Where the wild things are

Percy Smith

Percy Smith (left), from F.A. Talbot’s Moving Pictures: How They are Made and Worked (1912)

It’s been a long time in coming, but it’s been well worth the wait. Today saw the launch of WildFilmHistory, a site dedicated to recognising 100 years (so they say) of wildlife filmmaking. Produced by the Wildscreen Trust and supported by Lottery funding, this is a multimedia guide to one hundred years of natural history filmmaking, from the pioneering days when stop-motion films of flowers opening wowed them in the music halls to the age of Attenborough and beyond.

The site is biographical in focus, and at its centre are ninety-one (so far) mini-biographies of wildlife filmmakers, twenty-nine of them with accompanying oral history recordings, which very usefully come with PDF transcripts. So you get interviews with the likes of David Attenborough, Hans and Lotte Haas, Desmond Morris, Tony Soper and the late Gerald Thompson, but also the academic Derek Bousé, whose excellent history Wildlife Films investigates our period – more of which below. There’s also a very useful timeline.

But of greatest value for our purposes are the film clips of early wildlife films. There are thirteen of them (many from the British Film Institute collection):

  • Das Boxende Känguruh (1895) – Max Skladanowsky’s film of a boxing kangaroo and its trainer Mr Delaware.
  • Rough Sea at Dover (1895) – Something of a surprise choice, Birt Acres’ self-explanatory film which they argue is “considered by some to be the first natural history orientated film”.
  • Pelicans at the Zoo (1898) – Pelicans at Regent’s Park Zoo, made by the British Mutoscope and Biograph Company, a breathtakingly beautiful film if seen on 35mm (it was originally shot on 70mm), a little more prosiac in Flash.
  • Spiders on a Web (1900) – A new one on me. This was apparently made by G.A. Smith and features two spiders in close-up, viewed through a circular mask (but no web to be seen). Clearly an extract from a longer film.
  • St. Kilda, Its People and Birds (1908) – Made by Oliver Pike, this shows both human and animal life on St kilda, off Scotland, at a time when it was still inhabited by people.
  • The Birth of a Flower (1910) – Exquisite stop-motion photography of flowers opening, complete with stencil colouring, made by the great Percy Smith for Charles Urban.
  • The History of a Butterfly – A Romance of Insect Life (1910) – A fully-fledged natural history film, made by James Williamson, with a fair bit of nitrate damage to remind us of the precious state in which some of these films survive.
  • The Strength and Agility of Insects (1911) – Eye-popping pyrotechnics performed by flies, who juggle corks, twirl matchsticks etc. This is actually a re-issue of an earlier film, The Balancing Bluebottle (1908), filmed by our hero of the era, Percy Smith, for Charles Urban once again. No animals was injured during the making of this film (honest).
  • Secrets of Nature: The Sparrow-Hawk (1922) – One of the famous British Instructional Films series of educational films from the 1920s/30s, this was made by Captain C.W. R. Knight (the site’s synopsis mistakenly says in one place that Percy Smith made the film, though he was associated with many Secrets of Nature productions) (Captain Knight turns up twenty years later as the eagle-tamer in Powell and Pressburger’s I Know Where I’m Going, trivia fans).
  • Secrets of Nature: The Cuckoo’s Secret (1922) – Another title from The Secrets of Nature, this time filmed by Oliver Pike and produced by ornithologist Edgar Chance
  • With Cherry Kearton in the Jungle (1926) – Cherry Kearton was the most celebrated naturalist of the era, and with his brother Richard more or less pioneered the art of wildlife photography and then cinematography. This is a ‘greatest hits’ compilation of some of his African natural history films.
  • Simba (1928) – An African travelogue (extracts only) made by the enterprising American couple Martin and Osa Johnson, blending actuality with staged scenes, and alarmingly also blending shooting with both camera and gun.
  • Dassan: An Adventure in Search of Laughter Featuring Nature’s Greatest Little Comedians (1930) – Cherry Kearton anticipates The March of the Penguins by several decades.

And so it continues up to the present day, with many marvellous clips which both amaze and cause a sigh of happy nostalgia (Zoo Quest, Jacques Cousteau). A little oddly, the site includes pages for films that they haven’t tracked down yet – these include Oliver Pike’s In Birdland (1907), which they argue was the first true wildlife film (hence the centenary), but unfortunately no copy is known to exist.

This is a very well produced site, on which a huge amount of effort has been expended on clearing and producing the clips, esearching the history, and presenting the interviews. The early film clips are wonderful to see, even if I miss one or two titles that I think should have been there (e.g. Herbert Ponting’s fine penguin footage from his films of Captain Scott’s Antarctic expedition). The site opens up the history of wildlife film, demonstrating an interconnected heritage, championing excellence, and encouraging us all to find out more.

Wildlife Films

So, if you are interested in finding out more, where should you go? Well, as mentioned, I strongly recomennd Derek Bousé’s Wildlife Films (2000). This is a first-rate history of wildlife filmmaking and television production, good not only on the plain history but on the mysteries of the genre, which ever since its earliest days has had to adopt assorted entertainment strategies, particularly storytelling, to make its work palatable to a mass public. It is thoughtful and informative. Also recommended is the similarly thought-provoking Animals in Film (2002) by Jonathan Burt. There’s also the recent BBC publication, Michael Bright’s 100 Years of Wildlife (2007), which is aimed at the popular end of the market, but does at least name check people such as Kearton, Smith and Urban.

WildFilmHistory is a wonderful resource, which promises to grow and welcomes any information on new material that they might use. In the spirit of the great filmmakers it champions, go explore.

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