Going in boots and all: How New Zealand production companies are spreading their wings, putting local creativity on the world map

Take a look at screens around the country and overseas, and you’ll see local talent leaving their mark.

Sir Peter Jackson and Weta Workshop are household names, and while their contribution to New Zealand’s representation as a place of video production can’t be denied, there is a lot more going on when you look under the hood.

“Weta has an amazing illustrious history but there are more production houses doing amazing work,” Joshua Forsman, general manager of Flux Animation Studios, says.

He says there’s great comradery within the local industry and everyone cheers on each other’s success and alongside that, there’s friendly rivalry — but that only drives better work.

Looking at Flux Animation, in particular, earlier this year, it made headlines for its hand in creating RAM’s Super Bowl ad with US agency Motive.

70 percent of Flux Animation’s work is abroad and Forsman says it has a number of long-standing relationships with agencies around the world.

“We make a determined drive to be in Singapore, the UK and the US,” he says and this doesn’t mean building relationships through screens.

In fact, Forsman says it sees some of its US-based clients more than they see their production partners who are based in the US.

“Face-to-face is still imperative to our relationships.”

But why would a brand or creative agency work with a production company on the other side of the world? Why wouldn’t they?

Talking to Michelle Walshe and Aimee McCammon, founder/CEO and managing director of Augusto respectively, about their experience working around the world, nothing sums it up better than the fact we are all based in different locations.

Washe is in New York, McCammon is in Wellington and I am in Auckland, yet we all see each other as we talk.

Earlier, Walshe had been in a client meeting with Red Bull, with one person in Paris and the other in New Jersey.

For the Augusto team, it’s now the way of life. Leon Kirkbeck, founder and CIO of Augusto, has been living in the US since 2017 when the New Zealand agency planted roots there with a New York office. He was joined by Walshe last year and now the two head up a team of six.

Meanwhile, Augusto’s engine remains in Auckland’s City Woks Depot.

Given the ease at which it is to communicate with all parts of the globe, McCammon says clients are comfortable with their work being completed offshore.

“They are comfortable with it going down the pipe to Auckland and then being sent back to New York.”

However, both McCammon and Walshe agree it would be handy to teleport sometimes.

But what about managing the different time zones?

Again, New Zealand being on the other side of the world does not have to be a burden.

Forsman says it can aid the process in the lead up to the deadline because they can “work through the night”.

He says Flux Animation can send off a WIP at the end of the day, wake up to feedback and then have a whole day to respond.

“It makes for a smooth production. We have a 24-hour clock and for production on a deadline, that’s good,” Forsman says.

What does New Zealand bring to the table?

Despite Tourism New Zealand having to launch a campaign last year for New Zealand to be put back on the world map, talking to the production companies it would seem the country has long been recognized in ad land. 

Forsman gives the example of Saatchi & Saatchi’s work for Telecom that had international agencies in awe.

Looking at the local industry in a broader sense, Forsman says New Zealand has a “get it done attitude” and an “incredible talent pool”. Speaking of that talent pool he references Flux Animation as being one of the only studios in the world still doing 2D animation.

“It’s a dying art — they don’t teach it in schools,” he says, meaning the community of 2D artists is now global.

For Flux Animation, its 2D ability has helped it on the world stage, with one example being Duncan Studio calling it in to help on the Mary Poppins Returns film.

As well as the talent, New Zealand’s mentality also sets it apart. Bruce Carter, creative director of ToyBox, says there’s a sense we need to work harder because we are so far away from everyone else.

“We like to have this image of ourselves that we punch above our weight – we are the battlers in the South Pacific and there is a truth to that.”

“When we [New Zealand] decide to take something on, we are in boots and all and that is really valued.”

He says a case in point is the YouTube Originals series Sherwood, that Carter directed.

The animation is set in the dystopian future 2270 and offers a modern take on the story of Robin Hood. ToyBox worked with Baby Octopus, in the US, and Giant, in Ireland, to produce it.

“Our relationship with Baby Octopus is a great example of how strong creative collaboration can shape an idea to reach a wide audience,” Carter says.

He adds throughout the process there was no demarcation of “this is what you paid so this is what you get”, and instead the team went the extra mile to deliver it.

On top of this, when Sherwood was released Nanette Miles, managing director of ToyBox and executive producer of Sherwood said it was excited to fly the flag for Australasia on a global stage.

Show ’em how it’s done

Carter’s point about going the extra mile to deliver for a client speaks to a point Walshe makes about New Zealand’s efficient way of working.

She looks back at Augusto’s early days when there were no big budgets — a characteristic of many New Zealand businesses.

With this, local businesses are naturally efficient in the way they operate, and as budgets around the world are shrinking, New Zealand can lead the way.

“The efficiencies you need in New Zealand to do work cost-effectively and fast are valued here [in the US]more than ever,” Walshe says.

“In the States, they once would have been able to solve problems with a fire hose of money but you can’t fix a problem with a fire hose of money in New Zealand and people want that mindset here.”

Seeking inspiration

While there are clear benefits for offshore agencies and clients getting New Zealand production companies on board, it’s not just a one-way street.

Walshe says going offshore is good for individuals and their organisations. It serves as a test of skill and source of inspiration for those abroad, and when they return they come armed with ideas, learnings and work.

And for the Auckland-based Augusto team, working on clients from around the world keeps them energized and motivated.

“It’s stimulating for the team and it helps them feel like anything is possible,” McCammoon says.

“The team takes huge pride in the fact we are all over the world, shooting in places like Hong Kong, Germany and New York.”

Giving local stories an international stage

One of the possibilities closer to home for Augusto has been its ability to aid in showcasing New Zealand stories to the rest of the world.

Recently, it’s been involved in producing Jessica’s Tree, a web-series by Jazz Thornton that tells the story of her friend, Jessica, who took her own life. So far, it’s racked up more than 200,000 views on the New Zealand Herald website and YouTube.

And while the theme is particularly pertinent for New Zealand, which has the highest suicide rate among teenagers aged between 15 and 19 in the OECD, it’s not just local audiences paying attention.

The series has resonated globally, with Thornton accepting an invitation to Kensington Palace in London this week to discuss with officials how to change the tide in mental health. It has also won a Storytelling Award at the socially conscious A Show for a Change film festival.

Walshe and her team feel pride in being a part of projects that contribute back to communities here and around the world.

“Suicide is a global issue and a New Zealand issue, and New Zealand has something to say about what can be done about it,” she says.

“Going global is about telling stories that can have an impact beyond New Zealand.”

Broadening horizons

Thinking about New Zealand production companies spreading their wings, it has to be asked if there are any areas local production could scrub up on when compared to their international peers. The response is a positive one.

“We aren’t chasing anyone,” Forsman says. “Everyone is moving in parallel”

However, there is something he’d like to see, and that’s for even more global thinking within local production companies because there are no barriers.

“It’s around thinking how can we get a bigger slice of the pie globally. The work that’s coming out of New Zealand is at a level we can all be proud of.”

A step to this is further growing international relationships and he suggests production companies look at where there is to grow because there’s plenty of room if you look beyond the horizon.

“The room for growth is limitless.”

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