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Behind the camera with Cal Thorley

20 December 2014


Chances are that you will have seen some of Cal Thorley’s work on either The Red Shift or Hot Rod Revue, or seen him filming cars and events around the country. We find out about the man behind the camera and what makes him tick

Cal Thorley is the man behind Hot Rod Revue

For those who don’t know you, can you tell us a bit about who are you and what you’ve been doing?

I’m Cal Thorley from Hamilton, and I have been editing shows for TV for quite a while now. Involving that with my love of hot rods gave me a way to enjoy what I do a little bit more, so, around eight years ago, I started a show called The Red Shift, and then went into creating the Hot Rod Revue DVD series. I also do a few other car-related projects, such as the Beach Hop DVD that came out with NZV8’s 2014 Beach Hop Annual.

Hot Rod Revue is unashamedly just cars I like; there’s no set plan, except that the cars are generally ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s traditional-style hot rods and earlier-style kustoms, when I can find them. There’s the odd muscle car, but only ones that are on the right steel wheels and things like that. I’m quite picky about what I like, so that’s what I film. It’s not exactly a moneymaking thing, so I do the stuff that I want to do. 

So, your day job is commercial editing?

Yeah, most of my work is for TV series, which are always in a block. That is handy, as I know what I’m doing well in advance, rather than having to fight for jobs on a daily basis. Most of my work is editing, but I do do a bit of filming as well — jack of all trades, master of none.

You were responsible for the NZV8 Beach Hop DVD; how did that come about?

It was really exciting to be a part of getting Beach Hop on TV. Through shows like NZV8 TV, and me personally with The Red Shift, we’ve had chunks of it on air before, but never in a big block like that. It was awesome to be a part of it, and, by the sounds of it, it was received really well. It was just a case of NZV8 knowing where I was and thinking along the same lines, so fingers crossed we can keep it going.

You’d usually be at events like that anyway, even without a camera?

To be honest, part of The Red Shift turned shows into a job for me. Because I had to be at all the events, I pulled away a bit. With Hot Rod Revue, I’ve been enjoying the niche events and have actually had a couple of years off Beach Hop. That was good, as I was blown away all over again by the number of cars [this year]. It hit me just how big the scene is in New Zealand, if that makes sense. 

You say you’re not out to make money, but can you survive on what you are currently doing?

My day job doesn’t call for a lot of change; it’s a fairly set format, whereby I’m restricted by other people’s tastes, so being able to do this type of stuff, where I don’t have any responsibility to anyone else, is cool. Primarily for me, it’s just to do something fun and catch up with the cars I like to see; the money is secondary. But the DVDs do claw back a bit of the cost involved. Even then, it’s probably a break-even thing, all going well. We’ll see what happens in the future.

Cal is not only the cameraman, he also produces and edits his films

How many DVDs have you done now?

Under Hot Rod Revue, we’re just launching number four, entitled The South. It was the obvious sequel to The North, which was released last year. The South has 13 features, which I shot in January when doing a road trip around the South Island. 

You’re sort of an ‘all-in-one’: producer, editor, and cameraman?

At this stage, it’s really a matter of necessity; it’s just the way TV is going — the more jobs you can do, the easier it is to get projects off the ground. 

Have you been selling mainly to New Zealand, or to overseas as well?

I think that possibly The North sold more to Australia, but New Zealand sales are generally a big part. The DVD goes all over the place — to the UK, Europe, and so on. However, we’re restricted by the format issue, so the US market is relatively untapped. But I’m working on that now.

You’ve set it up so people can download the films instead, is that right?

Yes; that’s opened it up a little more worldwide, and I’ve just got a distributor in the States who’s keen to do the DVD versions there, so we’ll see how that goes. There are lots of cool hot rod movies around, but ours are a little different location-wise, so there’s a market there. The whole DVD thing is slowing down, so we’re probably jumping into a dying area. But it’s still a matter of letting people know we’re there. 

The Hot Rod Revue Facebook page has quite a big following. Has that helped with that global domination?

Yeah, it has. I hated Facebook when it first started. It was actually a friend, Ben, who started the page. I’d been ignoring it, then, as it got bigger and bigger, I thought I’d better jump on board, and it’s been awesome. You can post shameless plugs for the DVDs and straight away you’ll get 50 sales. It really has made quite a big difference. 

How have you found the response locally? Do people know who you are now?

Yes, I think The Red Shift helped with that. Hot Rod Revue would have been a lot more difficult without that. With Hot Rod Revue, I can call people out of the blue as I’m travelling around and quickly explain who I am. Of course, there’s that few-degrees-of-separation thing as well, where people know someone who’s had a car on it, and so on, so that works well; people are pretty familiar with it now.

So The Red Shift was on TV as well?

It was on Prime and Sky, then the Discovery Channel picked it up and it went international. 

As well as in DVD form, Hot Rod Revue is also available as a download

Are there any plans to get Hot Rod Revue into the mainstream like that? 

No. The thing I really like about Hot Rod Revue is the lack of responsibility, whereas The Red Shift turned into a job. While it was a pretty cool job, there were still calls you had to make that were based around business priorities. TV is expensive, and sponsors were paying good money to make the show happen. I’m incredibly grateful for that, but there are situations where a story angle, an event, or a person might conflict with their interests, and you obviously want to look after the sponsors as best you can. In contrast, with Hot Rod Revue, I can just focus on the story, any story, and sort any sponsorship later, and that suits me well at this time. 

Is that what caused The Red Shift to end and Hot Rod Revue to start?

It was part of it. Don’t get me wrong — The Red Shift was cool, and I’m proud of what Ricki [Wood] and I did, because it was quite a challenge to get something on air to start with, but this [Hot Rod Revue] is just freedom; there’s not really a commercial element that’s dictated by advertising.

Getting a show on the Discovery Channel must’ve been pretty cool though?

That was a complete surprise, to be honest. A contact of a friend of a friend runs a distribution company out of the States, and he said he’d throw The Red Shift around amongst his clients. I thought it might end up on some random local station somewhere, then, to my surprise, the Discovery Channel thing came out of it, and the show went to a whole bunch of countries — some that I’d never heard of, and lots that I had — so that was a surprise.

Given your specific interest in cars, have you got one yourself?

I’ve got a ’51 Pontiac Chieftain, which is a work-in-progress. I’ve had it for just over three years now. It hasn’t been an easy one and has only really been on the road for about four months. I bought it and broke it quickly, and it turned into one of those ‘while-you’re-there’ cars — while you’re fixing that, you may as well fix this — so it had quite a long holiday from the road.

Is it all going well now?

Yeah; it wasn’t an easy process, and we had a few hiccups along the way. The happy side of the story is that I got in contact with the guys from Valley Custom in Cambridge, and they stepped in just before the car went on Trade Me as an unfinished project, because it had kicked me too many times. Those guys were awesome; they grabbed it and sorted it out. Now it’s my daily-driver, so that’s cool. When I look back, it was all worth it, but early on it didn’t feel that way.

How do you find driving an old car like that as a daily?

I love it; it’s awesome. You sort of forget, until you pull up next to a car full of people and they’re all yelling out about how cool it is; that brings you back to reality. I guess I’m lucky that I work from home; it’s not like I’m a courier driver in town or anything like that. I tend to enjoy my travels. I imagine that if you were in the centre of Auckland it wouldn’t be quite the same. 

Have you always been into the hot rod scene?

I’ve definitely always been a car person, but by no means would I ever refer to myself as a ‘hot rodder’; that’d be insulting to every actual hot rodder out there. I’ve always liked cars: I’ve had old Holdens, I’ve had hot rods, I have what’s hopefully going to be a kustom one day, I’ve had Jap cars, I’ve had English cars — I just like cars.

You’re just completing The South now, correct?

Yes; I’m waiting for a phone call to go and pick it up from Auckland, actually. There are quite a few pre-orders, which is cool. 

The South Island trip must have been fun — seeing a bunch of cars you hadn’t seen before?

Absolutely. It was quite tricky to find that specific style of car down there when you’re not seeing them all the time at local shows. I annoyed a heck of a lot of people — and people were really awesome about introducing me and driving me around — by just knocking on their doors, so the trip was really refreshing in that way.

Cal shoots the vehicles that take his interest for the Hot Rod Revue

You didn’t take the Pontiac down?

That was the grand plan, but, to cut a long story short, it didn’t get its cert in time. In hindsight, it probably did my marriage a lot of good, because it was really a family trip. We took the family wagon down, which meant we didn’t risk being stuck on the side of the road on the Pontiac’s shakedown run. Maybe next time.

Are your wife and kids into what you’re doing?

They’re pretty good about it. Cate, my wife, was into cars before I met her. She had old Alfas and old Holdens, so she definitely gets the car thing. I guess if I were making millions from it, it’d be easier, but I think they understand that it’s my hobby. I don’t have as many skills to work on the cars as I’d like to, so filming them is my way of being involved — my outlet, I guess.

Obviously you’ve filmed a bunch of cars and events, and met a load of people. Does anything stand out as a highlight for you?

I pretty much fall in love with every car I feature. Having a video camera gets you into places you wouldn’t otherwise get access to; it’s an awesome excuse to get up close to the cars. It’s also the people that you come across. In New Zealand, there’s not really the ego that you come across elsewhere. Take Mike Roberts, for example. He’s just incredible, but he’s the most down-to-earth, humble guy. I wasted a day of his time asking dumb questions on camera, and, at the end of it, he tried to buy the DVD. I was like, “No, I’m giving you a bunch of copies to say thanks”, but he wouldn’t give up. I went out to the letterbox about two weeks later, and there was a pile of T-shirts from him. People like that show how humble we are here.

You’ve been filming the New Zealand car scene for the past 10 years. What changes have you seen?

Of late, there seems to have been a lot more attention to building in a specific period. Whether that was always happening, and I’m just realizing it, or it has been a definite change, I’m not too sure. This is me being overly picky when I’m not qualified to be, but I hate seeing a car that’s absolutely beautiful but has something that’s not in keeping. It might have wheels that are way-out, or something else. I’m noticing that more and more cars are being built as a complete package. As I said, it could be me just cottoning on to it now, but it seems more people have a set plan and stick to it, and I think the cars are getting better for it.

Can you tell us what’s next?

I actually think that’ll be my last DVD [The South]. Well, hopefully! I say that because when you film and cut it all in high definition, it’s torture to go back to standard definition, and all your shots look terrible in comparison. I’m really hoping that that format dies off and people click on to the whole online thing. That’s the plan.

I’m looking at a lot more regular smaller videos — maybe one a week. It sounds good in theory. I’ve been a bit guilty of not doing enough on the website; I’ve got a whole lot of videos on there, but then it might be three months before the next one is uploaded. I want to change that.

Essentially, you are saying that people should pay to buy a digital/online version?

Absolutely, and, in fact, it’s cheaper. If you buy it online, you’re cutting out all the duplication costs, printing costs, freight, and so on. Everyone believes that online is the easier way, but it’s taking a few years to really catch on, especially down here at the bottom of the world. In the US, it’s a little more of a done thing.

Here’s hoping! Thanks for your time, and all your efforts in taking the New Zealand hot rod scene to a global audience. We look forward to watching The South

Make sure to check out for more of Cal’s great work.