Minute Bodies: The Intimate World of F. Percy Smith Review

In the first decade of the twentieth century, filmmakers in many countries were exploring the possibilities of the new medium of moving pictures captured on celluloid, and the United Kingdom was no different. The Lumière Brothers had first shown their films in the country in 1896, but local pioneers Robert W. Paul and Birt Acres had made their first film together (Incident at Clovelly Cottage, intended for viewing through the peephole of a Kinetoscope) the previous year. While many films, not yet feature length, made in the last years of the nineteenth century and the first years of the twentieth, were short actualities, some filmmakers were attempting to capture things on film that you couldn't have seen for yourself if you'd happened to be there.

Frank Percy Smith was born in London in 1880. As a photographer and later filmmaker, he regarded himself as very much an amateur enthusiast, a hobby from his initial occupation as a clerk. His still photography grew out of a love of nature, beginning with his joining the Essex Field Club in 1899 and collecting species of spiders and writing articles about them. His photography began as a means of producing slides to illustrate his lectures. One of his photographs, showing the tongue of a drinking bluebottle, found its way to Charles Urban. American-born Urban had moved to the United Kingdom in 1897and began his filmmaking activities with actuality films, including footage of the Boer War. He founded his own company in 1903. One of his company's first films was Cheese Mites, in which the eponymous creatures had been filmed by director F. Martin Duncan through a microscope and put a man (played by Duncan) off his Stilton sandwich. In 1908, Duncan and Urban had parted company. Looking for Duncan's successor, Urban approached Smith and gave him a camera and two rolls of film to see what he could do. The result was The Balancing Bluebottle, in which the insects of the title juggle balls and dumb-bells. The success of this and further films led Smith to leave his day job and to make films for Urban full time. Much of the equipment he used he made himself, Heath Robinson devices to solve the problems he had set in capturing these images on film. This was at a time when cinemas were springing up around the country, instead of the theatres, church halls and fairgrounds where early films had been shown. There was now a demand for short subjects to play there, particularly in accompaniment to the feature-length productions which were beginning to be made.

World War I intervened. Smith served in the Navy, spending the war filming their activities. After the War, he continued to work for Urban until 1923. Two years later, he was recruited by Harry Bruce Woolfe for British Instructional Films, who, as the name suggests, produced short films with an educational remit, often aimed at children. Smith worked for them until his death in 1945, aged sixty-five.

Minute Bodies is a compilation of Smith's footage, shot between 1911 and 1945, compiled by Stuart A, Staples, and set to a score by Tindersticks. The footage has been restored and cleaned up, and to see what a difference that makes, take a look at some of the original films which are on this disc as extras. While time-lapse and microphotography are routine now – as is colour, given that these films are all black and white – it's important to remember that this is one of the places where it all started. The films retain their charm and fascination, which is a testimony to their maker's passion, imagination and talent, and at a short enough length (53:10) not to outstay their welcome. Smith remains behind the camera until the very end of this film, when he makes a personal appearance.

The Disc

The BFI's release of Minute Bodies is dual format, with a Blu-ray and DVD encoded for all regions. A checkdisc of the former was supplied for review.

The films making up Minute Bodies are black and white and, as you might expect from the time they were made, in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1. Smith used 35mm film, which means that, if the materials were in good shape, then a Blu-ray transfer is feasible. And that proves to be the case. The images have been scanned at 2K resolution from surviving 35mm elements. While there are occasional scratches and speckles to be seen, the results are remarkable, given that some of this footage is over a century old.

The soundtrack is the music score, presented in LPCM 2.0, which plays in surround. No complaints here: it sounds fine, with much of it in the higher range rather than the low end, though we get a double bass and drums joining in at twenty-three minutes. There are also non-verbal vocals, female and male, provided by Christine Otts and Staples respectively. As the main feature has no narration (many of the original films date from the silent era and those that don't have had their original soundtracks removed) there are no hard-of-hearing titles. That's understandable for this and the first three of the short films provided as extras, but regrettable for the five with soundtracks, which do have narration.

Those eight shorts are The Birth of a Flower (1910, 7:44), The Strength and Agility of Insects (1911, 6:15), The Wonders of Harmonic Designing (1913, 3:19), Plants of the Underworld (1930, 11:10), Nature’s Double Lifers – Ferns and Fronds (1932, 10:00), He Would A-Wooing Go (1936, 8:20), Lupins (1936, 10:22) and The Life Cycle of the Newt (1942, 10:26). These are transferred from a variety of sources, the first two from existing SD masters (in the case of The Birth of a Flower with a National Film Archive logo at the start), the rest from 2K scans from 35mm elements – a print preceded by its contemporary BBFC U certificate for He Would A-Wooing Go. The first three are silent, with musical accompaniments. The remainder have their original mono soundtracks. The Birth of a Flower, one of Smith's most celebrated early films, shows its roots in scientific observation, as intertitles tell us for how long each flower was filmed for, one frame at a time, intended to be projected at sixteen per second. This film was made both in black and white and in the Kinemacolor process Urban's company had developed, which involved alternating red and green filters in both shooting and projection. Unfortunately the colour version does not survive, but this copy is tinted. The remaining films are all in black and white, and do show the ravages of time in many cases. The Wonders of Harmonic Designing is atypical, showing Smith demonstrating a harmonagraph, a pendulum-assisted device for drawing patterns. This copy has intertitles in German, with English subtitles translating them. The remaining five films were made in the sound era for British Instructional, so have music scores and unmistakably plummy-toned narration.

The BFI's booklet runs to twenty-eight pages, and begins with Stuart A. Staples's account of putting the film together, which took three years, and recording the music score, with the players improvising to what they saw on screen. In “Exploring the Infinite: The Minute World of F. Percy Smith”, Bryony Dixon provides an overview of Smith's life and career, beginning with a quotation from a first-person account of visiting Smith and home and watching him at work. Dr Tim Boon asks and answers the question, “What Type of Scientist was F. Percy Smith?”, concluding that he was indeed one, despite his self-proclaimed amateur status. The rest of the booklet contains full credits for Minute Bodies, including a checklist of the films used and the musical themes which make up the soundtrack, credits and notes on the extras and the transfers, and plenty of stills.

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A charming and utterly fascinating look at the pioneering shorts of F. Percy Smith.


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