Miramar Creative Centre helps to create Ngā Tohunga Whakatere - The Navigators

An immersive, high-tech production that delves into the science behind Pacific navigation by combining mātauranga Māori with astrobiology, has been made at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington.

girl on pod in space
The Miramar Creative Centre (MCC)—the University’s state of the art, interdisciplinary post-graduate research and practice hub—facilitates Film, Music and Design Technology Master’s student programmes through highly intensive, practical training while fostering collaboration and innovation in these creative fields. The facility was hired in February for a motion-capture and green-screen shoot by Museums Wellington for a cutting-edge film that will be a dome projection at the Space Place planetarium—and possibly around the world.

Haritina Mogoșanu, who is Space Place’s Senior Science Communicator, came up with the idea for the project titled Ngā Tohunga Whakatere—The Navigators.

“I have always been fascinated with navigation and the night sky and how culture is a set of instructions that keeps us alive in different geographical conditions—change the geography and your instructions might be completely different,” she says. “My ancestors back in Romania thousands of years ago survived harsh winters by knowing when it was mid-winter, and timing their food provisions around that. Over there, Polaris is in the night sky, which would have showed them where North is.

“Change to the Pacific Ocean where the stars rise and follow vertical paths in the sky, and the entire environment is aquatic with no harsh winters. But there are tides and the best timekeeper for that is the moon. So Pacific time is counted by the phases of the Moon—here in New Zealand we have Maramataka, the Māori lunar calendar. The first Pacific navigators traveled in longitude, whereas early European navigators were really good at figuring latitude—the two systems were devloped in entirely different ways.”

Haritina consulted two “modern titans of knowledge”: renowned ocean navigator Jack Thatcher, and David Hedgley who has recently retired from training New Zealand Navy navigators. She also brought in astronomy professors, and crew members of the waka that navigated New Zealand last year, to advise on the project.

Museums Wellington recruited film producer (and former film studies lecturer at Te Herenga Waka) Lala Rolls to direct the production.

“It is an awesome project. It’s a real celebration of Pacific navigation, that also tips the hat to Abel Tasman and Captain Cook and the science they employed to sail here,” says Lala. “It introduces space science to the audience and explores the nexus between astrobiology and matauranga Māori. It’s very much embedded in tikanga Māori, and engages cultural investigation in every aspect, from research, to scripting, music, animation and motion capture.”

The film includes a cast of amateur and professional actors, and draws on a huge range of scientific and technical expertise, including current and former students of Wellington’s University. Lala says the project has so far been a great growing exercise for everyone involved.

“We are aiming to make a world-class, stunning visual experience, which is immersive enough to allow the cultural and scientific learning seem almost accidental: the narrative embeds education in the drama of Moko—a young girl—and her imagination and personal journey towards becoming a navigator herself.”

Lala says the equipment, technology and expertise available at the Miramar Creative Centre (MCC) are world class, with its motion capture studio and green screen being used simultaneously by the crew.

“By its nature, being attached to a learning institute, the MCC was really open to our cultural and experimental approach to making this film. Kevin Romond [MCC director] and John Aberdein [VFX/motion capture senior tutor] brought the weight of their industry experience to our shoot—they were generous in their advice before shooting began, and offered helpful guidance during filming too,” says Lala.

“One of the aims of Museums Wellington in commissioning this project was to celebrate our region and to bring together the resources and creativity that sits here at Te Upoko o Te Ika a Maui. It is natural that our biggest learning institute—Te Herenga Waka—should work with our museums and Space Place, in collusion with our most renowned creative industry to bring this educational drama to life.”

The MCC’s director Kevin Romond says it’s important to have a good working relationship with Wellington’s creative industry.

“There are several benefits to having actual productions use our location in this way. It helps ensure our education aligns with what industry needs, students can be exposed to how things are done by professionals, and there are opportunities to meet industry workers and have learning moments,” he says.

“These sorts of collaborations with external partners mean we can leverage our technology and expertise, and provide a vital learning environment for our students,” explains Kevin. “We can contribute to the creative ideology in our region, and we receive insights from the creative community into their approaches and actual production situations. All this creates an environment with a lot of vitality.”

Haritina Mogoșanu says she is hopeful the film will be sold to planetaria around the world and give international audiences an insight into what makes New Zealand such a special place. “We also hope this opens the door to further collaboration between Space Place Planetarium and the University—this is an important science communication project and hopefully we can work on many more together.”

Ngā Tohunga Whakatere - The Navigators opens on Saturday 2 October, and is suitable for ages 8+. Thenavigators.spaceplace.nz for tickets.