F. Percy Smith was a keen amateur naturalist who wished to bring the wonder of the natural world around him to people in a way that not many had attempted, so by using equipment that he largely made himself, he specialised in closeup cinematography of plants and small animals, such as insects and even amoebae. When these arrived in the early years of the twentieth century, they delighted cinema audiences as all the while the scientists looked down on Smith's efforts as reducing their field of interest to mere entertainment for the masses, but he could have legitimately been said to have increased the fascination the British public and beyond would have with nature documentaries that lasts to this day.
All the more appropriate that Smith's work would be revived and taken out of the archives to be spruced up and re-edited into a near-hour-long montage by Stuart A. Staples, the front man of indie band tindersticks who had emerged in the nineteen-nineties as purveyors of an arresting cross between folk and its tales in song, and indie rock, topped off with Staples' distinctive voice. He didn't do a whole lot of singing here, not with lyrics at least, and his group did not really provide traditional songs as the soundtrack was closer to ambient works, albeit carefully themed in sound to be as appropriate to the images as they could possibly render them. The results were closer to a head movie than you imagine Smith ever intended.
We were watching strange landscapes of seemingly far off worlds and their bizarre, alien inhabitants, while at the same time well aware that every visual we witnessed was not only documentary footage captured near the beginning of the twentieth century, but also an accurate depiction of what was going on right outside our windows, life in miniature that so enraptured Smith and had outlasted him, and would outlast us watching. His material was largely microscopic in form, though every so often you would get a larger animal or plants recognisable as that flora rather than tiny spores or the sap pulsing through leaves in minute detail. Indeed, without the titles of the shorts these were drawn from, it was at times difficult to discern what we were seeing.
Thus it became a novelty when we caught something we recognised, as around two thirds of the Staples assemblage of clips were of such a miniscule quality that only the keenest naturalists could be able to identify those blobs and tendrils and teeming dots with any authority. Combined with the music, the effect was either going to be mesmerising as you lost yourself in contemplation, or quite possibly a trigger for the heebie-jeebies as you were reminded of those creeping, crawling creatures and vegetation were closer than you may have preferred to be reminded of. There were no huge blow-ups of spiders munching hapless bluebottles or anything like that, the violence was practically non-existent, but perhaps it was the stark black and white footage that offered an uneasy atmosphere.
Still, there was room for humour. Smith, when he could apparently not capture the clips he wanted, turned to animation, and there's a puppet bee that he used to demonstrate how flowers were pollinated that often turns to the camera as if to say, "Yeah, how d'you like that?", along with more traditional cartoons of newts making baby newts in the form of a moving diagram that anyone who sat through a biology lesson in school that included an illustrative programme would be all too familiar with. But while his animations had their charms and showed off his knowledge in a manner that was never overbearing, purely enthusiastic and in love with its subject, it was the life under the microscope that proved most interesting, from the bud that looked like an awakening face as it opened, to the ant picking up foliage ten times its size. All in all, so captivating that you felt it ended rather abruptly as you were left wanting more; a short clip of Smith himself playing with pet rats was all there was to close on.
[The BFI's Blu-ray has restored a lot of footage for this release, and has a collection of Smith's short films as extras, plus an informative, illustrated booklet.]