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Smith, F. Percy (1880-1945)

Director, Producer, Photography

Main image of Smith, F. Percy (1880-1945)

Frank Percy Smith was born in London in 1880. He was keen to exploit the educational possibilities of film, but employment at the Board of Education offered little opportunity, and he began working for the film entrepreneur Charles Urban, who had been impressed with his photograph of a bluebottle's tongue. During the First World War, Smith made a series of films depicting battles through animated maps and worked as a Naval photographer. When the war was over he turned to comedy with The Bedtime Stories of Archie the Ant (1925), featuring insect characters in a natural environment, but his real love was the 'Secrets of Nature' series he made for British Instructional Films. Beginning in 1922, the series continued into the '30s, when it became 'Secrets of Life', and thrived until Smith's death in 1945. Technological changes such as the coming of sound were easily absorbed - commentary worked equally well as inter-titles or spoken words and Smith's films fascinated successive generations just as David Attenborough's wildlife documentaries have on television.

Smith was a true pioneer, inventing original (and bizarre) methods for time lapse and micro cinematography, involving all kinds of home-made devices, including alarms all over his home to wake him up in the middle of the night if the film in the camera needed changing. With endless patience, he could spend up to two and a half years to complete a film. He also had the popular touch, with the happy knack (as he put it himself) of being able to feed his audience "the powder of instruction in the jam of entertainment". Modern film technique could hardly better the results achieved by Smith in the first decades of the century and his early masterpiece Birth of a Flower (1910) has never been out of distribution. In the '30s Smith tended to rely on his colleagues, Mary Field and H.R Hewer, to direct, while he concentrated on his painstaking photography. He died at his home in Southgate, North London, on 24 March 1945.

Talbot, Frederick A, Moving Pictures: How They are Made and Worked (London: William Heinemann, 1912)
Low, Rachael, A History of the British Film 1906-1914 (London: Allen & Unwin, 1949)
Blakeston, Oswell, 'Personally About Percy Smith', Close-Up, v. 8, n. 2, June 1931, pp. 143-146
'Percy Smith' (Obituary), Sight and Sound, April 1945, pp. 6-7

Bryony Dixon

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From the BFI's filmographic database

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Birth of a Flower, The (1910)Birth of a Flower, The (1910)

Beautiful and groundbreaking stop-motion film

Thumbnail image of Fight for the Dardanelles (1915)Fight for the Dardanelles (1915)

Curious film using animated maps to explain a WWI campaign

Thumbnail image of Magic Myxies (1931)Magic Myxies (1931)

Time-lapse study of the extraordinary Myxomycete, or slime fungus

Thumbnail image of Strength and Agility of Insects, The (1911)Strength and Agility of Insects, The (1911)

Bizarre and fascinating film featuring assorted performing insects

Thumbnail image of To Demonstrate How Spiders Fly (1909)To Demonstrate How Spiders Fly (1909)

Extraordinary educational animation

Thumbnail image of World in a Wine-Glass, The (1931)World in a Wine-Glass, The (1931)

Microscopic study of life in a glassful of water

Related collections

Thumbnail image of Early Natural History FilmmakingEarly Natural History Filmmaking

Early wildlife filmmaking

Thumbnail image of Science in Non-Fiction FilmScience in Non-Fiction Film

Science presents itself on the big screen

Thumbnail image of Secrets of Nature (1922-33)Secrets of Nature (1922-33)

Groundbreaking early natural history film series

Related people and organisations

Thumbnail image of Field, Mary (1896-1968)Field, Mary (1896-1968)

Producer, Director, Consultant

Thumbnail image of Pike, Oliver (1877-1963)Pike, Oliver (1877-1963)

Director, Photographer

Thumbnail image of Urban, Charles (1867-1942)Urban, Charles (1867-1942)

Producer, Distributor

Thumbnail image of British Instructional Films (1919-1933)British Instructional Films (1919-1933)

Production Company