Enter the Microcosmic Dreams of an Early Filmmaking Pioneer

Musician Stuart A. Staples pays tribute to a pioneer of micro-photographic techniques in 'Minute bodies: The intimate world of F. Percy Smith.'

by Kevin Holmes
12 October 2016, 1:00pm

He Would a Wooing Go. (1936). Image courtesy of the BFI

Macrophotography and micro-filmmaking are commonplace these days, practiced by amateurs and professionals alike to expose hidden worlds or create abstract, striking imagery. But British filmmaker and naturalist F. Percy Smith was pioneering this type of work back in the 1920s. Smith wasn't a scientist or expert, but just a clever enthusiast who adored nature. He was also an inventor, and in his home studio and backyard, developed a variety of cinematographic and micro-photographic techniques to capture nature's microscopic wonders. He presented these in a variety of educational films which were very popular with cinemagoers of the time.

Smith's microcosmic explorations are what's been segued together to create a new immersive edit of his work for a film called Minute bodies: The intimate world of F. Percy Smith. It recently premiered at this year's BFI London Film Festival. The film is directed by musician and lead singer of Tindersticks, Stuart A. Staples, edited by Staples and David Reeve, and features a contemporary score created by Staples and a collective of musicians.

Staples became intrigued by Smith's work around three years ago when he saw some clips of Smith's microscopic films. "It was something I wanted to find out more about, I just found it really fascinating," Staples tells The Creators Project. "And from there I just found out what was available, I got the Secrets of Nature DVD, and I started to look around at what else there was. I got in touch with the BFI [British Film Institute]—and it’s been a long journey that ended up in the basement of the BFI, opening old film canisters that haven’t been opened for many, many, many, years."

F. Percy Smith. Queer Pets (1912). Image courtesy of the BFI

Captured by Smith using homemade setups of microscopes and cameras, it was the kind of footage that, in its day, had never been seen before. "He must have been so excited when he was developing these films because he was looking at these images for the first time, he was the first person to see things like this," notes Staples. "It must be very exciting to put it onto the educational films and to show people."

Although Smith captured footage of insects, birds, and plants, for Minute Bodies, Staples was drawn to the footage of the microscopic worlds and timelapsed plants growing from seeds. The footage, taken out of context of the educational films with their voiceovers and explanations, becomes strange and otherworldly, almost surreal. With the timelapse elements you almost feel like, at times, you're watching a Dalí-esque scene. Not that Smith ever thought he was creating art—he was just following his heart, doing what he loved. But adding the music heightens the artistry of what he captured.

Magic Myxies (1931). Image courtesy of the BFI

"Smith himself was very aware of the musical aspects of what he was doing," notes Staples. "He talked about how he could speed footage up to make the leaves flap like butterflies, so that allowed us to be musical because of the intent of where it started from. When you get down into these moments of concentration, all of these things can emerge from it and inspire the music in a certain way."

At the very beginning of the project Staples had certain musicians in mind for the score. One of those was Tom Belhom, the French solo percussionist, and another was Christine Ott, who plays the ondes Martenot (an early electronic instrument that was around the time Smith's films were made). Around a third of the soundtrack was composed by Ott, as compositions Ott had already created and released were integrated into it. These include her songs "Danse avec la Neige," and "Tempête," the main title of the film, and two tracks from her musical performance 24 hours of a woman's life.

Along with these the musicians, who also included David Coulter on musical saw and nose flute and Julian Siegel on saxophone, also recorded some preliminary loops to work with. They would then watch the footage of the film and almost riff off it, playing their instruments while looking at the films. 

Gathering Moss (1933). Image courtesy of the BFI "My job became to organize these reactions and to put them in place, so the music and images could talk to each other," explains Staples. "Then when David [Reeve] got involved the conversation was able to be more about the whole piece and the tempo of the whole piece, the transitions. That’s when certain parts of the edit became more expressive—it’s always been a conversation between the images and the music. Nothing was independent of each other."

The result is a bewitching, hypnotic look at a remarkable world, but it's also a reminder of what Smith achieved and a celebration of his work. Work that he was able to do not only because of his skill but because he existed in just the right time, when the technology was there and the audience's enthusiasm was, too.

"He’s definitely unsung in my opinion and he’s a British character that we should herald, but I think he’s also unique in the whole world, there’s no one quite like him," notes Staples. "It’s not like experts working on this thing, it’s him problem solving the things he wants to capture and then figuring out how to do that. It’s something that gives the images a real soul. You really feel that it is one man chasing his vision and doing everything he can to get hold of it—and I think that’s quite inspiring. I hope the film helps a little bit in bringing that vision to a broader audience."

Click here to learn more about Minute bodies: The intimate world of F. Percy Smith.


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