Random Geographical Survey.

(application to the arts council july 1997)


I need not ramble about the problems with everyday scenic films [1]. The important fact is that I have discovered a solution. It is necessary, in order to avoid the customary excesses of scenic film, to remove as much as possible the element of (thoroughly indoctrinated) human judgement from the process of selecting and collecting images. As I will demonstrate, this is only partially possible or desirable, but nevertheless of great importance even in this limited form.

The NZMS 260 series consists of 339[2] non-overlapping maps that completely cover New Zealand (with no overlaps) at a scale of 1 : 50 000. The series has an ingenious grid system that allows one to specify any point in the country to within 100 metres (refer attached sheet: To Give A Grid Reference On This Map). Every location corresponds to a single grid number, and every valid grid number to a unique location. These characteristics of NZMS 260 will be exploited to create a statistically representative picture of New Zealand's geography. By picking map and grid numbers at random, I will be able to randomly select locations from which to film. No bias towards great mountains or pretty lakes will be possible, nor will the exclusion of dead cows, state houses, gorse covered hills and muddy paddocks.

It may turn out that none or all of these things are included, but it is certain that this film will offer a truer representation of the country than anyone's personal selection of images - whether selected to shock or sooth - which are doubly affected by the maker's ideological make-up and their utter ignorance of the majority of places. Those people's films make you feel sick, but viewers of this film are more likely to feel as if veils are being stripped from their eyes, a fog is leaving their minds, and the true nature of the country is revealing itself for the first time.


The film will be shot at 12 randomly selected locations on or very close to the landmass of New Zealand (not including distant uninhabited islands or Pacific Island dependancies). At each place the salient points of natural and human geography will be noted and recorded on film. The sound of the place will also be recorded. Approximately 5 - 10 minutes will be filmed in each place, of which about 100 seconds will be included in the final picture[3]. This will make the entire film about 16 minutes long.

Random Selection of Sites.

A computer will be used to generate random numbers. The Arts Council is welcome to nominate a representative to supervise the process and examine the computer hardware and code, to ensure that no doubt can be cast on the true randomness of the selected sights. The machine is expected to be an Intel 386 based Epson PC AX3s and the program written with TurboPascal 6.0 using the random number generator supplied as part of TurboPascal.

The 339 maps will all be assigned numbers from 1 - 339, starting with the most northerly map in the westmost column (ie A44) of the index map[4], then moving down the column and then across to the top of the next column.

Each map is 300 grid lines high and 400 across.

  1. The computer will pick a number between 1 and 339, and the corresponding map will be identified.
  2. The computer will then pick two 3 digit numbers, from 0-399 and 0-299 respectively. These numbers will be added to the co-ordinates of the lower left hand corner to create a valid grid reference[5].
  3. The computer will generate a number between 1 and 8. This will correspond to the compass direction (1= N, 2=NE, 3=E, etc) in which the filmmakers are obliged to look at the beginning of their site investigation[6]. See figure 1.
  4. The required maps will be purchased, unless it is absolutely clear from an examination of the index map that the selected place is nowhere near any land (such as the location 052 east and 212 north of the southwest corner of map A44).
  5. Steps 1 - 4 will be repeated until twelve sites have been selected. It may turn out later on (once the maps are purchased) that one of the selected sites is in fact more than 1 km from the shore, in which case another site (on a new map) will be selected as a replacement[7].
  6. Planning of the travel will commence.
Figure 1 looks like this:
     8 n 2
   7 w-*-e 3
     6 s 4


Travel to and between the various sites will be by car as far as the roads go, and then by foot or as suitable. Remote places will be accessed by whatever methods seem appropriately safe and cheap. The budget includes contingency funds for the either the hire of specialist equipment or helpers (boats, guides, planes, mountaineering equipment) or a boat ride to Stewart Island, Fiordland or the Chathams. The order in which the sites are filmed is not considered import, and will be based on convenience only. Obviously it is likely that a North to South or South to North route will work best.


The selected sites will be viewed as places to film from rather than as places to film at. Upon arrival we will examine the site closely, ensuring we are correctly placed and are reasonably aware of the boundaries of our grid placement [8]. If there is sufficient daylight, the filming will commence immediately. We will look first in the direction indicated by the computer, but from there all shots will be dictated by human judgement. The aim will not be to capture every detail of the place, but to focus on the most interesting [9] and defining aspects. If human being are there, they will be filmed and their sounds recorded. If they are interacting with the filmmakers they will still be filmed (if willing). This may include people who are there on account of the filmmakers, but not the filmmakers themselves, who will remain safely hidden at all times.

Difficult Sites.

It is likely that many of the sites will be on private land. I imagine that we will easily gain access to most of this land, once the owners understand the importance of our mission. We will use bribery if necessary. As the location is only specified to within 100 metres, there ought to be sufficient room for flexibility in urban areas or extremely difficult terrain. It could also happen that the selected site is on secret defence or commercial land or somewhere very sacred, and we are unable to gain any access. If everything else fails the site will be viewed from a distance through an extreme telephoto lens. Only in this case will it be used as a place to film, rather than a place to film from. Another possibility would be the hire of a plane (which ought to be quite cheap really). Under no circumstances can a difficult site be left out in favour of an easier one.


If I were a purist and disliked editing, I would simply string footage from each of the 12 sites in a row, 100 seconds of each, so as to maintain the impartial nature of this project. Perhaps, I would even have subtitled labels at the start of each block. If I was a great fan of indeterminacy, I would splice each block into little pieces and reassemble them according to yet another random formula. But in real life I love editing. I will edit the footage into an interpretation of New Zealand geography, based on what I see at each of the 12 sample points. This may be seen as contrary to the spirit of project, even as undermining of its scientific value -perhaps as a sneaky way of turning it back into a scenic film. But if I were to edit according to random formula, I ought to select my shots by a random formula too (as shooting is the beginning of editing) and, doing that, I would have to select the focus and aperture settings randomly too (since they affect the picture as much as the direction the camera is pointing) and then I'd have to randomly select from all this footage that hasn't come out properly and the resulting film, all fuzzy and black, while looking very pretty, would do nothing but obscure the original point: A true look at a country's geographic features. Thus human judgement is required in editing and shooting, and since judgement always involves interpretation it is better to be honest about this and make the film an interpreted version of a random sample [10]. The difference between this and the standard scenic method is clear: I am going to go to twelve places I don't know and base my film on what I see, hear, shoot, record and think at those places. Scenic films are made by clutching preconceived ideas of beauty and landscape, and combining a sequence of well known natural scenes that meet these standards. Scenic films depend on recognition and resist novelty, because if people did not recognise the shots they wouldn't know they were seeing acknowledged standards of natural beauty and would quickly become bored [11].

Anyway, I won't name or label the various places [12], nor keep them in any kind of order. No attempt will be made to show their relative positions in the country, rather I will present them as if adjacent. Hints of narrative may be spun out of cleverly presented coincidences. The sounds will similarly be mixed up, but not added to by sounds from other places, nor will speaking people be rudely devoiced.


maps (14 @ 12.50 + 1 @ 9.00)                   $    186
film stock 3600 feet kodak 7248 & some 7293    $   1260
processing 3600 feet to neg + workprint        $   2268
dup workprints (est. 400')                     $    240
dat hire (2 months)                            $    600
tapes                                          $    150
mixing studio (8 hours at 90 + gst)            $    810
sound transfers (incl stock)                   $    380
optical sound neg                              $    518
credits                                        $    300
trial print                                    $    848
good print                                     $    607
video transfer and copy (inc tape)             $    350
editing (steenbeck, tapes etc)                 $    640
car @ 20c per K; 10,000km [14]                 $   2000
chathams/fiordland/mountains contingency[15]   $    800
special equipment hire (ice axe, boat)/guide   $    600
freight                                        $    250
accommodation [16]                             $    500
phones/communication                           $    100
employment of helpers                          $    300
TOTAL (including GST)                          $  13707


1. I am thinking here of nationalistic boosterism, reactionary counterlandscapism, lazy roadside panoramas, pauashell/ buzzy bee infantilism, happy face multiculturalism, wild elementalism, doubtfulsoundism, pancakerockism, rangitotoism, and all the other familiar and miserable expressions of the scenic fetish.

2. Not all of the maps are printed on separate sheets. Also includes 2 maps for the Chatham Islands which are slightly larger in size. In effect this means the Chatham Islands will be mildly under represented in this survey -- but they are used to that kind of thing. And, by the way, since the NZMS has changed it's name to Terralink, the series name may have changed or be about to change - but they assure me it will remain in print.

3. Note that it is important to use the same amount of footage from each of the 12 places -- otherwise, in selecting more time from one place than another, altering the actual revealed appearance of the country, I am becoming another "scenic" filmmaker. [ADDITIONAL NOTE (after recieving grant): There is an error in these calculations. 12 x 100 seconds = 20 minutes, not 16. In order to make a 16 minute film I'd need to use 80 seconds from each place. In the end I used 60]

4. The small map that you see is only a minature version of the real index map, which is known as NZMS 319A .

5. Refer to the sheet called TO GIVE A GRID REFERENCE ON THIS MAP.

6. This is to be a guide only. The filmmakers will begin their investigations while facing in this direction, looking as always for points of interest in the land. They may at any time become disillusioned or distracted from this direction and orientate themselves elsewhere. This is one area where some human discretion is desirable.

7.This is for reasons of fairness, safety and focus. Not all coastal maps contain the same amount of water - some (like H47 Hinahina) have the merest slivers of land in one corner, while others have only a tiny spot of water. Thus the ocean 20km off the coast of Hinahina would be eligible for selection in the survey, while the water 20km off Oamaru would not be. This is unscientific and unfair. And unsafe, and costly for the poor filmmaker who would have to sail out into the deep and stormy southern ocean in order to film a particular piece of water much like many of the other pieces of waters sailed across. Finally, there is already in production a popular and informative documentary series that focuses on the sea, and there is no need for anyone to duplicate it, least of all me. The 1 km of coastal water is included because water close to land is so affected by the land, and because it is impossible to be exactly sure where the land ends and water begins (especially in estuaries and similar places) so that an arbitrary decision is need at some point. In any case it is unlikely that any of the selected sites will end up being in coastal water.

8. Obviously, this will be done by consulting the map.

9. I tend to concentrate on movements, composition, and colours, less on form & "content".

10. At this point it would be wise to aknowledge that trying to tell the truth about nature and land can never be freed from ideology and interpretation. Even my scheme of filming at random locations is charged with a hundred assumptions. It takes for granted that "New Zealand" is an important unit to be examined, that the defining quality of New Zealand is the land, that all the land is equally important and equally a part of this New Zealand (as if the large areas in Fiordland where no-one has been for many centuries are no less important to this thing than Central Auckland or the airports or Parliament, notwithstanding that the whole idea is a social construct and needs people to exist, etc), that the essential aspect of land is area (not surface area, which changes with the landscape, but surveyors' and mapmakers' area, with it's imaginary flatness). A respectful attitude is taken towards the dubious idea of a valid random sample. It is common enough nowadays to ask these kinds of questions of art, and in some way I am repeating the same with this film. But there is more; because this film ignores the existence or non-existence of humanity in it's selection of locations, it becomes a very interesting question as to whether we will find people or their signs in each place. It is, more than anything, an investigation into the extent of our infestation of these islands. If I were to focus my films on human geography, selecting each place in proportion to it's population rather than it's area -- quite apart from the inherent problems (you'd need an accurate register) -- I would be guaranteed of not finding anything that wasn't already humanly known. It would look at the human world, but in no way could it measure the human world, as this film can. It would look at humanity only as variations, different types of the same, and show the difference as an effect of enviroment (including, of course, social enviroment). The highlight would be on enviroments, whose various effects would be plainly there to see. This film, by staring hard at enviroments and encountering humans, shows not the effects of enviroment, but the effects of humans. This is altogether rarer and hence more revealing and more valuable.

11. Nevertheless this the film will be a statistically truer picture of New Zealand than has ever been made.

12.hey will be listed in the credits, etc.

13.You will notice that the budget has been carefully and frugally worked out.

14. The road length of the country is about 2500km. I will have to go this distance twice (in order to get back home again), and at least as far again to zigzag back and forth between the various sites. thus 10,000 km is a conservative estimate.

15. The chances of a geographical film involving a helicopter flight over Mt Cook are [ 12 chances /(339 maps x 300 x 400) =] 3,390,000 to 1. No contingency funds have been set aside for this possibility. and in this unlikely event footage will have to be purchased from a scenic film maker. [LATER ADDITIONAL NOTE: the odds are in fact lower than this, owing to the maps consisting largely of water which were discussed above. I now believe the chances against a flight over Mount Cook to be in the region of 2,500,000 to one].

16. Mostly we will stay in tents, but sometimes in buildings.