Shortland Street has been on our screens for 30 years. In that time, almost anyone who’s anyone in New Zealand film and television has burst dramatically through the hospital doors.
We spoke with three industry heavyweights who began their careers in Ferndale and helped make the show a Kiwi institution.
Katie Jones’s ‘how did I get here?’ moment came on the set of the 2017 sci-fi horror movie Life. She was dressing Jake Gyllenhaal. Nice work if you can get it.
“I was a little Kiwi from Auckland,” she says via Zoom from her home in London, “it was just surreal.”
Surreal, and a long way from Shortland Street, where Jones got her start in the business as a costume standby, dressing and looking after the cast on set. The way Jones tells it, landing a job in Ferndale was pretty easy: she just refused to go away.
“I heard about a job going there in 2007,” she says. “I was interviewed and I feel like I didn’t get the job, but I kept turning up anyway because I really wanted it and they couldn’t get rid of me. They reshuffled the department and slotted me in because I wasn’t going anywhere.”
Ten out of 10 for perseverance, then. But Jones’s talents go much deeper than stubbornness, and she’s now one of the industry’s top set costumers – the on-set point of call for costume and the one carrying out the designer’s vision.
Her credits include Ricky Gervais’s bittersweet Netflix show After Life, Disney’s live-action feature Aladdin, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil with Angelina Jolie, and the forthcoming Secret Invasion, a Marvel TV adaptation boasting a whole comic universe of stars (Samuel L Jackson, Olivia Colman, Emilia Clarke...).
Jones says she learnt everything she knows on Shortland Street.
“It was a huge deal to get a job there and be given the opportunity to learn and be nurtured and have support. I owe my entire career to [Shortland Street head of costume] Nicola Newman. She was the one who hired me and encouraged me to go out into the world and do all the things. I wouldn’t be where I am without her.
“On Shortland Street you could have 10 different story days for one actor, and maybe 15 or 20 actors in one day. You have to remember: he’s just come back from work so he shouldn’t have a jacket on; she forgot her handbag so it shouldn’t be in the scene. You do the bloodwork, the dirt and things on the costume. If there’s an explosion you have to break down the costume and make sure it looks correct.”
A matter of scale
The big differences between working on a fast-turnaround show like Shortland Street and a major international production, says Jones, are time and money. At Shortland Street, for example, the costume department numbered around seven members. On Maleficent, Jones estimates there were about 150.
When employing crew, though, she prefers to hire people with a TV background.
“[Fast-turnaround TV] teaches you a work ethic and a respect for the whole process. Someone from TV understands pace, they know what busy means, they know about not having the budget to do all the things you need to do.”
Dressing as psychology
Perhaps the most valuable skill Jones gained in TV was understanding the range of personalities you come across on set.
“You learn the intricacies of how [actors] work, their personalities and methods. You have to be sensitive to all that. Shortland Street taught me how to deal with all the different people in a professional, respectful, fun way, but to be headstrong enough to carry out what you need to do. You’ve got to be thinking on your feet and you’ve got to adapt, and you’ve got to mould yourself in a way that’s going to make them feel comfortable with you. You become a confidante, a friend, a counsellor – you become all these things to cast members.”
Those are the sorts of skills you learn through experience. Some things can be taught, though. What’s the one piece of advice that Jones was given at the start of her career that she likes to pass on to others hoping to make a life in costume?
“We’re not curing cancer,” she says. “If you lose a necklace you need for the next scene, tell the director, ‘I’ve lost a necklace’. Don’t cry in a corner, just own mistakes. Don’t get too stressed out, don’t faff. We’re not saving lives, we’re making them better.”
The camera op
It’s self-evident that a camera operator needs a good eye, but for Ayrton Winitana (Ngāti Tūwharetoa), that’s the least of it.
“People home in on the technical aspect of being a camera operator,” he says on a rare day off from filming the latest series of My Life is Murder. “For me, it’s more about the people, it’s family.” Winitana admits this is corny but he’s unrepentant.
“Yes, that sounds cheesy, but I’ve learnt that this industry is all about people and being with each other, because you’re with these people more than your own family: crew, actors, production, editors - everyone is one unit.”
Winitana joined the Shortland Street unit in 2009, fresh out of film school. Again, that was about people; Winitana met a couple of guys involved with the show who brought him into the fold as a camera assistant. He quickly worked his way up to camera op and, in all (with a two-year European OE in the middle), spent about four and a half years on the show.
“No one warns you about what Shortland Street holds,” he says now. “It’s such a well-oiled machine. [When I started] I wasn’t 100 per cent on it because I didn’t know anything about the show, really, but I certainly learnt. You get thrown in at the deep end where you either sink or swim.”
Winitana acknowledges that he is one of many to have successfully done laps at Shortland Street.
“I know so many people who have got into the industry there. You can see all of the people who have swum. I don’t think I can name anyone to go through Shortland Street and not get anywhere.”
More than a talent incubator
Winitana’s since worked on a variety of other hit shows, including 800 Words, Westside, The Brokenwood Mysteries and that other great Kiwi talent incubator, Power Rangers.
Winitana cautions, though, against merely seeing Shortland Street as a stepping stone to something bigger.
“I don’t want to call it a training ground, because you don’t just train there, but it’s an amazing place to step foot into the vast world that TV holds.”
In the course of a 30-minute chat, Angela Bloomfield says, “Do you know what I mean?” a lot. Mostly, we don’t know what she means. How could we? Only Bloomfied knows what it’s like to one moment be unknown and the next, New Zealand’s most notorious teen. It happened to her in early 1993, when she stepped into our living rooms as wild child Rachel McKenna, the latest addition to the still-young TV show Shortland Street.
Bloomfield was young, too. She joined the cast aged 19 and appeared on screen at 20, playing a 16-year-old. What was it like to enter the maelstrom of a hit soap, at a time when everyone – everyone – watched 7pm broadcast TV?
“There was so much to take in that I didn’t really focus too much on external things,” Bloomfield says today. “I was trying to learn how to act, and keeping up with my lines and watching the actors around me.”
Growing up in public
It must have been an odd, occasionally thrilling time, though, even if Bloomfield’s recollections make it sound like an out of body experience.
“At one point when I did a Pavement [magazine] cover I was, ‘Oh, ok, so now I’m being photographed not as Rachel and not as Angela, to be on the cover of a magazine I don’t really have a connection with.’ So I was starting to understand: this is something away from me, something I’m no longer courting myself, it’s just kind of happening.”
Suddenly, Bloomfield was in demand. She and her co-stars were regulars on the social scene, spotted out and about all over town. How did that affect her?
“I’m quite a measured person and I don’t think I ever did anything I was uncomfortable with. It was just that thing that we were young actors in Shortland Street in the early ’90s, so we got invited to lots of parties, and life felt kinda fun, pretty awesome,” Bloomfield says, making it sound, with nearly 30 years’ hindsight, neither particularly fun nor awesome.
Life through a lens
Angela Bloomfield the Shortland Street actor had been playing Rachel McKenna for seven years when she became Angela Bloomfield the Shortland Street director. It wasn’t part of any life plan but looking back, it seems to have been a natural move.
“I spent years on those sets, and I’d had directors who’d given me scripts and said, ‘Hey, do you want me to teach you to camera script?’ And I was, ‘Yeah, teach me to camera script!’ So I’d already done that. I’d sat in editing on long days where I had nothing to do and watched that process, so some of the stuff was not new. I took to that stuff quite well.”
Bloomfield didn’t get the directing gig on reputation. Shortland Street’s production company, South Pacific Pictures, interviewed her for the job and put her through a short but intense training process that placed her on set and behind the camera within three or four weeks. According to IMDB, Bloomfield directed 107 episodes (“It was probably more,” she reckons).
Bloomfield had an on-off relationship with Shortland Street for a bit – kids, life – before fully rejoining as Rachel in 2009. By the time of her final show in 2016, she’d been on Shortland Street – the programme she joined as a teen – long enough that her own children were almost teens themselves.
“I was like, ‘I need to do something different,’” Bloomfield says. In her previous absences from the show, Bloomfield had toyed with the idea of real estate. She is now a fully qualified agent.
The connections between selling houses and working in TV aren’t immediately apparent, but Bloomfield regularly draws on skills she learnt at Shortland Street. For one, she knows how to talk to strangers. This took her by surprise, though really it shouldn’t have, given that most days since 1993 someone has come up to Angela/Rachel for an autograph or a photo or a chat.
“I’d convinced myself I wasn’t a people person and couldn’t do small talk,” she says. “Now my days are meeting strangers and forging connections, so I was like, ‘Oh, I can talk to anybody. I’ve been talking to anybody my whole life.’”
Bloomfield says that her time behind the camera was useful, too.
“I’ve got an eye for detail that’s come from directing and being an observer and looking at something through a lens. I’m pretty particular in terms of photographing houses or when I do introductions for houses; it’s something I understand very easily.”
And, of course, she’s famous. Our relationship to the people we see on screen is complex: is it with Rachel? Is it with Angela? Is there actually a connection there at all, and would we be besties? But simply being someone people think they know is helpful in real estate.
“There’s a connection [with people] at open homes because they feel safe and want to make that connection. I’ve never had a problem talking about Shortland Street; it’s a big part of who I am, you don’t block out big chunks of your life. But I like [real estate]. There’s a lot to take in, it’s a bit different, but to later in life go, ‘I’m going to do something different,’ and have a new career in my late 40s, I feel pretty thankful. Do you know what I mean?”