The Home and Away Life of a Top Art Director

The Home and Away Life of a Top Art Director

1 November 2019

One of Alistair Kay’s (Williams 1975-1979) first jobs was designing a set for the hit 1980s New Zealand game show ‘It’s in the Bag.’

It launched his career as an award-winning freelance film set designer, working for more than three decades all over the world.

It was a talent that emerged early. “When I was at St Paul’s I used to make all the props and all the sets for the plays and the dances and all that sort of stuff.”

The pinnacle of his career was winning a prestigious Emmy Award in 1993, for outstanding art direction on the Russian production Stalin.

For more than a decade now, Alistair, 57, has lived at Whangaroa Harbour in the far North. He goes overseas to work on films, often for months at a time.

When Network caught up with him, he was on a short break in the South Island after working in Auckland and Dunedin on a film adaptation of Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries.

“If you don’t have time to read the 830 pages, it has now been made into six one-hour episodes and hopefully it will be on TVNZ in October.”

Alistair grew up on a sheep farm, which was later converted to dairy, at Kihikihi south of Te Awamutu. When he was 15, the family moved to Northland to be orchardists.

After leaving school, Alistair enrolled in Graphic Design at the then Auckland Institute of Technology. But he found it “too tedious”.

He worked in the theatre industry, before being offered a job as a designer at TVNZ.

He created and made sets for iconic New Zealand television shows like Kaleidoscope, the Benson & Hedges Fashion Design Awards and It’s in the Bag.

By this stage, many of his friends had left to travel overseas, so Alistair got an early release on his TVNZ contract and went too. He was to live in London for 18 years.

At the time, it was hard to break into the film industry and initially he worked as an exhibition designer for some of the big trade shows.

“I used to take my folder of work around to some of the film studios to try and drum up work. At that time, in 1987, it was Thatcherism and it was hard to get into the film industry. It was one of the few industries in Britain that still had quite a strong union. And you couldn’t just turn up and say, ‘give me a job’.”

He did get a break, after creating a sketch, from just a small photograph, of an actor portraying a King in a period drama. “They said, ‘what else can you do?’ and I said, ‘I am a set designer’.” He was offered a job on a film in India. The rest, as they say, was history.

It is a highly creative job, and he puts in some long hours. “The job I do is pretty intense, I often start at 6.30am and finish at 8pm, six days a week.”

An Art Director is responsible for the concept and design and oversees the building of the sets to budget and to schedule. Lighting is also a big part of what he does.

The highlight in his career so far, would be working on Stalin. “We were filming in the Kremlin, and basically Mikhail Gorbachev said to all his underlings, ‘let them go wherever they want’.”

Alistair has always been self-employed. “You never know if or when you will ever work again, so hopefully you build up a good reputation and get offered more work.”

Set design has taken him all over the world, often for months at a time, mainly Eastern Europe, Northern Africa, Hungry, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Spain, France, Germany and Holland. When in London he was based in St Martin’s Lane.

He decided to buy property here around the time of New Zealand’s America’s Cup defence.

“I was working in Budapest when I saw all my Hungarian friends get really excited about the coverage of the Waitemata Harbour. So, I thought I better buy a place in New Zealand soon, otherwise all these foreigners will get in first.”

He and a builder built his place in the early 2000s, a simple and stylish house, inspired by the look of a Doc Hut, with amazing views and beach access.

He has a long-distance relationship with a partner in Australia. “I have a partner who lives in Sydney, he is an architect, but we only see each other three to four times a year, the rest of the time it is just me.”

When it comes to work, he doesn’t often tell his film contacts he is living in New Zealand, as they like him to be accessible and available. “I got a phone call from an American producer saying, ‘can you be in Morocco first thing on Monday morning?’ And I said, ‘yeah, yeah sure’. I got there before him and he thought I had flown from London.”

He has worked with people all over the world and says New Zealanders have a better attitude to challenges than almost anyone he has ever met.

Last year, Alistair spent several months in China. “It was one of the few places I hadn’t worked, and I was excited to be going. But the film had many major flaws and was never made. It was a sci-fi and some aliens invaded China, so the censors didn’t like it.”

His brother Stuart Kay (Williams 1974-1979) also lives in Northland and runs a physiotherapy practice in Kaikohe.


(Source: Network Issue 98)