Minute Bodies: The Intimate World of F. Percy Smith
Dir. Chris Stuart Staples BFI DVD release 2016
Watching this new release from the BFI, in which footage from the ground-breaking nature films of F. Percy Smith has been spliced together by Stuart Staples to a soundtrack composed by his band the Tindersticks and Christine Ott, is a sublimely relaxing experience. These films are astoundingly old, some pre-Great War, and display Smith's obsessive interest in the natural world and his technical brilliance: he famously pioneered time-lapse photography to capture flowers opening and closing, and developed a method of microscopically filming tiny creatures otherwise invisible to the naked eye. As this suggests, there was something delightfully eccentric about Smith’s pursuits, which the marvellous booklet notes also make clear. “Getting out of town was clearly an ardent wish, as he joined the Essex Field Club at sixteen and began collecting English spiders on which he wrote a number of learned articles that he presented at the Quekett Microscopical Club…Bored at his clerk’s job in the Board of Education, Smith had photographed the tongue of a bluebottle drinking.”
The patterns in these ancient films have a strangely hypnotic effect, so that sometimes the viewer is not sure whether this is a nature documentary or a piece of moving abstract art. Smith’s films reveal the extraordinary geometry and symmetry of micro-organisms, the elegance of their eternal dance, which is perfectly complemented by the somewhat chilly soundtrack. The sequence on photosynthesis is particularly awe-inspiring and mesmerising. However, not just the main feature on this release is worth watching: in the extras the viewer is treated to Smith’s original short films of flowers opening and bluebottles performing acrobatic feats. While the latter captured the public imagination at the time, and were even referenced in political cartoons, nowadays it is the flower films that strike the viewer as particularly extraordinary, prompting gasps as, for example, a sepia-toned Edwardian daisy —all that time ago— slowly and ravishingly unfurls. These time-lapse films were achieved through an extremely Heath Robinson process, described in this quote from Smith in the booklet: “[One of] the earliest devices ... did excellent work. It consisted of a small seesaw which carried at one end a cocoa-tin with a siphon and at the other a counterpoise. Water dripped slowly into the tin. As soon as the weight of water was sufficient to overcome the counterpoise the tin descended, shed its contents through the siphon with a painfully audible gurgle, and re-ascended with a bump. The impact of this bump, communicated by a clawed arm to a train of clock wheels, provided ample power to drive the camera.”
This otherworldly man, who suffered from rheumatic fever, was nevertheless conscripted during the First World War as a cameraman, forced to film human beings’ decidedly less peaceable activities. Whether this had anything to do with Smith’s eventual suicide in 1945 is not clear. It is certain, however, that he returned to his obsessions after the First World War, filming some of the Secrets of Nature series for the gloriously-named British Instructional Films. These included a study of pollination entitled Floral Co-operative Societies, and, somewhat less appetisingly, a stop-motion homage to mould (The Plants of the Pantry).
This entrancing new compilation of Smith’s work by Stuart Staples is a wonderful opportunity to rediscover the man who found an ineffable grandeur in microscopic processes and a heroic strength in the bluebottle. This footage is a unique survival of that fascinating first age of film which remains, to many, undiscovered territory.--Isabel Taylor