John Howe


Ohakune, 6 a.m., all energies bent on filling up gas tanks (unleaded) and stomachs (flat white and long black). As always, I find myself entranced by the seamy neon underside of the wee hours of civilization: fitful tube lights, amateur signage (Eat. Food. All Day.) and gleaming 18-wheelers that prowl past growling to themselves. Truckstopland has an enduring sense of limbo and homey eeriness, a back of beyond that approaches during the small hours and only recedes with the rising sun. I take endless series of photos that I never look at afterwards, searching for some undefined concordance of colour that will let me gaze into the grimy urban looking-glass. (To see what, I’m not sure; the liminal is always so hard to trainspot.) The streets are sparsely peopled by tardy partygoers, at least those who are still buoyed up by alcohol in the bitter morning cold, we see giraffes and green fluorescent penguins and bug-eyed alien creatures, the rumpled and baggy representatives of Mardi Gras, which was the night before. Friday. Which should theoretically make it Vendredi Gras, but this is the Antipodes and the 21st century; stranger things have happened, and though a band of bleary drunks in orange Tigger-striped suits is far removed from Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday, I suppose barroom brawls between Carnival and Lent are not only the province of tradition. Breughel would surely have appreciated the viridescent alien onesies, though.

Coffees are ready, idle musings placated by that first tongue-burning sip of caffeine, we’re off.


What They Don’t Teach You in Film School 1:
On location, avoid any place that says “All Day Breakfast”. Don’t even think about it. It will be all day awful like the egg stain on your front or lap which you will get from trying to eat off a coffee table, perched on the edge of an armchair. And no, production will not pick up the dry cleaning bill.


We’ve been shooting a few days, an experience I always find oddly disorienting, since I fall entirely into the wholly passive mode of just letting everything else go except trying to keep my wits about me, the facts to hand and thoughts sharp. Pencils too, in this case. Two stints for me – I’ll fly back to Wellington to work a few days and then catch another flight up island for the second round. It’s always a bit of a headlong thing, but these exercises always are.

It is freezing on the way up to Turoa. Well, we are on a mountain and we are in midwinter, so it’s hardly a surprise. What is, though, is how cold sketching outdoors really is, and while we modern illustrators are only ever a short dash away from a cozy vehicle, it wasn’t always that easy. Painters used to risk their lives to go paint abroad. When he wasn’t standing in a head-high pit peering at wildflowers from the desired angle, or sitting the whole night in a back garden to paint The Light of the World, William Holman Hunt was off baking himself alive on the shores of the Red Sea painting the background of The Scapegoat, and fending off bandits with a pistol.

Legions of William Gilpin’s disciples trod, rode, and rowed over the globe, the 19th-century Picturesque Journey was the general public’s only eager window on the farther places of the world. While explorers made much of their grueling accounts of impossible journeys, legions of painters and sketchers made light of the difficulties of travel to rush back to their London or New York publishers with tattered sketchbooks, warped by the weather, full of deft watercolours and hurried pen-and-inks. Epistemology and art, spiced with Romanticism and seasoned with individuality, are nowhere embodied in such an intriguing mélange as in those travel books. Their stories would make a book in itself.

American illustrator Joseph Pennell describes cycling around central Italy on rented bicycles, wooden cases of artists supplies strapped to their flanks, aiming for romantic Italian hill towns at the top of endless dusty switchbacks, and upon arriving at the end of the day and some impossible climb, quickly sketching the setting sun from the window of his room with an energy renewed by the imperatives of the fading light. Suddenly even my numb fingers and the raindrops that smudge the page seem most acceptable.


What They Don’t Teach You in Film School 2:
A cue like “When I say Go, you stay put” can cause momentary brain fade. Best option: just don’t budge, you’ll save yourself a reset.


It’s raining, it’s been raining all morning, it looks like it’s not going to let up all afternoon. Nevertheless, you can’t expect weather cover on a documentary shoot, and, well, rain is part of it after all. We renounce trying Putarangi, though, it seems the river is too high to wade; I’m terribly tempted to try anyway, but then I’m not carrying much equipment. Even as it is, sketchbook, camera and pencil case end up feeling like they are made of lead. My respect for the Steadicam operator grows with each passing hour. Invented in 1976, the Steadicam is the brainchild of cinematographer Garret Brown. Not content with that, Wikipedia informs me that he has demonstrated, well, a certain focus on camera stabilisation, and has gone on to invent such diverse things as FlyCam, DiveCam, MobyCam and MoleCam. Nonetheless, and trivia notwithstanding, it is a diligent and ingenious form of torture. I’m just glad I’m not wearing one.


What They Don’t Teach You in Film School 3:
Any amateur will be good on take one or take five. You can toss out the other three, unless you enjoy comparing errors. The only problem is, you have to do them to get to five anyway. You might as well do a sixth, it won’t likely be any good, but you never know.


Pickles likes me. She hops unexpectedly up on my lap while I’m sketching and stares fixedly at the pencil tip moving around the page. Clearly Pickles’ admiration for sketching is limited to feline reflexes and memories of mice caught. I briefly consider drawing a mouse, but don’t wish to have claw marks in my sketchbook. Inn and pub cats are of course nothing new, blasé creatures who blend with rugs in front of fires and earn their keep chasing mice, except we are in the Green Dragon. In Hobbiton.

Tolkien curiously makes no mention of cats in Middle-Earth, other than the “nefarious, solitary and loveless” Black Numenorian Queen Berúthiel, who, as related in Unfinished Tales, “…had nine black cats and one white, her slaves, with whom she conversed, or read their memories, setting them to discover all the dark secrets of Gondor, … setting the white cat to spy upon the black, and tormenting them. No man in Gondor dared touch them; all were afraid of them, and cursed when they saw them pass.” I’m not too worried, Pickles is a tabby.1


What They Don’t Teach You in Film School 4:
Crowd control is an art in itself, especially when you are shooting in a space that really belongs to visitors who have paid to gawk at what you’re trying to shoot. Do NOT get in their souvenir photos, not only will you passably ruin them, they’ll end up on FB anyway.


When the flight attendant manning the counter knows your name without asking, you can be sure that 1: it is a very small airport and 2: the flight is not going to be particularly full. In fact, it’s just me and the pilot and co-pilot, lifting off in the dark. Clearly the red-eye from Taupo is not a popular commuter link. We spent the whole day before on DOC and army land, and I grandly regret not meeting the local iwi, who accorded their gracious benediction based on our good credentials (and likely on the earnest and honest voice of our location scout). I still have vivid memories of the Powhiri ceremony at the start of filming on The Hobbit, and was looking forward to seeing the European doco crew have the experience. It seems the Rings and Hobbit film units have set the high standards for scripted encroachments on Maori, park and military land, and while we have a far lighter footprint, we tread softly. Thankfully the snow cover minimizes any impact. I try to do like Legolas, and not sink in. It works where the snow has seen the sun and hardened, then suddenly I’m in to my knees. So much for my wannabee elfhood. How do you say oh dammit in Sindarin?

The plane lurches down into Wellington; there’s something otherworldly about the approach, especially at dawn, and I always find myself musing on first arrivals on unknown shores, even though in a few moments I’ll be hurrying towards the baggage belt like everyone else, I’m daydreaming again, I’m lost in the imagery, and the simple wonder of light and land that never ceases to seem new. Inevitably, I think of the astonishing descriptions by painters of the likes of Edward Markham and Augustus Earle, and their early wanderings in New Zealand.2 Or perhaps Tennyson:

“…A land of old upheaven from the abyss
By fire, to sink into the abyss again;
Where fragments of forgotten peoples dwelt,
And the long mountains ended in a coast
Of ever-shifting sand, and far away
The phantom circle of a moaning sea.”3

As I said, I’m hopeless, my mind is all over the map – and beyond: hic svnt draconis, especially – unless I pin it to the ground and make it apply itself to the task at hand. Tennyson never flew into Wellington in a gale, I remind my unruly mind. He’s thinking of Lyonesse, but perhaps he meant every numinous dawn on some dusky farther shore…

A few minutes later, I’m hurrying to work to finish a Photoshop job begun before leaving. I do hope I hit save before rushing out the door. I’m first in; it’s barely 7:30. Going to be a long day, working Saturday to make up for the time taken off. Sunday we have another day’s shoot planned, but of that, more another time. I type in my username and password, Middle-Earth appears full-screen. Suddenly I don’t know what’s real and what’s in my head. It doesn’t last long, though; turns out I did save that file. Thoughts turn to coffee. I’m back.


1.*The term “tabby” appears in the 1630’s, “striped silk taffeta” from the French “tabis,” meaning “a rich, watered silk (originally striped),” from Middle French atabis (14c.), from Arabic attabiya, from Attabiy, a neighborhood of Baghdad where such cloth was first made, named for Prince ‘Attab of the Omayyad dynasty. Tabby cat, one with a striped coat, is attested from 1690’s; the shortened form tabby is first attested in 1774. (Thank you . I wonder what they were called before that.

2. ‬Explorers, Whalers and Tattooed Sailors, by Gordon Ell, Random House New Zealand, 2008. You can also read (with a good deal of enjoyment, despite the necessarily antiquated views often difficult for a modern reader), A narrative of a nine months’ residence in New Zealand in 1827 : together with a journal of a residence in Tristan D’Acunha, an island situated between South America and the Cape of Good Hope, by Augustus Earle (Draughtsman to His Majesty’s survey-ship “The Beagle”), published in London by Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, Green & Longman, 1832

3. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, The Idylls of the King, published between 1859 and 1885