F. Percy Smith

Frank Percy Smith (1880-1945) was one of the most innovative cinematographers of the twentieth century. He was a pioneer of early nature cinematography. Described by one contemporary as a ‘wizard’, Percy Smith mastered the techniques of microcinematography and fast-motion photography, helping him to create spellbinding images of microscopic animals or plants in motion. His house in Southgate, in the suburbs of London, served as his studio. There, he tinkered with a series of increasingly complex contraptions. Smith’s wife Kate and his assistant Phyllis Bolté were also recruited to aid him with his experiments.

Smith began to experiment with microscopy in the early 1900s, which became his principal distraction from his day job as a clerk at the Board of Education. He was a member of the Quekett Microscopical Club, a group of enthusiasts who exchanged slides and published a journal, which Smith edited for six years between 1904 and 1910. During this time, he also gave public lectures on natural history topics. Smith was approached in 1908 by Charles Urban, an American empresario who established a film empire in Britain at the turn of the century, and had grand ambitions about the potential for film to serve as an educational tool. One of his earliest silent films for Charles Urban was The Birth of the Flower (1910), which showed various different flowers opening their petals in fast motion and was instant success. During the First World War, Smith made films for the Naval Air Service. He joined the Secrets team in 1925, and produced footage for the series until his death in 1945. His signature style became firmly associated with the Secrets.

In a speech to the London Scientific Film Society, H. Bruce Woolfe remembered Smith’s studio-laboratory:

On most shelves, window sills, tables etc., would be ranged jars with greenish water containing cultures and specimens of various sorts. Once he undertook to make a film of fungus and installed a number of cultures in various parts of the house. Unfortunately when the film was finished the star artists refused to make their final exit and in spite of all that Smith could do to convince them that he had finished with their services, they insisted for months afterwards in continually popping up in unexpected places.

Further reading:

Bryony Dixon, ‘F. Percy Smith’, BFI Screenonline.

Brian Stevenson, ‘Frank Percy Smith’, Microscopist Online.

Luke McKernan, ‘Smith, (Frank) Percy (1880–1945), Film-Maker and Naturalist’, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

Luke McKernan, Charles Urban: Pioneering the Non-Fiction Film in Britain and America, 1897-1925, Exeter Studies in Film History (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2015).

Oliver Gaycken, Devices of Curiosity: Early Cinema and Popular Science (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

Tim Boon, ‘The Balancing Bluebottle’, BBC Radio 4 Extra.

Irene Wilson, ‘His Name Was Smith’, The Cine-Tecnician, no. 54 (1945)

O. Blakeston, ‘Personally about Percy Smith’, Close Up, Vol. 8 No. 2 (1931)

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