Poking the lens of a Sekonic eight-millimetre camera through the bars of the gibbon enclosure at Wellington Zoo, furtively avoiding the keepers, Max Quinn admits his first ‘documentary film’ was “just portrait shots, no behaviour at all”. He was 13 years old, the film was three minutes long, and he was just getting started. Next, he trained the camera on the family cat, rugby games, and his four brothers, who starred in his homemade horror movies.
Quinn was a shy kid, but he liked natural history so much that he befriended the staff of the Dominion Museum and enjoyed a sideline as his primary school’s resident taxidermist, practising on classmates’ dead budgies.
Determined to turn his film-making hobby into a line of work, he left school as soon as he could for the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation. He’d just turned 18 in 1968 when the Īnangahua earthquake struck; the Air Force helicoptered him to the stricken region and left him there to get the story.
Several years later, when he heard Television New Zealand was establishing a natural history unit, Quinn began angling for a job within it. The first step, he figured, was to get in the building, so he moved to Dunedin to work in children’s programming for TVNZ, hoping to end up a couple of floors down.
“It was a really small unit and I didn’t have any academic qualifications at all—I wasn’t a qualified biologist or zoologist,” he says.
It turned out that the unit—now privatised as Natural History New Zealand—was comprised of enthusiasts just like Quinn. They didn’t need a scientist, but someone who could work on their own, shooting and directing.
“When you’re out working with animals in the field, you want to have as small a crew as possible, and there’s nothing smaller than a camera and director working on his own in a hide somewhere.”
This was 1987. It had taken Quinn 20 years, but finally he had his dream job, and the time he’d spent working on television dramas and children’s shows served him well.
“When I first joined the unit, I asked them, ‘What’s the most important thing about making natural history films?’ and they said, ‘Story, story, story.’ I’ve always remembered that.”
Quinn’s two-for-the-price-of-one skillset saw him selected to film an ambitious project in Antarctica in 1991. He spent nearly a year on the ice, through the polar winter, documenting the entire life cycle of the emperor penguin. No one had done it before, and Quinn and his film crew were the first people to witness emperor-penguin chicks hatching. He still lectures on what he learned from his year in the deep south.
“It’s like it happened yesterday,” he says. “When humans are thrust into a situation like that, it sticks with you for the rest of your life.”
As a polar film-making specialist, Quinn was tapped to shoot other documentaries in the Arctic and Antarctic regions for the brand-new Discovery Channel and National Geographic’s fledgling television arm. Next year will be his 50th in film-making, while this year, NHNZ celebrates its 40th anniversary.
Natural history films, meanwhile, have travelled a long way from the days of Wild South’s hour-long features about single species such as the takahē or the black robin.
“In order to film their life cycle you’d have to spend a year with them,” says Quinn. “But we don’t have that time now, so it tends to be more snapshots of the life of an animal.”
Instead, Quinn focuses on a single environment, and what lives within it.
“You want to show as many animals as possible, but out of that collection of critters, you want to focus on half a dozen of those animals that show really interesting behavioural traits,” he says.
Behaviour—or what Quinn failed to capture in his zoo film—remains his primary focus. It’s also frustratingly difficult to plan in advance: Quinn’s subjects can’t be meddled with.
“Much of what you script before you leave doesn’t actually eventuate,” he says. “But another 50 per cent of stuff that you didn’t script does.”
Each film contains its disappointments, moments that never unfolded, he says. But nature also has its gifts, and surprises: the emperor penguins that kidnapped other penguins’ chicks, or the southern right whale, long thought vanished from New Zealand waters, that breached in front of his lens. “You get little bonuses with wildlife.”