It’s not often I find myself recommending a natural history programme, but on Tuesday night this week a BBC4 nature documentary will celebrate the work of film pioneer Percy Smith. Edwardian Insects on Film is punchy name of the hour-long doc, which is part of the channel’s Alien Nation insects season. As the video above shows, the film follows wildlife film-maker Charlie Hamilton Jones’s attempts to replicate Smith’s ingenious film The Acrobatic Fly (1910). It promises to be a rare opportunity to look in detail at early cinema methods and technology – and an even rarer opportunity to see such things on TV.
While the tricksy manipulations of The Acrobatic Fly are many miles away from modern wildlife film’s hands-off observe-from-a-distance approach, the documentary also looks at Smith’s pioneering work in timelapse photography (the gorgeous The Birth of a Flower, 1910), which is still a staple of the genre – used for example in David Attenborough’s The Private Life of Plants (1995). Attenborough himself makes an appearance in the programme, as will a few other faces familiar to readers of this blog.
Smith continued working in the film industry into the 30s, most notably making the Secrets of Nature series for British Instructional Films from 1922-33. Should you want to know more, BFI Screenonline has plenty of information about Smith and his films, some of which are available on DVD, or like the clips above, on the BFI YouTube channel:
Smith was a true pioneer, inventing original (and bizarre) methods for time lapse and micro cinematography, involving all kinds of home-made devices, including alarms all over his home to wake him up in the middle of the night if the film in the camera needed changing. With endless patience, he could spend up to two and a half years to complete a film. He also had the popular touch, with the happy knack (as he put it himself) of being able to feed his audience “the powder of instruction in the jam of entertainment”. Modern film technique could hardly better the results achieved by Smith in the first decades of the century and his early masterpiece Birth of a Flower (1910) has never been out of distribution.
Edwardian Insects on Film screens on BBC4 at 9pm on Tuesday 19 March 2013 and again at 2.40am on Wednesday 20 March 2013.