Film

A Documentarian Who Recorded Nature’s Tiniest Creatures

For his debut film, Minute Bodies, musician turned director Stuart A. Staples has chosen to highlight an all but unknown British documentarian and naturalist.

Frank Percy Smith (undated) (all images courtesy BFI and Icarus Films)

Rare is the musician who turns to filmmaking. Stuart A. Staples, frontman for the Tindersticks — known for dour, sour, sad-sack ballads of doomed romance — joins the likes of Frank Sinatra, Prince, and Rob Zombie in stepping behind the camera to direct. For his debut, the wondrous Minute Bodies: The Intimate World of F. Percy Smith (2016), Staples has chosen an all but unknown person to highlight.

Born in 1880, Frank Percy Smith was a British documentarian and naturalist. He had an unalloyed passion for technology and the molecular world around him, the two manifesting in his breakthrough use of time-lapse film (or “time magnification” as he called it) and microcinematography. Both were the autodidact’s own innovations, later coopted by filmmakers who never explicitly credited him for his pioneering effects. He was an amateur in the best sense. All in the name of education and entertainment, he recorded and revealed hidden aspects of nature, no matter the subject matter. Whether chronicling the lifecycle of a newt, revealing the micro-organisms multiplying in a wine glass full of hay, or the activities of slime fungus — his love shines through. Staples calls Percy Smith’s interest “a boy scout’s curiosity.”

Stuart A Staples (undated)

Scientists at the time frowned upon Percy Smith’s films, which he made for Charles Urban Trading Company, British Instructional Films, and others. They scoffed at the way in which the shorts anthropomorphized the natural world. In “The Acrobatic Fly” (1910), for instance, a housefly is seen upside down twirling a blade of grass, a pebble, and a piece of wood with its many legs, as if it were a circus performer. Percy Smith, however, defended such decisions, saying “a certain element of novelty or humor was often a great assistance” in “introducing educational pictures to the republic.”

Still from Minute Bodies: The Intimate World of F. Percy Smith

There is a third element associated with the shorts, one of amazement, that Staples teases out in his hour-long film. Compiled from an assortment of clips, and arranged in thematic and tonal segments, Minute Bodies concentrates on the awe-inducing quality of Percy Smith’s footage. That means Staples removes the dry voiceover narration and the distracting “Mickey Mousing” in the original shorts. What remains is Smith’s photography in all its glory: recording everything from bees to tadpoles, from undulating roots to blossoming flowers. In one brief moment, there’s a clock placed next to a plant’s roots. As the hands of the timepiece steadily spin, the photography reveals the inching, slow movement of the roots. And it’s not all live footage either. Staples even includes Percy Smith’s animation work. Taken from “Bedtime Stories of Archie the Ant: Pit and the Plum,” you see detailed 2D animation of the insect that convincingly looks three-dimensional.

Still from Minute Bodies: The Intimate World of F. Percy Smith

Adding to Minute Bodies’s sense of wonder is the score, which Staples and the Tindersticks conduct, along with Thomas Belhom and Christine Ott. With each segment the music evolves, resembling the texture of jazz, to something more delicate, to even echoing tinges of the cosmic score Staples uses in High Life (2018), his recent collaboration with French filmmaker Claire Denis. In a way, Minute Bodies calls to mind Bill Morrison’s cinema. Although both use differing approaches, they achieve a similar effect of impressing upon the viewer a sensation. Working with musicians and composers like Bill Frisell, Jóhann Jóhannsson, and Michael Gordon, Morrison creates trancelike mood pieces assembled from decaying, deteriorating found footage. With a pop music mentality, putting a selection of shorts to various orchestral tracks, Staples adds many hues to the sense of the sublime inherent in Percy Smith’s work.

Minute Bodies is an out of left field work for Staples. It’s a showcase for Percy Smith’s cinema. Staples pries the footage from their original contexts to concentrate on the universal appeal of the visuals. It’s a simple film, but a loving one all the same, and Staples knows a thing or two about that, albeit more on the downbeat side.

Icarus Films will release Minute Bodies on DVD and the iTunes and Amazon streaming platforms on May 7.

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