.

In this world of pretend you didn’t mix pudding, you “whisked up a treat”. Mothers waited at home in perfect kitchens, poverty was outlawed… it was all about the manipulation of language, choosing the right word to express the correct emotion. Have you ever thought of how many grown ups it takes to establish the correct way to put a piece of gum in your mouth? Squeeze a tube of toothpaste? Eat a candy bar like you’re having sex?

If you ever had a moment of doubt, like “are we dealing with the ‘big stuff’ here?” or “does this really matter”, you’d justify it as practice for when you’d eventually return to the real world of ‘worthwhile’.

I became suspicious of the fervour multi-national companies created – I watched grown men and women sacrifice all for the corporation and do what was necessary to further its wants and needs. Did I condone this behaviour? I pretended it didn’t affect me, but it was hard to have ‘proper’ conversations with these people; their fear of failure oozed from every pore; it nearly pulled me in – beware the vortex, the dark bit.

You can justify most things when the money is good – “It’s not as if I believe in the concept or the product… I just make the commercials… the impact the product is making on the planet is not my concern…” But the absurdity of it had ignited the smallest flame of doubt; I mean, people were starving in the world.


Advertising seems to have become more desperate, more devious – someone invented the TV mute button… how does the advertising business get through?

Call me a shallow bastard if you like but the insidious end of this advertising business isn’t welcome, especially when it involves my family… it feels not too dissimilar to social engineering. Twice this year the Ad-Man has breached the ramparts – I’m not talking about that annoying thing on the TV or that spinning graphic on the website; I’m talking personal stuff!

The first visitation came as a self-subscribed e-mail – a few years ago my then three-year-old granddaughter and I joined the “club” of a company that sell clothes to kids and of course adoring adults – but if you look at the autumn sales link on their website you might think they’re selling the concept of kids clothes to paedophiles… The image is of a young girl (maybe four years old), legs akimbo holding a small guitar – the clothes are exposing a bare midriff, the camera angle is low. I’m assuming the small guitar is to create the illusion of adult sizing; she has a ‘come hither look’ on her made up face and her lips are pouting through lipstick.

Call me old-fashioned but are these sexually driven poses, is the expectation to dress our young kids up like sexually mature adults? I don’t get it.

Then a few weeks back the Ad-Man again breached the castle walls – my granddaughter said, “I have to have the toy, everyone at school’s got one… it’s not fair, I need it.” She used the word “need”, and mention of the relationship between the toy, the golden arches and the food is making me angry… We all knew that this day would come, call it retribution if you like, we somehow hoped we were immune to the process – now is this what Kevin Roberts might call a ‘love mark’ moment? (I invite you to explore the website – can anyone explain to me this new world “beyond branding”?)

One must assume that these people who contrived the trick of the toy and food association and those who continue the practice must also have children. Do they think that exploiting a hunter and gatherer desire for sugar and fat is an ethical way of conducting their business? Is targeting the innocence and weakness of children a fair advertising ploy? It’s completely legal… but is it ethical?

Secondary schools have media studies to prepare the next generation for advertising but it seems to be all about making copies of these commercials rather than questioning their integrity.

Children get food awareness lessons at primary school in their first year – though I did notice that the food pyramid is almost the complete inverse of what it was in my day. Obviously the dubious food science from 40 years ago is still evolving and still dubious. Does the advertising industry have anything to do with the heart stamp or the food pyramid?

At least we are attempting to inform our youth about the politics of food… Yet after school, we let them loose on a world where the bus they catch home is festooned with junk food advertising, the billboards on the way home are glossy invitations, the bus shelter is selling widgets and waffles by promoting stick thin models.

It’s said that you can judge a society by the way they treat their elderly and children. We come from the generation that allowed free-range in the advertising stakes and we’ve allowed our vulnerable kids to be high-jacked by large international corporations… Grown men and women sit around boardroom tables and discuss the next honey trap and our kids become unhealthy because of it.

While I was fuming about this article, some new figures came to light – the media spend for TV advertising last year went like this: $55 million on junk food, $20 mil on chocolate products, $18 mil on fizzy drinks and $6 mil on fruit and vegetable advertising.


The advertising biz generates a lot of money and employs many people and is enslaved to a larger purpose – in the scheme of things they are mere puppets,..

The way we feed ourselves along with what we eat has changed more dramatically in the past 40 years than in the previous 10,000.

The hunter gatherer is a dead sitter when it comes to selling fat and sugar to and the processed food business knows this; through the advertising agencies they exploit the fact we can’t help ourselves… even when they know it’s not doing us any good.

It’s a complex world that’s driven by the needs of Capitalism… Those of us who play in it have to be very sure of it or be merely pushed along with the tide – a cork with few options.

Times are getting tough and that dollar is even harder to secure – why would you speak out against the advertising business and ‘bite the hand that feeds’? If your job is to exploit the weak and frail, target the fat and balding, create sexual doubt and perpetuate dubious science around the processing of food then go right ahead, what you’re doing isn’t illegal… Just stay away from the kids.