Kara Barbes portrait standing amongst bushes near Mirimar.

Kara Barbes moved to Wellington for work and for love, not knowing if she would stay. But she found a city where she wanted to build a life.

Kara never expected to end up living on this side of the world. She grew up in a little US town called Bear in Delaware. She moved to Baltimore to study film at university, then worked in the film industry in Washington DC, then Los Angeles.

She was working on ‘Avatar 2’ and ‘Avatar 3’ when she found out that production of the ‘Avatar’ franchise was being moved to Wellington. The question was, should she move too? It wasn’t just the work that attracted her. She and New Zealander Shea Melville worked together in the film industry in LA, became friends, then started dating. He moved to Wellington in 2019, and Kara followed a few months later.

“I had wanted to visit New Zealand since I was a child, partly because of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and ‘Narnia’ movies.” Kara knew that uprooting her life to move to the other side of the world would be logistically difficult. “But when I decide to do something, I just make it happen.

Flying Saucer

Now Kara works on movies in the ongoing ‘Avatar’ franchise through 880 Productions, as On-Set Simulcam Manager. Simulcam is a technology that allows virtual computer-graphic elements to be composited with live action. “It’s a fun job!” When Kara initially met colleagues who had worked on the ‘Narnia’ movies, she fan-girled a bit initially. But they soon put her at ease and were keen to share their knowledge and expertise.

Kara thinks that Wellington has a far better work-life balance than that of LA. where many people in the film industry are routinely expected to work 12-hour days. And in LA, she would have to do a minimum of 45 minutes commute each way. In Wellington, getting to work in Miramar takes five minutes by car, 15 minutes by bike, and is a 40-minute walk. She and Shea, who works at Wētā, live together in Hataitai. They often head into the central city to make the most of Wellington’s jam-packed events schedule — they particularly enjoy the New Zealand International Film Festival and the popular food festival Visa Wellington on a Plate.

Upwards shot of the second story graffiti and windows of Cuba street.

Celeste Fontein

Street art on historic buildings on Cuba Street, Wellington city.

“I feel blessed to live in Wellington,” Kara says. “It’s scenic, artsy, compact, peaceful, and I’ve found that everyone’s really nice here.” A very outdoorsy person, she hikes, goes on walks with friends, and after work she goes for a run around the waterfront or to a rock-climbing gym. She also swims and paddleboards.

“Seeing the blue water, green hills, and native plants around the city makes me smile and feel alive.”

Kara would encourage people to consider a move. “You might be attracted to New Zealand and to Wellington for one reason or another, but the only way to know is to come and try it out.” As she says, the working holiday visa is a great opportunity to do so.

Kara misses her family and friends, but she visits the US fairly often, recently taking a few months off work to do so. She wasn’t sure whether she’d be happy or sad when she flew back to Wellington. “But when I did, I realised I felt happy.”