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Minute Bodies: The Intimate World of F. Percy Smith on dual format in June

15 MArch 2017

This meditative, immersive film by tindersticks’ Stuart A. Staples is a tribute to the astonishing work and achievements of naturalist, inventor and pioneering British filmmaker F. Percy Smith (1880-1945), whose pioneering films featured in the documentary The Creeping Garden, which was recently released on Blu-ray and DVD by Arrow Academy (a review is coming soon). After its screening in the BFI London Film Festival last October, Minute Bodies: The Intimate World of F. Percy Smith will be released by the BFI on DVD and Blu-ray in a Dual Format Edition on 12 June 2017 at the RRP of £19.99 with additional special features comprising of eight short films from the Secrets of Nature series, made by both F. Percy Smith and his fellow filmmaker Mary Field.

The film will be screened with a live score performed by tindersticks at the at the Barbican, London, on Saturday 17 June (one of a series of live cine-concert events). The film and soundtrack will be released by City Slang on 9 June on Limited Edition LP and DVD as well as on CD and DVD.

Since its London premiere, Minute Bodies has been screened at a host of film festivals including International Film Festival Rotterdamn, Gothenburg Film Festival and Dublin International Film Festival. Screenings lined up this year include FabioFest Prague, Thessaloniki International Film Festival, Istanbul Film Festival, BAFICI, Buenos Aires and Indelisboa, Lisbon. Minute Bodies will also be an installation at the Pompidou centre, Metz, as part of the much anticipated exhibition 'Jardin Infini' from 18 April – 28 August.

Working in a London studio in the early years of the 20th century, Percy Smith developed the use of time-lapse, animation and micro-photographic techniques to capture nature's secrets in action.

Minute Bodies: The intimate world of F. Percy Smith is an interpretative work that combines Smith's original film footage – preserved within the BFI National Archive – with a new contemporary score by tindersticks with Thomas Belhom and Christine Ott. It creates a hypnotic, alien yet familiar dreamscape that connects us to the sense of wonder Smith must have felt as he peered through his own lenses and saw these micro-worlds for the first time.


Director Stuart A. Staples says:

“Radiating from within the classic ‘Secrets of Nature’* educational film series is the pure, breath-taking photography of Frank Percy Smith. Mostly filmed at his north London home using equipment designed and built by himself, his work seems as fresh and bewildering today as when it was first screened.

From a small glimpse of that work, I was compelled to learn more. The more I saw, the more I felt a need to collaborate with this F. Percy Smith. I felt the beauty and adventure in his images to be somehow trapped within their time and format. As I started to cut them loose, the musical forms and connections began to emerge.

My main aim for Minute Bodies is that it invites Smith’s work to breathe and exist in the present. Smith was a major, unique figure. His work transcends the constraints of its time, and now it teaches us about patience, commitment, ingenuity and determination.”

Presented for the first time in High Definition, Minute Bodies utilises footage from several of the Secrets of Nature films alongside a number of other Smith films, which are yet to be seen by contemporary audiences.

F. Percy Smith himself once said:

“The world now sacrifices everything to speed; quiet seems to be regarded as a detestable condition to be ex­purgated by any means which applied science can devise; and this state of affairs does not encourage the production of the type of individual who can satisfy himself in an investigation of the hidden beauties of Nature.”

F. Percy Smith - biography:

A dapper man in a fancy waistcoat, wearing protective gloves and goggles, endeavours to feed two baby herons who seem intent on biting the hand that feeds them. The man is Percy Smith (1880-1945), doyen of interwar natural history filmmaking, performing for the camera in one of the shorts he made for the American entrepreneur Charles Urban in the years immediately after the First World War. In the years afterwards, as he became increasingly well-known he disappeared behind the camera, but for occasional sightings of his hands. As a cameraman specialising in time-lapse, microcinematography and pond-scale underwater filming, he had no peer in his period of activity.

Already a keen amateur naturalist and photographer, Smith had come to Urban’s attention in 1908, more than a decade after he had joined the Board of Education as a clerk, aged 14. In that same year they released The Balancing Bluebottle, a series of close-ups of a tethered insect seeming to juggle various objects. It became a sensation, inspiring not only fascination and amusement but even some political cartoons. In 1910 came his The Birth of a Flower, probably one of the very first time-lapse films to be seen by the general public, so amazing to an early audience that they refused to leave the cinema until it was rewound to be shown again. These films are emblematic of Smith’s signature capabilities: knowledge of, and sensitivity to, the plants and animals that were his subjects; and a knack for creating gimcrack devices to film the almost unfilmable. Cuckoo clocks, cocoa tins and alarm clocks could be modified to become the timing devices that would enable the time-lapse exposures to continue day and night, feather boas could be deconstructed to make animated bees, and drawings could be animated to show what could not be filmed.

Birth of a Flower was so successful that Smith could devote himself full-time to filmmaking, establishing a ramshackle studio in his new house and its greenhouse in Southgate, north of London. By 1914, he had made 54 films for Urban, for whom he provided footage until 1923. After some difficult years, he benefited from the decision of British film entrepreneur Harry Bruce Woolfe to move into nature films. Smith joined Woolfe from 1925, staying until his death twenty years later, providing the footage for well in excess of 50 films in the Secrets of Nature series and its successor, Secrets of Life. He was often the subject of profiles in newspapers and popular magazines. He was also highly respected; the biologist HR Hewer described him as ‘a genius with apparatus’ and explained that ‘Smith understood to a very great extent what he was filming because he was an amateur biologist of distinction’.

– Tim Boon, The Science Museum London, author of Films of Fact (2008)