J. V. Durden

Joseph Valentine Durden [known professionally as J. V. Durden] was a cinemicrographer who joined the Secrets team in 1935, after the move to Gaumont-British Instructional. Durden became one of the principal cinematographers in the Secrets of Life series, and rapidly adopted Percy Smith’s enthusiasm for laboratory-based films. Unlike Smith, however, Durden was formally trained as a scientist, and he had gained a degree in Biology and Entomology at the Royal College of Science (London).  In 1934, he was the official photographer on a plant collecting expedition in Basutoland (present-day Lesotho). Spending time in South Africa, he happened to see a Secrets film in Cape Town and resolved to become a cinemicrographer.

Durden’s work focussed on G.B.I’s educational films in zoology, which were supervised by Julian Huxley and Durden’s former university tutor, H. R. Hewer. His film The Sea Urchin (1935) was awarded the top prize for a scientific film at the International Exhibition in Brussels in 1935. Although Durden had taken an interest in natural history photography from a young age, he likely learned many of his skills in stop-motion and cinemicrography from F. Percy Smith. For most of the 1930s, he made films for the GBI biology series, as well as contributing footage to Secrets of Life. Durden became an expert cinemicrographer, building on the techniques used by F. Percy Smith, and incorporating new methods as these were discovered, including the use of phase-contrast microscopy and colour cinematography. Durden was instrumental to the development of the first series of Secrets of Life released in colour, which were made using the Dufaycolor process and were released in 1939. The Kinematograph Weekly, on viewing these films, wrote that ‘the manner in which colour enhanced the interest was very evident’.

Durden appears to have defined the term ciné-biology, which served as a way to describe the multiple contributions that film could have on the practice and dissemination of science. For Durden, it was also an identity: he described himself as a ciné-biology, and wished to be recognised as a ‘peculiar hybrid’, a scientist-filmmaker. In particular, Durden felt that the potential contributions that film could make in scientific research were insufficiently recognised. ‘That the film is not more widely recognised and employed,’ he wrote, ‘as a most valuable tool and method of record in the hands of the scientific fraternity, is a fact which has amazed and disquieted me for a long time.’

In 1938, Durden co-directed And Now They Rest (1939), a survey of the fading tradition of working windmills. He worked alongside Brian Salt, whose principal specialism was in animation: in this respect it was an unusual film to make for both directors. However, through his association with both Salt and Percy Smith, Durden is likely to have learned his skills in animation, which he put to use during the Second World War, when he worked at the Army Kinematograph Service (AKS), making instructional films for military training. In 1949, he wrote the script for Atomic Energy, which was awarded a BAFTA ‘Special Award’.

After the war, Durden established his own specialist company to supply specialist science footage, Photomicrography Ltd., and made a series of ten films for the Shell Film Unit (SFU). Led by Arthur Elton, a director committed to industrial and scientific filmmaking, Shell was one of the principal documentary film units in Britain, and continued to sponsor an extensive programmes of films at a time – the 1950s – when the film industry in Britain was experiencing difficulties. Durden’s films for Shell covered mostly entomological subjects, including raspberry beetle, the apple aphis and the red spider, as well as one film about brown rot, a fungus affecting apples. At this time, Shell was expanding its business into by-products of petroleum, and this included the production of chemical pesticides, many of which were designed to kill the agricultural pests illustrated in Durden’s films. Durden was supervised by H.G.H. Kearns of the Long Aston Research Station, but overall was pleased with the freedom he was granted in producing the films and called it “a job after my own heart”.

However, this situation did not last long, and after his contract was terminated by Shell, Durden found himself working freelance, unable to secure stable employment in the kind of laboratory-studio that he desired to lead. In 1952, he emigrated to Canada, where he helped to establish a Science Film Unit at the National Film Board of Canada (NFB), and produced several important films, including The Colour of Life (1955), a film about the maple tree, and Embryonic Development: The Chick (1953). These films showed Durden’s mature style, with a particular mastery in the use of colour for biological subjects.

Embryonic Development: The Chick (1953). Image: National Film Board of Canada

However, Durden was dissatisfied with his position in Canada, and in 1962 he accepted a job at Educational Services, Inc. (later renamed Educational Development Centre) in Boston. Here, finally, Durden felt that he had at his disposal the necessary resources and institutional support to conduct his work properly. Driven by Cold War fears over the US’s perceived scientific inferiority, the National Science Foundation (NSF) was pouring money into science education in the 1960s, and Durden’s work benefitted from this stimulus. It was an NSF-funded initiative, the Developmental Biology Film Series, which arguably constitutes Durden’s biggest contribution to scientific filmmaking. Durden was the principal cinematographer for these films, which were supervised by leading scientists and were intended for advanced biology classroom work. These films had a powerful impact on the evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis, who used the films in her own teaching, and was even inspired to make her own research films. Margulis, who was still using the films in 2010, initiated a campaign to restore and digitize the films, calling her efforts “the most important contribution I have made to science in my lifetime”. The films were recently digitised and are available to view here.

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