The big picture

The man on the transparency strips wears a distinctive nineties shirt (a South American-inspired geometric design in mauve, beige, blue, green, and grey), while, in another two images, it is all muscles-no-top. In the first set of photographs the man is in an office, the second at the gym. The man holds a script. The man pumps iron. It is Temuera Morrison preparing for the iconic role of Jake “the Muss” Heke in the feature film Once Were Warriors.

Two photos of Temuera Morrison, in a very 90s shirt, and working out with weights.L-R: Actor Temuera Morrison with Once Were Warriors script (PA1-q-1175-13-3-15) and Morrison working out in preparation for role of Jake “the Muss” Heke (PA1-q-1172-24-1-24). Photographs taken by Kerry Brown or Ann Shelton.

Directed by Lee Tamahori and based on Alan Duff’s book by the same title, this 1994 production met with unprecedented success at the box office and with the critics, both at home and internationally. The story of the Heke family, its powerful depiction of the struggle of urban Māori disconnected from their tribal roots, has played a pivotal role in our screen history. It continues to hold broad cultural resonance.

A cinematic treasure trove

In 2013, producer Robin Scholes, founding partner of production company Communicado, donated four ring binders of photographic material relating to the making of Once Were Warriors to the Alexander Turnbull Library. Seemingly non-descript objects which you’d expect to see in any old office, these binders contain a treasure trove of images: 2412 original colour transparencies, 2030 original colour negatives, 147 original black and white transparencies, and 35 black and white original negatives.

Some images are in strips, while others have been cut down to individual frames or mounted in slide casings. The original objects range in size from 60mm to 1/2 frame 35mm images. In addition to showcasing 90s textiles and workout attire (or lack thereof), the images offer insights into the pre-production, production, and marketing of the film.

Communicado publicity slide showing young men doing a haka, and a close up face of a Māori man with tā moko.L-R: Publicity slide with Boogie (Taungaroa Emile) doing a haka and Communicado label (PA1-q-1173-09-3-3) and unidentified man's tattooed face used for poster research (PA1-q-1172-60-2-2). Photographs taken by Kerry Brown or Ann Shelton.

Taken for Communicado by photographer Kerry Brown with support from Ann Shelton (both lauded photographers) these images are a significant and exciting addition to the Library’s collections.

The Library already holds individual portraits of actors and one-off images or small series relating to film. For instance, the collection of documentary photographer Les Cleveland includes an image of a crew from Pacific Films on Fox Glacier (Reference number: PAColl-10131-4) and a photograph from the collection of the Evening Post shows “Paramount film crew who filmed members of the Byrd Antarctic Expedition” (EP-0027-1/2-G). The photographs of Shirley Grace (PA-Group-00675) contain production stills from movies The Eel, A Point of View, Mr Wrong, Gordon Bennet, Pallet on the Floor, and Utu.

Production photograph from the motion picture Utu, showing a Maori kainga set.Production photograph from the movie Utu, showing Maori kainga set, 1983. Ref: 35mm-45357-16-F.

However, in terms of a collection covering a complete film production, Communicado Features Limited: Photographs relating to the film Once were warriors (PA-Group-00887) is a first.

Three crew members setting up lighting equipment on a grassy hill.Three unidentified men sitting on hill by lighting set-up during production (PA1-q-1174-04-2-R74/19). Photograph taken by Kerry Brown or Ann Shelton.

Full coverage

If you’ve seen the film, you’ll probably remember that distinctive opening shot where the camera pulls away from a pristine landscape to reveal that it is, in fact, a billboard. Beyond is Auckland, grimy and grim. Beth Heke (Rena Owen) appears. She pushes a supermarket trolley along the edge of the motorway, smoking.

Still of Beth Heke flicking her cigarette.Beth (Rena Owen), in opening scene of film, flicks her cigarette (PA1-q-1172-17-2-RA58/13). Photograph taken by Kerry Brown or Ann Shelton.

The coverage of the collection is extensive, with most scenes covered in the production stills.

Still of Beth Heke confronting Bully in a bar.Beth confronts Bully (Cliff Curtis) in bar (PA1-q-1175-16-4-4). Photograph taken by Kerry Brown or Ann Shelton.

Still of Grace and Toot in his car.Grace (Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell) with Toot (Shannon Williams) in his car (PA1-q-1172-33-2-RA74/11). Photograph taken by Kerry Brown or Ann Shelton.

The collection takes us deep into the filmmaking process. Do you remember the scene where Boogie gets arrested? Here’s Tamahori directing Taungaroa Emile (Boogie) and young actors playing bit parts.

Lee Tamihori directing a scene with several young actors, including Taungaroa Emile.Tamahori directing Boogie (Taungaroa Emile) in arrest scene (PA1-q-1172-41-4-25). Photograph taken by Kerry Brown or Ann Shelton.

Then there are numerous photos of crew members. In on-set photographs, you can see stuntman Robert Bruce working with the actors to choreograph fight scenes. While he demonstrates, the camera crew establishes the focal length for the shot.

Robert Bruce rehearsing initiation scene with Toa gang members.Robert Bruce rehearsing initiation scene with Toa gang members (PA1-q-1173-10-3-A73/3). Photograph taken by Kerry Brown or Ann Shelton.

In the following image, Karaoke Man, played by the late Herbs frontman Charlie Tumahai, is seen surrounded by various crew members.

Charlie Tumahai as Karaoke Man singing in a bar.Charlie Tumahai as Karaoke Man in bar scene (PA1-q-1172-70-5-R76/7). Photograph taken by Kerry Brown or Ann Shelton.

The collection includes images of makeup artists at work, including the application of intricate tā moko designs.

Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell having makeup done, and Toa gang member having tā moko makeup applied.L-R: Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell having makeup done on set (PA1-q-1174-04-2-R74_20) and Toa gang member having tā moko makeup applied on set (PA1-q-1173-11-1-3). Photograph taken by Kerry Brown or Ann Shelton.

A film set often involves a lot of waiting around. Here’s an actor, in full makeup, keeping warm.

Unidentified actor playing Toa gang member waiting for filming to begin, wrapped in a blanket and wearing sunglasses.Unidentified actor playing Toa gang member (PA1-q-1172-57-2-R17/16). Photograph taken by Kerry Brown or Ann Shelton.

For those interested in film equipment used in the 90s, there are plenty of shots of lights, cameras, and rigs.

Crew preparing to shoot Grace’s tangi scene in front of a whare.Crew preparing to shoot Grace’s tangi scene (PA1-q-1173-11-2-R8/23). Photograph taken by Kerry Brown or Ann Shelton.

Crew filming gang car scene on low loader rig.Crew filming gang car scene on low loader rig (PA1-q-1174-04-6-R55/1). Photograph taken by Kerry Brown or Ann Shelton.

The photographs show major and minor players in the production in both candid and posed portraits.

Crew posing for photos.L-R: Producer Robin Scholes and Lee Tamahori (PA1-q-1172-17-4-4), unidentified crew members (PA1-q-1172-51-5-27). Photographs taken by Kerry Brown or Ann Shelton.

Crew posing for photos.L-R: Tamahori and cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh (PA1-q-1173-11-2-3), Rena Owen and screenwriter Riwia Brown (PA1-q-1173-11-3-4). Photographs taken by Kerry Brown or Ann Shelton.

Images from location scouting, design materials for the poster, visual research for the tā moko designs used in the film, and shots of the various textures and patterns seen in the leather costumes the Toa gang members wore, illuminate the process the filmmakers went through to create the film’s powerful and distinctive world.

Detail of an actor's leather jacket, and shot of Jake's hand holding Beth's.L-R: Leather jacket detail (PA1-q-1173-14-2-12), Jake and Beth’s hands (PA1-q-1173-15-3-11). Photographs taken by Kerry Brown or Ann Shelton.

Lee Tamahori and others at location for Toa gang headquarters location.Lee Tamahori and others at location for Toa gang headquarters location (PA1-q-1174-68-1-2). Photograph taken by Ann Shelton.

Actors playing Toa gang members at gang headquarters during rehearsal of initiation scene.Actors playing Toa gang members at gang headquarters during rehearsal of initiation scene (PA1-q-1172-51-2-12). Photograph taken by Kerry Brown or Ann Shelton.

And for people who might not be interested in Once Were Warriors, or even filmmaking, there are photos of South Auckland taken as part of the film research, which speak to a broader social history.

Unidentified band busking at South Auckland strip mall.Unidentified band busking at South Auckland strip mall (PA1-q-1174-67-3-4). Photograph by Ann Shelton.

Trust with 'Otara Beach Weekender' written on the side parked in South Auckland.The “Otara Beach Weekender” parked in South Auckland (PA1-q-1174-67-3-5). Photograph by Ann Shelton.

Arranging and describing

We had to decide whether to remove the negatives and transparencies from the binders and house them in the negative (35mm) and transparency (PA12) sequences, which is the Library’s usual practice with these two formats, or to leave them in the binders. However, because the way they were stored spoke to how the collection was used, it was decided that they would be described as four individual photograph albums in the album sequence (PA1).

Maintaining original order is one of the key principles of archival practice. In one of the binders, the images are sorted by the main characters, key scenes ‘Tangi’ and ‘Fight’, groups ‘Gang’ and ‘Family’, and locations ‘Bar’ and ‘Crew’. With some, individual sheets are given titles such as “Fine line picks” or “Tem dupes”. In one album (PA1-q-1174), a sheet of film negative strips is labeled “A74”; in another album (PA1-q-1173), the corresponding mounted slides are labeled A74 with the individual frame number also noted.

Because of the significance of this collection, it was also decided that the albums should be described to a high level of detail. The album descriptions include a breakdown of specific scenes, actors, and crew members. For the purposes of this blog, catalogue records have been created for 35 individual images and these images have been digitised (PA1-q-1174).

The collection contains significant Māori material so we have used Māori Subject Headings/Ngā Ūpoko Tukutuku. These include Kiriata (films), Kaiwhakaari (actors), Tā Moko (tattooing), Tūkinotanga ā-whānau (domestic violence), and Hūnuku (the migration of Māori within New Zealand, particularly to the big towns).

Taking care

Keeping the ring binders intact to preserve this original order meant that there were some conservation and access issues that needed to be worked through. The arrangement and description of this collection involved close collaboration with the Library’s Senior Conservator of Photographs Mark Strange.

Though Communicado largely used quality housing, the years (the film had its 20th anniversary last year!) have not been kind to all of the plastics. Some had degraded and needed to be replaced. Those familiar with op-shopping will know that deteriorating plastic does not smell good.

If you want to ensure collection items are preserved in perpetuity it’s important to hunt down the offending plastic; bad plastics can mean chemical reactions that could cause the photographic images to fade. Mark tested the enclosures in question to see what was safe to leave and what was not. Other items, such as the negative sleeves pictured below, were discoloured and didn’t need a test for us to know they needed to be replaced.

Discoloured plastic negative enclosures.Discoloured enclosures following removal of negatives. Photo by Catherine Bisley.

It wasn’t only bad plastic. Images stored in paper envelopes, snaplock bags, and glassine sleeves were re-housed. When an item is re-housed, it is the A&D Librarian’s role to transfer information from the original enclosure to the new one. Where possible, we retained an example of the original enclosure as these can be of interest to researchers.

Contextual information from original housing.A sleeve has been slipped over the negative strips at the back to save the contextual information. Photo by Catherine Bisley.

Individual unmounted frames transferred to slide casings for protection.Individual unmounted frames were transferred to slide casings for protection. The snap lock bag that held the frames (seen in previous image) was kept with the rehoused items to show the original arrangement of the collection. Photo by Catherine Bisley.

Various sticky notes and labels were used to indicate images that were selected by Communicado or sent to media during film publicity and to add caption information to images sent to the media. Because many adhesives will fail as time marches forward, part of the A&D process is to ensure that this information isn’t lost. These relationships were noted. For instance, a note was made on the enclosure beside the original sticky marker. This way should the marker fall off, the note will remain.

Some images were stored two to a single pocket: two surfaces touching isn’t a good long-term option as it increases the likelihood of scratching. It also makes access problematic as in order to see one image you need to remove the other. These images were separated out and the original arrangement was noted. Other treatments included the humidification and flattening of a transparency that had been folded in half.

In some cases the original enclosures had become worse for wear and frayed at the edge, so in these instances the old enclosure was inserted inside a protective sleeve in order to shield the exposed part of the negative or transparency while retaining the contextual information. This fraying also pointed to the problem that the original ring binders did not provide adequate protection from handling, as well as light or dust.

New binders were ordered from conservation supplies company Triptych.

Mark Strange and Joy Culy from Triptych Conservation Services measuring up slide sheets for new album enclosures.Mark Strange and Joy Culy from Triptych Conservation Services measuring up slide sheets for new album enclosures. Note the sheets of slides jutting out beyond the edge of the binder! Photo by Dolores Hoy.

Providing access

The four albums will be stored in the Library’s film store, which provides an optimum preservation environment; however being 2 degrees, and 30% RH (relative humidity), it is not the most pleasant place for humans. At present, the collection is accessible by appointment at the Library’s Heaphy Room, in Wellington. However, as more individual images are digitised, they’ll become available to view online. While commercial use is restricted, the collection is unrestricted for personal and research purposes.

Librarian Catherine Bisley taking the collection, housed in its new album enclosures, to their new home.Librarian Catherine Bisley taking the collection, housed in its new album enclosures, to their new home. Photo by Valerie Love.

The film Once Were Warriors is a cultural touchstone. Now, thanks to this donation from Communicado, the Alexander Turnbull Library has been able to protect in perpetuity and make accessible a collection of great photographs for us to study and enjoy.

Heke family portrait in front of harakeke.Heke family portrait in front of harakeke (PA1-q-1173-20-5-A72/19). Photograph taken by Kerry Brown or Ann Shelton.

See more

New Zealand on Screen’s Once Were Warriors collection

Find out where they are now on Māori TV

By Catherine Bisley

Catherine works part-time as an Arrangement and Description Librarian at the Turnbull. When she’s not at the Library she writes and directs films.

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Evelyn M Tobin April 30th at 5:00PM

what a stunning gift to the nation about an iconic NZ movie - thank you Communicado and the STL conservators. Interesting that I have pesonally never been able to view the whole film because I did not grow up around that lifestyle and I reject such violence in my life. Nevertheless I acknowledge the power of the story as told by the skilled producers and directors and the wonderful acting abilities of our very own NZ Māori elite.

Ati May 1st at 8:50AM

Great blog Catherine. The 'unidentified' man with the moko is Calvin Tuteao, who later played Victor Kahu on Shortland Street. Also one of the unidentified crew member is Photographer artist Greg Semu.

Abbie Ormsby October 20th at 10:54AM

Kia ora koutou (All of you associated with this website)!

My name is Abbie and I'm American.
I live now, in Seattle Washington (in the States).
I've seen "Once Were Warriors" many times, and cannot tell you all how very much I not only loved the movie but, also everything associated with the film on which I can get my hands.
With the above in mind, can you please link me to where I can see all of the stills taken on the various "Once Were Warriors" sets, please?
I would love to see all of the photos, taken on-sets during the making of this wonderful, resonant film (which has stood the test of time).
Thank you so much in advance for whatever help you feel as though you can be to me.
Cheers, to all of you, and best regards always ... :) :)

~~` Abbie Ormsby