Early Natural History Filmmaking by Bryony Dixon
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If there is one area of the film business where Britain has always retained an enviable reputation, that is the natural history or wildlife film. As soon as pictures could move, naturalists were desperate to capture on film the subjects of their obsession - birds, bees, flowers, animals and plants of all kinds. Pioneers such as Oliver Pike, Percy Smith, F. Martin Duncan and J.C. Bee-Mason invented the genre, invented their own equipment and methodology, developed techniques and braved the elements to capture images that still fascinate us today. All three had long and fascinating careers as filmmakers and effectively launched the genre that eventually led to such pinnacles of achievement as Planet Earth (BBC, 2006-).
The first views of animals on film in the 1890s cannot really be described as natural history or wildlife films. These were principally views of captive animals, sporting events, hunt gatherings, parades, agricultural shows, farming processes, zoo films and animal acts, where the cameraman was photographing an existing spectacle. Film technology was not sufficiently developed in the 1890s to cope with anything more than this. The length of film (less than a minute) would not allow for the patient recording of the unpredictable movements of wild animals, and there were issues too with focus and manoeuvrability. The noise of the camera was another problem when filming nervous wildlife, and similar methods had to be employed as during the transition to sound film.
The first British film featuring animals in a deliberate set up was made by William K. Dickson for his Biograph Company in London in December 1899, and featured a fight between a tarantula and a scorpion - although arguably this was an opportunistic film of an existing animal act. The first deliberate attempt to portray wildlife on film was Charles Urban's 1903 Unseen World series, drawing mainly on the talents of sequence photographer and lecturer F. Martin Duncan. The series dealt primarily with microscopic creatures delighting in such names as Volvox Globators or Rotifers, mostly delivered straight but some with a surrounding narrative (based on the 1901 W.R. Booth trick film) of a scientist having lunch and examining his cheese under a microscope to find it crawling with mites. The mites were real, and this microscope shot is all that now survives of the film.
Urban's personal mission to use film for education was an important factor in his fostering the careers of wildlife filmmakers such as Percy Smith, and in 1907 he developed the Kineto brand specifically to promote scientific and travel subjects. Oliver Pike, an unusually 'driven' nature photographer with technical flair, made his own film In Birdland (1907), which played at the Palace Theatre in London for six weeks and sold an impressive 100 prints. Pike was picked up by Pathé and contracted to make several films with considerable investment and high production values including beautifully subtle stencil colouring, for distribution all over the world. These set a high standard, and must have had considerable influence on other filmmakers.
These first natural history filmmakers seem to share several traits: a passion for wildlife and the natural world from an early age, technical inventiveness and competence as well as knowledge and, often, physical courage (Oliver Pike, for example, relates tales of filming seabirds from an overhanging cliff). Reflected in the autobiographies and writings which accompany some of the films is a view that this genre of filmmaking has a 'boy's own' quality, conflating healthy outdoor pursuits, adventure, hunting, exploration and fame. J.C. Bee-Mason's films of the Arctic and the 'Green Hell' jungles of Bolivia are indeed exploration films during which he nearly always forgets about the human explorers in favour of the wildlife he encounters. The very act of capturing the glories of nature on film is a noble endeavour and underlying this is the filmmakers' absolute conviction that the public would want to see the resulting images. They were not wrong.
Nature films had a long shelf life and were very popular. Moreover the British filmmakers over long careers developed a 'voice', a mode of expression that was intimate, personal (the films are nearly always one man talking as if to one audience member) and respectful. The hushed voices employed by contemporary naturalist broadcasters, from Sir David Attenborough to Bill Oddie, as they describe some fascinating species is a development of the same approach. The coming of sound led to a slight hiatus in this style. The sound track to Magic Myxies (1931) experimented with a light-hearted, populist and slightly jovial tone, which was quickly slapped down by the educationalists, and although the anthropomorphic tendency creeps back in occasionally, this is, in Britain at least, generally greeted with disapproval. The personal and authoritative style of nature filmmaking was here to stay, and all of the efforts of global players such as Disney could not change it.