24 Jul 2018

Oamaru goes up in flames: Fire and Steam 2018

SFX excesses in Oamaru

Oamaru goes up in flames: Fire and Steam 2018

By Jenny Barrett.

Fire and Steam, the opening night of the largest and longest running steampunk festival in the Southern Hemisphere provides Southern Lights with the opportunity to light up the town’s Victorian architecture, invoking all the fire, smoke, bubbles, sparks and snow that one production services company can muster.

Steampunkers from around the globe flock to Oamaru’s annual Steampunk Festival, now in its ninth year. Unbeknown to many, Oamaru is the Steampunk Capital of New Zealand and arguably the ‘Mecca of the Steampunk World’.

Photo: Alan Wilson

This Queen’s birthday weekend event offers steampunkers everything from a steampunk fashion show and gala ball to teapot racing and duelling. Year after year, the organisers have kept Oamaru firmly on the global steampunk map, staging a world class event that gives steampunkers an opportunity to showcase this creative, innovative and perhaps slightly misunderstood art genre.


The event initially grew out of a League of Victorian Imagineers Steampunk exhibition held in a local gallery as part of Oamaru’s Victorian Heritage week back in 2009. The following year saw the addition of the fashion show and ball, and requests for other steampunk events rolled in.

By 2012, the festival had its own opening night spectacular supported by Tourism Waitaki, then ‘Oamaru on Fire’, now known as ‘Fire and Steam’. In 2014, it proclaimed itself the first public event to use video mapping, Oamaru’s Harbour Street providing a stunning canvas of Victorian buildings on which to project.

The evening now attracts over 5,000 people to Oamaru and includes fire themed street performers, bands and food not to mention lighting displays and a ridiculous amount of special effects and explosions. Step up Southern Lights.

Michael Cracroft-Wilson bought Dunedin-based Southern Lights thirteen years ago, the culmination of a journey into production technology that began a long way from ‘Fire and Steam’ in the Antarctic. A rigger by trade he was working in the US navy when he spent a season at the US military base McMurdo.

With access to pretty much anything that would keep morale up, Michael had his first experience of producing a festival ‘Icestock’, eight bands playing in minus five degrees from midday to 5pm when it was shut down by the base’s commanding officer.

Photo: Sarah Miller

He got the bug, did a course in sound engineering, cut his teeth as a lighting technician in a bar, moved on to a local AV company and then travelled overseas, coming back to raise Southern Lights from the ashes. Now the company has six full time employees, one hundred casuals on call and provides production services across the South Island, with the occasional foray across the straits.

They provide lighting, special effects and audio-visual gear, rigging, trussing, staging, crowd barriers, you name it. Recent work has included Ed Sheerin in Dunedin, Grace Jones and the WinterFest, both in Queenstown, and Ballet Revolucion in Wellington. Coming up soon is Kendrick Lamar.

He loves the job, less so the business of running a company. “If I knew then what I know now, I’d have stayed as a contractor,” he jokes. Hence the enthusiasm with which Michael embraces Fire and Steam, “We are not your typical company I guess. I love the community stuff. I feel like that’s what we’re here for, not to get rich quick. My plans to retire to Dunedin are currently on hold…”

Fire and Steam is also an opportunity to have some fun, “The committee comes to us with a general idea for ‘Fire and Steam’ and then we throw everything that we’ve got at it to ensure that the community, and especially the kids, have a great time.”

This year’s overkill included eight smoke machines, six fire cannons, six bubble machines “purely for the children”, 50 LEDs for outdoors and “just lots” of strips and skytrackers. Not to mention the data projectors used to map images of leaping flames onto the building facades and gel-treated windows, with Southern Lights creating their own content where required.

Strategically placed steampunk mannequins are lit up inside the windows up and down the street and the town just goes off for three hours, including two parades put on by the steampunkers.
Southern Lights also provide the equipment for the other Steampunk events including the gala ball, bands and the fashion show but ‘Fire and Steam’ is the most time consuming.

Oamaru’s Harbour Street is 150 metres long and Michael sets up with a team of three, “I drop gear off along the street and each of us sets up our own section, to keep it simple. We use wires DMX and just run a power cord to each vertical. We do it in a day running around like headless chickens till 5.30pm. Then we enjoy the show for a couple of hours and take it all down.”

Saying that, Michael spends much of the two hours in between pack in and out, planning next year’s extravaganza, especially this year with the ten-year anniversary looming in 2019. There will definitely be double the number of fire cannons and his recently acquired cold spark machines, purchased for the All Blacks versus France game, will be making an appearance,

“It is an amazing event and draws people from all over. Not just ‘Fire and Steam’ but you want to come and see all these steampunkers done up to the nines. It’s definitely different.”

Oamaru Steampunk NZ Festival 2019, the Ten Year Anniversary, is scheduled for 30th May to 3rd June. Dig out your goggles and come along.

This article first appeared in the July-August 2018 edition of CX Magazine New Zealand pp.26-28.
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Lead Photo: James Glucksman


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