Philippa O’Brien: From Film to Photography

Photographer Philippa O’Brien travelled the world before coming home to Kingston. Now, her latest adventure is more personal; the opening of a new art gallery at her lakeside cottage. 

Philippa O'Brien in the doorway of her Oxford Art Gallery in Kingston.

In this bright room, you’ll find copies of her three books. ‘Photo Fables,’ (whimsical tales without words.) ‘How Art’ (a book of poems and photos with her Dad, Des.) And ‘Skateface,’ her sensitive portrayal of New Zealand’s roller derby world. 

There are huge, framed photos of cowboys on the gallery walls, part of Pip’s recent rodeo series. 

And what about the carefully-oiled yes/no river stones? These are ‘Seyonstones’ — a tool that Philippa created to “help when you just can’t make up your mind.”

Art photography — on old-fashioned, film cameras — is Philippa’s passion. Her photos are detailed and thought-provoking. The more you look, the more there is to see.

But, before she got behind the lens, Philippa O’Brien had another intriguing career. I’ve always wanted to know more about the world of movie costumes, so I was thrilled when Pip agreed to tell me all about her job as a costumier.

Moving to the movies

When a young Pip O’Brien plucked up the courage to talk to a film crew in Dunedin, she had no idea what she was setting in motion. At the time she was in the final year of her degree (Bachelor of Consumer and Applied Sciences — Clothing), heading for a job in the corporate world. It seemed the sensible thing to do.

But when the costumiers described their job and showed her behind the scenes, a new ambition dawned.

“I’d always loved clothes and fabrics,” Philippa says. She got that from her Nana who brought back treasures galore from overseas trips in the 1950s and 60s. 

“As kids, we had the most extraordinary dress-up box at Nana’s — beautiful fabrics, props, gloves, fans, handbags.” 

So Philippa ditched the corporate life — “My lecturers were horrified,” — and joined the movie world instead.

She’s never looked back.

Philippa and co-workers dress Miriam Yeung on a riverbank in the Rees Valley.
Shooting a music video for Miriam Yeung on location in the Rees Valley, near Glenorchy.

But what exactly does a costumier do? 

“It’s a diverse department,” Philippa says. There’s something for everyone here.

  • brilliant hand-stitchers
  • people who work with leather
  • painters
  • riggers – there are always things to put up and take down
  • those who can conceptualise and translate the director’s ideas into clothing 
  • cleaners who ensure everything is neat for the next day
  • coordinators who can coordinate the hiring of people, where they’ll work, working conditions, trucks, fitting them out…

And then there are the dressers on the set. Some could be dressing masses of extras. Others might have several actors in their care. Or maybe that special A-list actor who needs a one-on-one environment. “You can often be chosen because you’re a good fit for that person.”

Even within those jobs, it can depend on your particular strengths.

“There are people who are better at contemporary styling, which is anything modern or has a street edge. Others have all the skills of understanding a period piece. Then there’s sci-fi, fantasy, sword & sandals…” 

I get the feeling that Philippa could go on forever with this. But one thing is crystal clear: you need to be a team player in the costume world.

Have you ever thought of how many costumes movies require? The logistics are mind-boggling.

Philippa O'Brien sits on the mountainside with a huge red & gold banner, with Lake Wakatipu in the distance.
Filming the Evony commercial for the 2018 Superbowl. Kelvin Heights, Queenstown

“It’s a lot of hard physical work. Clothes en mass weigh a ton. It takes many, many items of clothing to pull together one look. And if an actor has several scenes over different environments or years, then they will have many different costumes.” 

Multiply that over all the actors and extras involved in a movie, and you suddenly have a lot of components.

“Detail is everything. Comfort is paramount. If you have doubles or stunts that one particular look may have to be replicated two, five, ten times. Often you’ll create it in a warehouse somewhere in the middle of south Auckland, but you actually shoot it in South Otago. All of that stock has to get there. It’s all got to be fitted on people.” 

You have to find a place to keep all that gear. I’m guessing that you have to be super-organised in the costume department.

Then there are costumes for action scenes…

The A-list actors often have stunt doubles to do the action scenes. And the stunts have particular requirements to consider.

The horse-riding double, for example, must wear protective clothing underneath his costume. Or maybe there’s a harness hidden under a beautiful chiffon dress. 

The costumiers have to think through the process of an action scene too. They don’t just stick an actor in a costume then film the battle scene from start to finish. No, that battle costume has stages. 

“An actor could have 17 different costumes and costume 6 is a battle costume,” says Philippa. “There are five different stages of the battle. So you have to know what the five stages are. And when you’re shooting the battle, you need to know which stage to put the actor in. Continuity is important.”

Yes! People do notice if the hero’s slashed jerkin magically repairs halfway through the battle.

Philippa’s Favourites: Horses and Stunts

The young farm girl from Garston had some fantastic opportunities. 

She ended up specialising as a second unit standby. That meant that working with the stunt team and horse riders and a lot of helicopter work. 

Mulan was the largest film being made in the world at the time, and the cast was enormous. Philippa worked on location with the Mongolian and Kazakhstan, New Zealand horse-riding teams. 

“You’d leave for work at 4.30 in the morning and have people ready to work by 8.30.”

That meant transforming regular horse riders into warriors. Full costume, hair, make-up and weapons, ready to mount up and ride onto the set.

Sometimes the groups are smaller, but the responsibilities are just as significant. In The Hobbit, she looked after Gandalf. “Any time he was high-mountain-range-walking, I’d be taking the scale double or the double, or I looked after Sir Ian when he was on set.”

And she soon learned to be hyper-organised when flying. After all, when you’ve helicoptered miles from the costume tent, it’s a big deal to forget the hat.

Memorable Moments

A well-wrapped up Philippa in the snow in front of a log cabin ski hut.
Philippa has done a ton of high mountain work over the years.

 After so many years, individual movies and commercials tend to blur together.  But Philippa’s got some particular highlights.

Vertical Limit, which is “a bit of a darling because it was such a good time and incredible access to the mountains.”

And Prince Caspian: “I went to Prague for that.”

But one of her all-time favourites is The Count of Monte Cristo where they worked in Ireland and Malta.

“We shot at Powerscourt which is like the Versailles of Ireland. There was a particular night, there was a sequence where the Count lands a hot air balloon. It’s landed by four women who trapeze down from ropes and land it. Meanwhile, 500 extras dance on the exterior gardens. And then the pyrotechnics go off. 

The fabulous hot-air balloon scene from The Count of Monte Cristo: Philippa doubts that movie makers would even attempt to shoot a scene this way today.

Looking back, there’s no way you’d even attempt a shot like that in today’s world. You just wouldn’t.” 

Maybe not, but Philippa feels lucky to have been there, one of only two Kiwis on the job. 

They filmed in Mdina, which is a hidden city in the top of Malta, and down in the harbour in two galleon ships.

“The costumes were from high-end Italian fashion houses. For a girl from Garston, it was all pretty big stuff.”

From Films To Photography

Philippa still works in the movie world, but these days her passion lies more in photography. 

After filming Prince Caspian, she bought a digital camera and went to Santa Fe to join three intensive photography workshops. She loved every moment and came home determined to learn more.

So, at age 42, she left the movie world and became a fulltime student in Wellington. Studying a Diploma of Photography threw up some new challenges. Like negotiating her way around Photoshop.

“I was barely computer literate. Fortunately, there were some youngsters willing to coach me.”

Digital is cool, but Philippa’s fallen in love with the magic of film. 

So the photos you see in her books and on the walls haven’t been selected from hundreds or fixed in Photoshop. Using film you only have a few chances to get the shot. It takes time, creativity and patience but the results are worth it.  

That little Kingston cottage with its extensive garden plays a big part in keeping Philippa going in both her worlds: photography and films. My guess is, she’ll be making art in both for a while yet.

Contact Philippa O’Brien


Oxford Art Gallery 14 Oxford Street Kingston OTAGO 9793

All location photos supplied by Philippa. They were hard to find: “Sadly, I’ve not documented my film life that well…” she says.

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