Science on Film

Date: 06/12/2016 10:56

Charles Urban, an Anglo-American producer, is one of the most important figures in the early film industry. He rose to prominence at the turn of the Twentieth Century with productions that tended to focus on themes of travel, education and science. His particular interest in the scientific film led to the creation of the groundbreaking series, 'Unseen World'. Launched at London's Alhambra Theatre in 1903, these films were a showcase for the micro-cinematography of F.M. Duncan and the fascinating zoological studies of Percy Smith.

Soon, such scientific films were finding an avid audience among the general public, as well as producers who could see itheir educational potential. This collision between the moving image and scientific observation proved fruitful, encouraging the dissemination of hitherto little-known knowledge and a sense of wonder and fascination with the natural world. For whilst audiences' initial reaction may have been shock or disgust, ultimately, curiosity would win out.

It was due to Charles Urban’s company and his talented collaborators, that popular science films were on the rise. They demonstrated the allure of mechanically-produced images, those that merged together nature with scientific magic. Typical of such films is Cheese Mites (1903). Produced for Charles Urban by F.M. Duncan, Cheese Mites - as the title suggests - explores the microscopic world of cheese and mites. It is a clever combination of microcosmic nature documentary and humorous trick film. The man in the opening is Duncan himself.





Duncan continued to work with Urban until 1908, at which time he was succeeded by Percy Smith. Smith was a pioneer in his field, inventing and honing dazzlingly original methods for recording microscopic life - such as time-lapse photography - techniques which are now widespread amongst nature documentarians. Percy’s pioneering stop-motion film The Birth of the Flower (1910), a time lapse predecessor, is an astonishing work of great quality - just imagine making a stop-motion picture with the technology available in 1910!



The Acrobatic Fly (1910) stars a fly juggling various objects. objects many times its own body weight. The film was originally dismissed as a fake and Percy was forced to justify his methods and prove there was no trickery involved. In fact, the fly was tied on its back, wriggling in frustrated attempts to fly. This film is a striking example of the fluidity of genres. Entertaining, yes, but it also demonstrates the agility and strength of insects we daily encounter and whose amazing characteristics we rarely consider. 

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