Mike Farrand's job is to make the Wellington Botanic Gardens magical for the Summer City performances
This article, written by Diana Dekker, was published in The Dominion Post Indulgence 19 Jamuary 2008,
and is fully acknowledged
Picture Kent Blechynden Dompost
Will the last man out please turn off the 400 lights? That man is Mike Farrand, plunging the Botanic Gardens
into peaceful night-time gloom after the excited kids and the musicians and other revellers have all gone home.
Turn-off time is 10.30pm but Mike is not a light miser. If a Summer City evening has been particularly balmy and
families have been drifting in late, he doesn't pull the switch and shoo them out the gate on the dot of closing
Mike has been making the gardens magical with light in January for a decade, adding a light here, changing one
there, all the time discreetly listening to what people say. He did think he might lose the mirror ball tree by
the duck pond, "but the feedback was people would be gutted if it wasn't there".
"We try to keep some components the same. Every year the bubble machine fills the garden with bubbles that
drift with the breeze and catch the light going down the path."
Preparation for the garden lights begins in mid-December in Mike's Tawa workshop. It takes 10 men most of a working
week to install them on five kilometres of cable. They are in four sections so that if Wellington turns on one
of its mean deluges, all the lights don't all go out at once.
Rain sometimes stops play, but never like it did four years ago when a sudden downpour made the duck pond overflow.
Mike says half a metre of water flowed on to Tinakori Rd and piles of lights got tangled up by the gate. A better
plan for stormwater has been put in place since then, so it can't happen again.
The real effect of the lights is most apparent in the moments after they are turned off, says Mike, "and it's
stark in comparison and you get a sense of how much we've put in and how it transforms the area".
Mike has been fascinated by light since he was a child. All he ever wanted to be was a lighting man and he joined
the school lighting team in Tawa at 13. "I'm a practical person and one thing at school I was good at was
lights for school productions. I wasn't into sports. I liked playing with electricity."In his seventh form
year, he was farmore interested in getting bit parts in lighting teams for glamorous events such as a Dire Straits
concert at Athletic Park and the Benson and Hedges fashion show than he was in school lessons. At 17, he became
an apprentice electrician, buying gear with his modest pay and storing it in a basement dug out by his father for
He knew then he wanted his own business and was establishing business relationships and planning while he was doing
his four-year apprenticeship. Those years were spent on building sites and in high-rise commercial buildings. "I
hated it and I got qualified and I took a leap of faith and left."
He was 21 - 16 years ago - when he set up his production lighting company, MJF Lighting. The gear got too much
for the basement, then filled up a garage, and now spreads over 700 square metres of warehouse space in Tawa. There
are nine employees. Mike's wife does the accounts and his father looks after the warehouse with its kilometres
of cables, lights and sophisticated computer gear.
Lighting work extends far beyond Mike's favourite Botanic Gardens job. He lit up Civic Square on New Year's Eve
and is often called on to light the TSB Bank Arena or the Town Hall. Car sales yards, marquees and wharf sheds
light up to his plans and he can make a starkly lit hotel space glowingly romantic. "One-third of our work
is creating ambience," he says. "It's a subtle thing people don't notice. It goes hand in hand with good
catering and wine."
His lighting is often what puts Wellington people in the mood for a good time, creating an ambience even before
they enter a venue. The outside and audience lights for World of WearableArt were Mike's work, designed to capture
the spirit of the show from the moment the audience saw the venue till they disappeared afterward into the night.
When Peter Jackson's King Kong had its world premiere at the Embassy Theatre, the outside of the theatre was lit
in a way fitting to the era of the film, and while the audience watched the movie inside, Mike and his crew were
transforming the outside of the theatre into a light and smoke-filled street scene. He also lit the TSB Bank Arena
when The Lord of the Rings premiered and did inside lighting for the David Beckham after-match function at "an
undisclosed Wellington location".
Lighting is an odd thing, he muses, something people generally only take note of if it's not good. "The same
with office lights. If you have a bad fluoro light it's annoying, but if it's comfortable and relaxing, you don't
The New Zealand International Arts Festival will keep him busy. Sometimes his day ends at 5am. And for the past
15 years, when he dropped exhausted into bed after a long, hard night, he knew he could be called out again - to
a fire. He is a volunteer fireman and has just been appointed chief fire officer of the Tawa district. And, no,
he insists, he's not in it to see the flames lighting up the sky. "It's about community service."