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Film-maker Brandon Te Moananui is irrepressible.
The all-rounder (he edits, produces, and directs) may be one of Wellington’s busiest and most chill creators. Since 2019, he’s worked on the Avatar sequel, directed two short documentaries, planned his second TV project with showband the Māori Sidesteps, and helmed an upcoming anime series titled Āio: The Last Paradise of Kiwa. A co-production between New Zealand and Japan, the anime will be the first of its kind, blending Japanese animation with Māori characters and art.
Brandon’s film-making journey began in his Hutt Valley hometown, with a high school friend, a choreographer cousin, and a video camera. The trio began uploading dance clips to YouTube in 2010 and he soon found himself directing the debut music video for Wellington reggae band the Tomorrow People. The video went viral. Encouraged by the exposure, and having “fallen in love” with content-creation, Brandon left his photography/graphic design degree course at WelTec to enrol in the New Zealand Film and Television School.
Brandon might be best known as the creative director of The Māori Sidesteps, a comedic web series starring the band’s members as Pete’s Emporium employees turned musical heroes. He woke up one morning and “had this idea of doing a Māori musical web series”, and ran the concept by friend and writer Jamie McCaskill, who was, serendipitously, a founding member of the Sidesteps. The rest was history. Like Brandon, the series is effervescent and uplifting, bringing a Māori perspective to storytelling on- and off-screen. The show’s dialogue incorporates te reo and the production starts each day with a waiata. “I think bringing te reo Māori into the film process has been one of our big things with karakia and waiata”. These changes made the series’ working environment inclusive and “a lot of fun”. Everyone’s laughing, said Brandon. “There are always tough times but it’s about keeping everyone’s energy up through the shoot days”.
Āio came about during a catch-up coffee between Brandon and Nesian Mystik singer Te Awanui Reeder, who lamented that his young son would find no representations of himself in children’s media. Inspired, Brandon brought McCaskill on board as a writing partner, and they spent the next 18 months developing Āio’s story and “the tikanga of the world” in which it takes place. They received development funding and headed to Japan for a series of pitch meetings. “We realised that no one in New Zealand had actually done this, so we didn’t have anyone to ask for advice. We just had to figure it out!” Āio’s concept was so compelling that all eight of the studios he pitched it to wanted to take up the project, something he describes as “amazing”.
Āio is the product of te ao Māori (the Māori world view) in practice. The project brings Māori stories to an international stage, and does so in a way that includes and uplifts other indigenous creatives. “One thing that we have set in stone and contracted with the studio is that we’ll develop Māori artists. We’ll take Māori with us”, explained Brandon. “When the series is being made, they have to hire one or two Māori artists to learn the skills they have”. Language inclusivity was also crucial, with Brandon hoping to “put the whole series in te reo, and English, and Nihongo (Japanese) as well”.
They chose to partner with the Kishida Group (of Yu Gi Oh! fame) who put them in contact with interested networks. The team came prepared with winning touches inspired by te ao Māori. “We had Weta workshop make one of the character’s taiahas (in polystyrene and PVC) so that we could walk around with it. We went to every meeting and presented it to them with a ketu. We had 15 ketu made, each one holding our proposal for the whole story. We also had these taonga carved, and inside was a USB stick which had all the information they needed.” The uniquely Māori presentation was a hit with the studio – “the Kishida Group wanted to keep all the ones we had so they could pass them on to their networks” – and captured the attention of two networks. However, their success came with a cost, specifically that of the pilot episode. “Animation never really gets made in New Zealand because it’s too expensive,” explained Brandon. “You can make a whole live-action web series for about three minutes’ worth of anime”. The team offered the studio a percentage of the licencing fee in exchange for reduced animation costs, but the real boost came from whanau and friends who got the funding over the finish line.
When asked about Taika Waititi’s Oscar win and the potential of indigenous art, Brandon was characteristically optimistic. “It feels different now. There are more opportunities and it’s just about doing the hard yards. It’s the perfect time to be an indigenous storyteller.”