100 years of wildlife films, maybe

Martin and Osa Johnson

Martin and Osa Johnson, from http://www.wildfilmhistory.org

Starting this Saturday (August 25th), BBC4 has a wildlife season, marking 100 years of wildlife films. One might protest straight away that wildlife films were made before 1907, but the argument is that Oliver Pike’s In Birdland (1907) was the first true natural history film, as opposed to scientific analysis films, actualities or entertainment films featuring animals. I think F. Martin Duncan‘s work (from 1904 onwards) ought to be acknowledged, even if he mostly filmed in London Zoo, but it’s a bit late now. Ironically or not, In Birdland is believed to be a lost film.

The centrepiece of the season is the programme 100 Years of Wildlife Films, presented by Bill Oddie. Presumably there will be some acknowledgment of the considerable work done in the silent era in this field, by Oliver Pike, Percy Smith, Cherry Kearton, Paul Rainey, Herbert Ponting, C.W.R. Knight, Carl Akeley, Martin and Osa Johnson, and many more.

David Attenborough

David Attenborough with a picture of Cherry Kearton, from http://www.open2.net

There is a programme on Cherry Kearton, in the Nation on Film series, showing on 29 August, called Kearton’s Wildlife (though it’s actually a repeat). The Royal Geographical Society still awards a Cherry Kearton medal for achievements in photographing natural history (David Attenborough is a recipient), and his pioneering work (often with brother Richard) in still and motion picture photography of animals deserves to be far better known. The BBC4 site provides a full list of programmes in the series.

All of this activity coincides with plans by the Wildscreen Trust to develop a centralised collection of films and information on 100 years of wildlife filmmaking, with support from the Heritage Lottery Fund. There’s a website, wildfilmhistory.org, which promises a full launch at the end of 2007. There’s a book in the offing as well. Such is the power of centenaries.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret

Méliès shop


The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a children’s book (designed for 9-12 year-olds), written and illustrated by Brian Selznick and published this year. Set in Paris in 1931, it tells of a young orphan boy, Hugo Cabret, who is reduced to stealing to find food to eat, but then rescues an automaton from a museum fire. Seeking pieces to repair the figure, he steals pieces from a toy store by a railway station. Then he is caught. Now read on…

Our interest is that the toy store keeper is Georges Méliès. The illustration above from the book echoes the famous photograph of Méliès at his kiosk on the Gare Montparnasse, years after he had lost his film business and disappeared into obscurity, and just at the point of his re-discovery by film historians. Méliès becomes a leading character in the story, introducing Hugo to the world of early film. The book is a graphic-novel-with-text, and incorporates images from Méliès’ films.

There’s a website, www.theinventionofhugocabret.com, which has information on the ideas behind the book, including a page on Méliès, and a Flash slide show of some of the book’s illustrations.

There’s a video interview with Selznick, emphasizing his fascination for the Méliès story, on the ExpandedBooks.com site. It shows many illustrations from the book, from which we learn that Selznick makes a particular point of depicting shoe-heels in his drawings (Méliès’ film library was notoriously melted down to make, amongst other things, shoe-heels).

Rumour has it that Martin Scorsese is considering making a film based on the novel, or at least that John Logan, scriptwriter for The Aviator, is writing a screenplay.