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Skilled Insect Artisans (1922)


Main image of Skilled Insect Artisans (1922)
For Secrets of Nature
35mm, black and white, silent
Production CompanyBritish Instructional Films

The life cycles of the ailanthus silk moth and the red admiral butterfly.

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This early film from the Secrets of Nature series (1922-33) was directed by Edgar Chance, best known for the same year's The Cuckoo's Secret, a scientist who had a clear vision of what he wanted to achieve with his films. Here, his emphasis is on introducing the viewer to the development of two silk-spinning caterpillars.

At the time this film was made, rayon (known as 'art silk') was emerging as a viable alternative to natural silk. Perhaps as a way of reminding audiences of insects' natural ingenuity in the face of man's ongoing attempts to synthesise natural materials, Chance uses fixed close-ups and time-lapse photography to portray efficiently how the caterpillars of both species, presented as 'skilled artisans', expertly weave their cocoons from nature's wonder fibre.

Skilled Insect Artisans is consistent with an early 20th-century tendency to anthropomorphism that portrayed various insects in terms of their behavioural resemblance to human activities, especially labour. For example, in 1912, William Claxton published his book for children, Insect Workers, in which he presented insects as tailors, masons, carpenters, bricklayers, and so on. Chance recognised the educational potency of this kind of analogy, and so describes the Red Admiral caterpillar's bending of the leaf as making a 'tent' and, in conjunction with time-lapse footage of its development from caterpillar to pupa, provides an intertitle description of it as a 'quick change artist'. These kinds of analogies were generally accepted at the time as useful for explaining unfamiliar aspects of insect life to a general audience. In conjunction with close-up shots, which have the effect of generating magnified intimacy with the subjects portrayed, Chance was able to produce a fine example of the early insect film - as endearing as it is educational.

Adam Dodd

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Video Clips
1. The silkmoth caterpillar (2:07)
Secrets of Nature (1922-33)