F Percy Smith


Frank Percy Smith was born in Islington on 12 January 1880, only child of print compositor Francis David Smith and his wife Ada Blaker. Leaving school at 14 he went to work as a clerk for the Board of Education.

His boyhood fascination with insects became a serious hobby as he constructed his own makeshift microscope, and experimented with close-up photography. When he was 19 he joined the Quekett Microscopical Club, and soon began giving natural history lectures illustrated by his own slides. He contributed a comprehensive article on British spiders to Science-Gossip, a magazine for amateur naturalists, and also provided illustrations for other contributors. In 1907, aged 27, he married Kate Louise Ustonson, a spectacle maker whose brothers and late father were opticians.

By gluing a thread to a fly so that while free to move it could be tethered in one spot, Smith was able to take some remarkable close-up photographs, including some of it drinking milk from a spoon with its tongue. When these photos were shown to film distributor and producer Charles Urban he lent Smith a motion picture camera to see what he could produce. Urban was interested in all aspects of cinema including education, and had recently formed a subsidiary company, Kineto, for the production of scientific and non-fiction films.

Smith filmed various close-up shots of insect behaviour, and when asked to make a film that would engage a general audience he fixed a fly on its back on a podium and filmed it rotating various objects with its legs like a circus foot juggler. This film, The Balancing Bluebottle, was released in 1908 but apparently failed to achieve Smith's aim of showcasing the grip and strength of a fly's legs because some audiences, familiar with trick films such as Arthur Melbourne-Cooper's Professor Bunkum's Performing Flea (1907), simply didn't believe the fly was real.

Not that Smith was adverse to camera tricks. His purpose was to demonstrate natural history, and when actual footage was not sufficiently clear he looked for alternatives, using stop-frame animation of a model spider spinning out a thread and then reeling it in for his 1909 film To Demonstrate How Spiders Fly, and time-lapse filming to show The Birth of a Flower (1910). He also appeared as the on-screen performer in W R Booth's trick film Animated Cotton (1910). This is not a stop-frame film — the trick here is reverse filming of embroidered images being unravelled. (Reversed filming was achieved by mounting the camera upside down: when the resulting film is turned so that the image is the correct way up the order of the frames is reversed, the first frame becoming the last.) Smith's participation may suggest he had some involvement in devising the premise of this film. It may be that Smith worked with Booth on other trick films, possibly including model animation. He had already directed some trick films himself: Chemical Portraiture and Dissolving the Government (both 1909) may have involved stop-frame animation, or perhaps some other effect — the latter involved images of politicians "melting" from one to another.

Smith initially supplied Urban with close-up footage of insect behaviour filmed in his spare time. But in 1910, unable to interest the Board of Education in an educational film department, he quit his job and joined Urban full time, taking over from the pioneer microscopic photographer F Martin Duncan, who had been making natural history films for Urban since 1903. In the 1911 census Smith gave his occupation as "Photographic Expert" in Kinematography, and later that year he and Kate moved to number 2 Kings Villas, Chase Road, Southgate, London N14, where he turned the conservatory into a studio.

With the outbreak of war in 1914 Smith spotted another opportunity to promote cinema's ability to inform and explain. Newspapers were illustrating reports of battles with maps and diagrams, but these tended to be hard to follow. Smith realised that an animated diagram could show the progress of a battle clearly. The first Kineto War Map was released on 22 October 1914. According to Rachael Low in her History of British Film it was well received, and the criticisms that too wide a field of operation was maintained and that the movements were too rapid, were promptly acted on by Smith: in the second film the camera cut in to show closer sections of the battle, and the timing was better paced.

Smith made a total of 15 films in the series, which ended in the summer of 1916 when he was called up for military service. Reviewing No. 6 (1 July 1915) The Bioscope summed up the series thus:

The achievement of the Kineto War Maps is to place before one in concentrated form the true significance of various intricate and extensive operations. In a few minutes, they make absolutely clear and comprehensible important facts which the average reader finds it difficult to grasp fully from the muddle of official communiques and unofficial comments. Better than any verbal explanations these animated diagrams assist one to gauge the exact value and meaning of involved military evolutions which are often so perplexing to the lay mind when dealt with in the ordinary manner. It may almost be said, indeed, that these Kineto maps are essential to a proper understanding of the War.

Kineto tried to get Smith exempted from conscription on the grounds that his work in "educational and scientific film production" was vital to the company: "There is no other firm carrying on this class of business and no other man who can carry out the work." When they were turned down they persuaded Smith to appeal on medical grounds (he had had rheumatic fever, followed by several bouts of related sickness when he was 20) but this too was turned down and he was conscripted into the Navy. Smith served as a photographer with the Royal Naval Air Service until the end of the War in 1918 and was then transfered to the newly-formed Royal Air Force Reserve at Chingford, progressing from Air Mechanic I to Sergeant Mechanic before being deemed discharged at the end of April 1920. (Service records give his height as 5 foot 6 inches, his hair and eyes as brown and his complexion as fresh.)

On his return he found that Charles Urban had gone back to his native America. He made a few films for Kineto, now the UK arm of the Kineto Company of America, but there was little demand for his specialised form of filmmaking. By the end of 1922 he was considering other options and planned a series of animated children's films under the title Bedtime Stories of Archie the Ant.

However, in 1922 producer Harry Bruce Woolfe, who had started British Instructional Films in 1919 to make documentaries, launched a series of natural history films under the banner Secrets of Nature, and soon Smith was back at work supplying films for this series.

Initially he worked on the Bedtime Stories of Archie the Ant inbetween his Secrets of Nature films. But in 1925 he abandoned the animated series to concentrate on the natural history films.

The Bedtime Stories of Archie the Ant

The Bedtime Stories of Archie the Ant is a curious mix of anthropomorphic whimsy and entomological observation using painstaking cutout animation. The artwork consists of 2D cutouts, but a sense of three dimensions is created by several means. Rather than pressing the characters flat against a flat background Smith allows them to cast shadows on a slightly built up ground — the distant background is painted black, so no shadows are visible there — and a series of cutouts showing the body parts turning in perspective enable him to create some convincing three dimensional turning.

Denis Gifford, in his Filmography British Animated Films, 1895-1985 cites three episodes: 1) Bertie's Cave, 2) The Pit and the Plum and 3) The Tale of a Tendril. He gives a brief (and not particularly accurate) synopsis for each, and notes that they are held in the National Film Archive (now the BFI National Archive). The Tale of a Tendril and unedited footage for Bertie's Cave are available to view on BFiPlayer (see Links below). It seems the footage for The Pit and The Plum (which is also unedited) does not include any intertitles, and so was considered unsuitable for adding to the BFiPlayer.

Judging by the unedited footage for Bertie's Cave, the premise of the series was to be that Archie, left in charge of the ants' nursery, would tell the grubs stories about his ever-hungry friend Bertie the Beetle. The intertitles at the end of the footage tell the first part of the story, but none relate specifically to the scenes in the nursery, which seem to be intended to intercut with the narrative. The story is incomplete, and as the action shown takes place in Archie's secret cave the title might imply that Bertie goes on to find a cave of his own.

It is notable that the edited The Tale of a Tendril, titled as Episode II, does not include any reference to the nursery, and the intertitles, which are smaller on the screen than the ones for Bertie's Cave, are in the Present Tense, appropriate to the unfolding of a silent film, while the ones for Bertie's Cave are in the Past Tense, being Archie's quoted speech from the storytelling scenes. This raises the question as to whether The Tale of a Tendril is complete as intended or had merely been the most complete to date, and just edited together for the purposes of presenting the series to a potential backer or distributor. It does seem that Bertie's Cave was intended to be the first episode.

Smith clearly spent a lot of time and effort on his animated project, so it is a pity the films were never completed and released.

Secrets of Nature

Smith now concentrated on the Secrets of Nature films. H. Bruce Woolfe had sold British Instructional Films to Stoll Picture Productions in 1924, but remained the head of the company. He encouraged Smith to collaborate with other directors, initially Charles Head and subsequently Mary Field, allowing Smith more time to concentrate on filming, which was mainly carried out in his Southgate conservatory.

He still included animated sequences for demonstration purposes. These were mainly diagrammatic representations, but an animated model bee, known as Bertie, appears briefly in some films made around 1929, such as Scarlet Runner & Co and Peas and Cues, to show the mechanics of pollen transfer. (Bertie is a fairly realistic bee, and has no connection with the anthropomorphic Bedtime Stories of Archie the Ant despite some commentators associating him with Bertie the Beetle.)

In 1927 British Instructional Films started to produce feature films, and seeing the potential in director Anthony Asquith, Woolfe turned his attention to nurturing this side of the business. British Instructional Films was floated as a public company to raise money to build a new studio at Welwyn Garden City, and staffing arrangements became more formalised, with Mary Field and F Percy Smith put in charge of the Secrets of Nature series. The new studio was opened in September 1928 and was equipped for sound recording.

The Secrets of Nature films were highly popular, and acclaimed for their photography so it did not occur to Field and Smith that there was any advantage in adding sound. It was only in 1930, according to their book about the series, that they were prompted into action by a request from a distributor who wanted to include a Secrets of Nature film in an all-sound program premiering a US talkie. They hastily concocted a narration for the recently completed Peas and Cues and recorded it at the Welwyn studio. The result was so successful that several films from 1929 were re-released as sound versions in 1930.

Smith and Field both recognised that the films needed to be entertaining in order to engage the audience. H. Bruce Woolfe had encouraged the drawing of parallels with human behaviour (anthropomorphism) to this end, and with the addition of sound this was the approach taken by the light-hearted narration. The scientific community was critical of this approach, but Secrets of Nature set the standard for natural history films and its influence is still around today. With music they went a step further. Daily Dozen at the Zoo and Playtime at the Zoo (both 1930) feature animal actions tightly syncronised to the music for comic effect. In their book Field explains their inspiration was Disney's use of sound: they aimed "to reproduce the Walt Disney technique with real animals instead of cartoons." The films were very successful in terms of popularity, but in retrospect Field conceded that it may have been a step too far. (The tight syncronisation of sound and action, a key element in the success of Disney's early sound cartoons, was so widely taken up in live action that it eventually became a cliché, and unnecessarily tight editing of music to action was derided as "Mickey Mousing".)

Secrets of Life

Despite the success of the Secrets of Nature series British Instructional Films was losing money. In 1931 it merged with British International Pictures but Harry Bruce Woolfe found himself increasingly at odds with the rest of the board. In 1933 he left to start up a new company British Independent Productions, taking Smith, Fields and other BIF staff with him. In November Woolfe did a deal with the Gaumont-British Picture Corporation to become their documentary unit and the company changed its name to Gaumont-British Instructional. The natural history series continued under the new name the Secrets of Life. As mentioned earlier, Field and Smith collaborated on a history of the original series, entitled Secrets of Nature and published in 1934.

Gaumont-British Instructional also concentrated on films for use in schools, despite the fact that few schools actually had access to a projector. Woolfe wanted to build up a catalogue of educational material and Mary Field, having a background in education, directed several of them. Woolfe also wanted to make a series of films to show children what life was like in the different parts of the Empire.

At number 2 Kings Villas, Smith's work was affecting their living conditions. The consevatory was overflowing with natural habitats and spores from cultivated moulds had drifted into the house and started to colonise the wallpaper. By 1935 The Smiths were living around the corner at 10 Charter Way, with Percy continuing to film at Kings Villas.

Smith had written of feeling somewhat at odds with the modern world:

“The world now sacrifices everything to speed; quiet seems to be regarded as a detestable condition to be ex­purgated by any means which applied science can devise; and this state of affairs does not encourage the production of the type of individual who can satisfy himself in an investigation of the hidden beauties of Nature.”

As the world headed towards another international conflict this sense of alienation may have increased. Production of the Secrets of Life continued unabated, the only influence of the war being the occasional topical allusion — U Boat in the Pond (1942; about the diving water beetle) — but things were changing. In 1941 the Gaumont-British Picture Corporation was taken over by J Arthur Rank. Rank, a committed Methodist, was concerned that programmes for for children's matinees consisted mainly of American cartoons, shorts and serials. He wanted to provide suitable British films with a moral message and 1943 saw Gaumont-British Instructional develope a Children's Entertainment Film division. With her background in children's education, Mary Field was the ideal person to head this new unit, and she took up the post in 1944.

According to Linda Rodriguez McRobbie, Smith had been suffering intermittent bouts of illness. These could have been related to his previous rhuematic fever, but McRobbie suggests they could have been depression. There is no knowing what factors actually prompted the action but on March 24, 1945 Smith took his own life, putting his head in the gas oven at Kings Villas (since the war renumbered as 107 Chase Road) “whilst the balance of his mind was disturbed” as the Coroner recorded, using the traditional phrase of mitigation. Kate continued living at 10 Charter Way, letting 107 Chase Road, until her death in 1959.

Filmography (animated or with animated segments)

Chemical Portraiture(Kineto, June 1909. Trick film, possibly not animation) Director, Animator
Dissolving The Government(Kineto, June 1909. Trick film, possibly not animation) Director, Animator
To Demonstrate How Spiders Fly(Kineto, 1909) Director, Designer, Animator
Bewildering Transformations(Kineto, April 1912. Trick film, possibly animation) Director, Animator
Paper Cuttings(Kineto, 2 May 1912.) Animator? (film credited to Walter Booth)
Kineto War Map No. 1(Kineto, 22 Oct 1914) Director, Designer, Animator
Kineto War Map No. 2(Kineto, 3 Dec 1914) Director, Designer, Animator
Bewildering Transformations(Kineto, 3 Dec 1914. Trick film, possibly animation) Director, Animator
Kineto War Map No. 3
How the Canadians Saved the Day at Ypres
(Kineto, 4 Feb 1915) Director, Designer, Animator
Kineto War Map No. 4(Kineto, 11 Mar 1915) Director, Designer, Animator
Kineto War Map No. 5
The Fight for the Dardanelles
(Kineto, 15 Apr 1915) Director, Designer, Animator
Kineto War Map No. 6(Kineto, 1 Jul 1915) Director, Designer, Animator
Kineto War Map No. 7(Kineto, 30 Aug 1915) Director, Designer, Animator
Kineto War Map No. 8(Kineto, 11 Oct 1915) Director, Designer, Animator
Kineto War Map No. 9(Kineto, 29 Nov 1915) Director, Designer, Animator
Kineto War Map No. 10(Kineto, 27 Jan 1916) Director, Designer, Animator
Kineto War Map No. 11(Kineto, 23 Mar 1916) Director, Designer, Animator
Kineto War Map No. 12(Kineto, 27 Apr 1916) Director, Designer, Animator
Kineto War Map No. 13(Kineto, 18 May 1916) Director, Designer, Animator
Kineto War Map No. 14(Kineto, 10 Aug 1916) Director, Designer, Animator
Kineto War Map No. 15
The Russia-Rumanian Advance
(Kineto, 7 Sep 1916) Director, Designer, Animator
The Bedtime Stories of Archie the Ant:
Bertie's Cave
(unfinished, 1925) Director, Designer, Animator
The Bedtime Stories of Archie the Ant:
The Pit and the Plum
(unfinished, 1925) Director, Designer, Animator
The Bedtime Stories of Archie the Ant:
The Tale of a Tendril
(unfinished, 1925) Director, Designer, Animator
Scarlet Runner & Co

(British Instructional, April 17, 1929 [silent]; August 1, 1930 [sound]) Director, Designer, Animator (Bertie the Bee model animation sequence)
Peas and Cues

(British Instructional, July 11, 1930) Director, Designer, Animator (Bertie the Bee model animation sequence)
Mitey Atoms

(British Instructional, November 24, 1930) Director, Designer, Animator (false scorpion model animation sequence)
In All His Glory

(British Instructional, June 10, 1931) Director, Designer, Animator (Bertie the Bee model animation sequence)

Links to Other Sites

Atlas Obscura The Shy Edwardian Filmmaker Who Showed Nature's Secrets to the World: article by Linda Rodriguez McRobbie 21 Feb 2017

BFiPLAYER Tale of a Tendril: an episode of The Bedtime Stories of Archie the Ant from the BFI National Archive.

BFiPLAYER Bertie's Cave: the unedited footage for an incomplete episode of The Bedtime Stories of Archie the Ant from the BFI National Archive.

National Archives Ministry of Health Case Papers, Case Number: M1731: documents from the Ministry of Health record of Smith's appeal for exemption from conscription, August-October 1916.

Internet Archive Science-Gossip magazine vol.VII (1901): containing part of Frank Percy Smith's An Introduction to British Spiders (spread over several issues) and additional artwork.


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Peter Hale
Last updated 2018