Local Folk - Tom Zhang

Tom Zhang is well known on Facebook in Warkworth, Leigh and Matakana for his photos that bring out the magic of the natural landscape. Mahurangi Matters photographer Jonathan Killick got tired of being approached in the street and being asked if his name was Tom, so decided to find out about the real Tom Zhang …

Setting up my own business in New Zealand has been very difficult. One day, when times were really hard, I talked to my wife about what to do. She said because our English was not very good and I was shy, maybe we could start a Facebook account and I could communicate with people by sharing my pictures. “Are my pictures even good?” I said. I started with an old mobile phone and just kept posting to the Warkworth page each day. People started to comment and it gave me confidence, so I kept going.

Eventually people started approaching me in the street while I was taking photos. They would ask me if I was Tom, and I would feel confused because I didn’t know them. They said they loved the photos and it made me feel warm. Pictures are like another language for me to have a conversation. Through my photos I am showing people that their home is very beautiful, but we have to do our best to protect it. I thought, if it can make people happy, I have to work harder at it. I learned how to use Photoshop and I take five photographs and pull them together into a single image to improve the quality. I feel that Warkworth and photography have become an inseparable part of my life.

My wife and I moved to New Zealand from China in 2015 for our son’s education. When we applied to immigrate, we were told that we needed to give the exact place we would live. We got out Google maps and found that Warkworth was in between the sea and hills, which in Chinese culture is lucky. I also didn’t want to live in a Chinese area of Auckland, because we wanted to develop a business and learn from the local people and culture. “We must live among them,” I thought, so we wrote down Warkworth. We didn’t know what would happen and we were very worried about our English. After we came, we found it was very beautiful and the people were friendly and patient. People were happy to speak to us and we were very touched by them.

In China, I worked in animation. In 1992, my first job was using a film camera taking single frames for an animated TV series. When they didn’t need a camera operator any more I learned to draw and trained to become an animator. I would do the motion design, layout and storyboard. At 37, I became the director of a cartoon series and did work for shows that aired in the United States, Canada, Japan and England. The company I worked for at the time started a 3D department and I put my hand up and learned the software. In 2007, animation was rare in China. Many universities had animation courses, but they lacked teachers with practical experience. I was invited by Hangzhou Industry University and several other universities to teach animation and design, and how to draw a storyboard. I did that for four years, while working at a digital company as a director on a TV series.

But after arriving in New Zealand, it was very hard develop a business. I researched companies and sent out emails, but got few replies. I went to networking events, but there were no jobs. In China, I had started looking at augmented reality (AR) 3D models and I thought maybe this could be a good idea for a new business. To see an AR animation, you use an app and your phone’s camera to see a 3D animation. For example, I made a sample real estate business card for selling an apartment building. When you look at the card through an app, a 3D model of a building emerges and you can look into the rooms to see the floor plan. I decided to expand the company’s business scope and increase the AR technical service. My first real AR animation job was for an author, James Russell, for his Dragon Defenders children’s book. It was one of the first books to feature AR in New Zealand. We made a world map for the book and dragons fly out from the pages and you can watch villagers go about their lives. It is almost as if you have entered inside a movie.

In 2016, the NZ AR VR Association began and I joined. At the launch, I met my future business partner, Rob, who liked my product. He had started a coding company called Curate and I made some of the concept videos. We went to Tech Week in Auckland in 2017 and displayed our product, which people loved, but still there were no jobs. At the end of 2017, I was feeling quite bad, with little income and a business that was not growing. Rob was driving cars to earn more money, but my visa only allowed me to work for my business. I said let’s join together and use your marketing experience and my 3D animation skills, and he agreed.

Now things have been going much better. We recently made a product for an MRI machine after meeting Abby, a patient care specialist. She helps families deal with the anxiety of children undergoing medical procedures. For children, having to lie down in a tube and have an MRI scan is scary. It is also hard for the parents so, while they are waiting for the doctor, our app lets them look at a 3D model of an MRI and tap different parts of it to learn how it works. You can also lay down and use it to see inside the MRI machine. It just helps children and parents relax. We made it for Starship Hospital for free and they have been trialling it. After a long time waiting, this month they said they liked it and we have submitted a proposal to develop it further with them.

My son is in Year 8 at Mahurangi College and like most children, he loves it there. When we first arrived, we couldn’t talk to his teachers well. We don’t know how our son did it in the beginning. He couldn’t understand anything, but he has grown very quickly. We asked him, “Are you ok?”. We wanted to give him help, but we couldn’t because we couldn’t understand. But he has always said he was good, and he works hard.

He plays a lot of video games. Most parents don’t like kids playing games, but why stop them? We are living in a different world now. It is a digital time. I’ve found he learns more from games because kids work together online. They each have a job to do and a role to play. In the future, all jobs will be like this and children need to learn to work together in the virtual world. In the future, we may not have offices. Kids can share knowledge and feel happy, and that’s the point. In your childhood, what makes you feel happy, you will never forget. In 2016, I created an AR kiwi bird that you can see on your desk and interact with, and I showed it to the kids at Warkworth School. They were so excited. The teacher said they would learn very quickly because we weren’t telling them, they were experiencing it for themselves. I think the world is coming to a big change. We need more skills in the virtual world and everyone should learn basic programming along with reading and writing.

The past three years have been hard. It was very exciting to work with cutting edge technology, but it has been hard. But we knew this was the right direction and we kept going.

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