WAKA ATTEWELL is one of New Zealand's most experienced feature film, commercial and documentary Cinematographers – and through his own production company is also the Producer and Director of many iconic New Zealand TVCs.
For his work on feature films and international television series, notably Xena Warrior Princess as Main Unit DP, Waka has been praised by the most insightful of Hollywood's critics. Variety Magazine described his work on Starlight Hotel as "being magnificent". Leonard Maltin had this to say about the same film: "A friendly film about a most unlikely friendship. Warrick Attewell's cinematography is a standout!"
Winner, Best Cinematography Award for the feature film The Whole Of The Moon in the New Zealand Film and Television Awards - Waka's achievements are multifarious; DP on more than a dozen feature films, Director/DP of a score of international award-winning commercials, dramas and documentaries. Waka brings passion, talent and commitment to every project, utilising his specialist skills in aerial and adventure work. He is proficient with motion control concepts and preparation of live action on location for CGI requirements.
Warrick Attewell NZCS — or Waka, as he is known in the film industry — is a freelance cameraman and director of photography who has worked with many of the major directors in New Zealand cinema. He has won awards both for his cinematography (The Whole of the Moon) and direction (Our Future Generation). These days he is also an opinionated commentator on screen matters, for a range of local publications.
Waka Attewell commandeered his brother's darkroom as a teenager, and was soon taking photographs for the local newspaper. In 1972 he got a job at John O'Shea's Pacific Films, joining a circle of independent filmmakers dedicated to local storytelling. Waka trained as a camera assistant at Pacific, where he worked on landmark documentary series Tangata Whenua - the People of the Land.
"To be with Michael King and Barry Barclay on these shoots completely changed my life," Waka said. "We literally did not know how Māori lived, and you would have thought I would have known, being brought up in Gisborne. Michael King building bridges in this desperately dysfunctional little country, a place where racial harmony was a thing that everyone talked about but no one did!"
A keen climber and adventurer, Waka would go on to document a number of overseas expeditions by mountaineers Edmund Hillary and Graeme Dingle. Waka found early success working with Dingle on the short film All the Way up There, which chronicled the struggle of young quadriplegic Bruce Burgess to climb Mt Ruapehu. Attewell co-directed the film with Gaylene Preston, which won prizes at the Diableret Film Festival in Switzerland and Canada's Banff Festival of Mountain Films.
When All the Way Up There played in New Zealand cinemas alongside Middle Age Spread, some theatre managers complained that viewers were feeling so emotional that they were failing to leave their seats during intermission, to buy snacks. Waka had previously explored his twin loves of climbing and filmmaking with his first project as director, dramatised doco A Nice Sort of a Day.
Waka helped out on the second unit of the iconic feature film Sleeping Dogs and was a gaffer (electrician) on Middle Age Spread. In the early 1980s, he was one of many to shoot material for Patu!, Merata Mita's documentary on the Springbok Tour.
Waka's big break came in 1983 when he was hired by producer/director Grahame McLean to shoot two low-budget feature films, back to back. Set in 1920, The Lie of the Land tells the story of a shell-shocked war veteran. The film makes bold use of deep shadows and bright exteriors. The second film, Should I Be Good?, was a stark contrast in style, creating a gritty urban look to a film inspired by the Mr Asia drug smuggling syndicate.
Waka followed with crime thriller Dangerous Orphans (1986). The film's moody lighting and prowling camera won Attewell a cinematography nomination at the 1988 NZ Film and TV Awards.
Attewell's next film would win favorable comparisons to the classic imagery of Days of Heaven and Paris, Texas. Shot in only six weeks, Starlight Hotel is a road movie featuring a 13-year old girl (Greer Robson) and a young war veteran on the run.
The Los Angeles Times and England's Financial Times both name-checked Attewell's work in their reviews, with LA Times critic Kevin Thomas comparing the film's visual impact to the legendary cinematography of Days of Heaven. Respected English critic Derek Malcolm (The Guardian) argued that Starlight's visuals were "a very good reason to see it." Partly thanks to the collapse of the company that made it, Starlight Hotel has rarely seen the light of a New Zealand movie screen.
In 1991, Waka worked on Barry Barclay's second feature, Te Rua, set in Berlin and New Zealand. Te Rua explores ideas of indigenous intellectual property rights of taonga, held in overseas museums. Rory O'Shea shot the Berlin sequences while fighting illness, with Waka completing the New Zealand scenes.
Attewell's next feature, Chunuk Bair (1991), also explores New Zealand identity; this time through the Wellington regiment at Gallipoli. Most of this low-budget film was shot inside a small studio at Avalon, with Attewell using a variety of lighting to simulate everything from dawn to midday sun.
The Sinking of the Rainbow Warrior (1992), made by British director Michael Tuchner, recreated the bombing of a Greenpeace boat in Auckland Harbour in 1985, and the investigation led by Inspector Alan Galbraith (played by Sam Neill).
Attewell had produced and filmed a documentary two years previously on a related subject — When a Warrior Dies, which examines the murder of Greenpeace photographer Fernando Pereira. The film was a finalist at New York's International Film and TV Festival. Attewell's also won a Silver Award at the same festival in 1990 for his direction of a documentary for Electricorp, Our Future Generation.
In 1996 he won the Best Cinematography Award at the NZ Film and TV Awards for his work on the Ian Mune teen romance The Whole of the Moon. Waka followed it by reteaming with the director on Sunday television piece Dead Certs.
The same period saw Attewell moving increasingly into directing. Mune and Attewell would swap roles for behind the scenes documentary In the Shadow of King Lear, which chronicles Mune rehearsing for the play. Waka also wore the directing hat for the short film The Murder House — which won an honorable mention at the Oberhausen Short Film Festival — and headed the creation of the Future Zone Ride at Te Papa.
As a director of photography, Waka's run of music videos and commercials includes Sharon O'Neill's Maxine, Bruno's Last Ride for The Warratahs, and the internationally-broadcast Coca Cola Future Ball commercials. He has contributed to the next generation of filmmakers through teaching cinematography at Unitec in Auckland Unitec, and the Film School in Wellington.
He has also worked with Graeme Tuckett on a documentary about his longtime friend and colleague, the late director Barry Barclay. More recently he has shot a feature-length documentary on Billy T James.
— Adapted by NZ On Screen from Duncan Petrie’s book Shot in New Zealand - The Art and Craft of the Kiwi Cinematographer.