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Birth of a Flower, The (1910)


Main image of Birth of a Flower, The (1910)
35mm, black and white (tinted), silent, 500 feet
Production CompanyKineto
Director of PhotographyF. Percy Smith

Time lapse photography applied to the flowering of plants.

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The Birth of a Flower (1910) was the film that brought Percy Smith firmly into the public eye. Mesmerising time -lapse photography captures the poetry of flowers opening their petals to the light. This was something new and exciting for cinemagoers of the time and it is reported that the film received riotous applause and requests for immediate repeat screenings.

We see the following plants bloom before our very eyes: hyacinths, crocuses, snowdrops, neapolitan onion flowers, narcissi, Japanese lilies, garden anemones and roses. Smith modified his cinematography set-up with candle wicks, pieces of meccano, door handles and gramophone needles to film these flowers in motion. He set up a system whereby growth could be filmed even while he slept, a large bell being set to ring and wake him if any part of the process malfunctioned.

The film obtained a remarkable amount of press coverage with newspaper reporters as well as the film trade being entranced by this beautiful display of nature in action. In Smith's own personal scrapbook an unidentified newspaper journalist states that the film: "may be regarded as the highest achievement yet obtained in the combined efforts of science, art and enterprise."

Jenny Hammerton

Percy Smith's films of various insects seen juggling tiny objects caused an absolute furore when they were first shown to the public in 1908. This was unlike anything cinemagoers had seen before and there was much debate as to how Smith had 'taught' the little creatures to twirl match sticks, manipulate corks and waggle tiny dumbbells. The filmmaker was forced to justify his methods in the press, guaranteeing that there was no trickery involved and certainly no cruelty.

Still images from the film were featured in newspapers and magazines and the subject inspired poetry and political cartoons; this obviously pleased Smith greatly. He was humble in print, however, stating that his intention in making the film was of course to entertain the public, but also to demonstrate the strength and agility of those insects we might unthinkingly squash or swat when they settle on our lunch.

There were several different versions of this film. The version featured here includes a scorpion grasping a matchbox, an ant holding a match, and flies and fleas juggling various small objects. Alas, the much-debated footage of a fly dressed as a nurse holding a small model baby is missing from this version. Shame!

Jenny Hammerton

*This film is included on the BFI DVD compilation 'Science is Fiction / The Sounds of Science: The films of Jean Painlevé.

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Video Clips
Complete film (7:32)
Crocuses (0:21)
Daffodils (0:42)
Garden Anemones (1:30)
Hyacinths (0:58)
Japanese Lilies (0:51)
Narcissi (0:49)
Neapolitan Onion (0:29)
Roses (0:34)
Snowdrops (0:23)
Tulips (0:44)
Private Life of Plants, The (1995)
Smith, F. Percy (1880-1945)
British Instructional Films (1919-1933)
A Year in Film: 1910
Early Natural History Filmmaking