10 great natural history films

From the dawn of cinema, filmmakers have pioneered new tactics and innovative technologies for getting up close with the natural world.

Jasper Sharp
Updated:

Minute Bodies: The Intimate World of F. Percy Smith (2016)

Minute Bodies: The Intimate World of F. Percy Smith (2016)

In 1910, audiences were mesmerised by the spectacle of a sepia- and cobalt-toned series of flowers bursting into bloom, their petals unfurling in what appeared to be real time. The Birth of a Flower (1910) by F. Percy Smith (1880-1945) was a watershed moment in the use of what we now know as timelapse, or ‘time magnification’ as this pioneer of British natural history filmmaking referred to it.

Since then, filmmakers have deployed an array of techniques for bringing the natural world closer to human perception, from macro- and micro-cinematography through to illustrative animations and computer models. The camera has transported viewers to places they cannot go, from the deepest ocean floors to the sun-baking heat of the most arid deserts.

Smith, however, filmed most of his material in the grandiose-sounding Southgate Studios – actually his own home, a terraced house in Enfield, north London. For him, of equal importance to the phenomena that fell beneath his lens was the technology used to fix it on film. Both aspects were the subjects of the trio of books he co-authored, Secrets of Nature (1939), Cine-Biology (1941) and See How They Grow (1952), which explain the motivation, methodology and science behind his cinematic probings of the natural world.

Many of Smith’s films are included on the BFI’s Secrets of Nature DVD release from 2010. Now they have been repurposed by Stuart A. Staples and David Reeve for an immersive and hypnotic new work, Minute Bodies: The Intimate World of F. Percy Smith, featuring a suitably free-flowing and otherworldly original soundtrack by Tindersticks with Thomas Belhom and Christine Ott. This new film presents a hidden universe that is sensual, abstract and alien, yet strongly resonates with our own perceptions of the ecosystem around us.

The release of Minute Bodies on Blu-ray and DVD prompts an opportunity to cast our eyes to some of the more revolutionary endeavours in the field of natural history filmmaking over the past century.

The Battle of the Ants (1922)

Director Geoffrey Barkas

The Battle of the Ants (1922)

Percy Smith was but one of a handful of contributors to British Instructional Films’ Secrets of Nature series, consisting of 144 short films, each approximately 10 minutes in length, made between 1922 and 1933. Others included Charles Head, Captain H.A. Gilbert, Oliver Pike and Walter Higham, each with their specialised field of interest.

This second entry, following Pike’s The Cuckoo’s Secret (1922), is the only directed by Barkas, a filmmaker later associated with colonial and military topics. Perhaps unsurprising then that there is much mention in the intertitles of scouts, spies, rations and enemy territory in his account of a skirmish between rival nests of wood ants. It was filmed at London Zoological Gardens, with the two nests initially separated by a moat, then connected by a wooden bridge, revealing the makers’ hand of God in setting the stage for the theatre of war.

The World in a Wine-Glass (1931)

Director Mary Field

Watch The World in a Wine-glass

Just as William Blake saw the world in a grain of sand, Percy Smith discovers it in a wineglass, although – one should add – not one full of wine. Smith’s mesmerising eight-minute showcase of micro-cinematographic techniques introduces the viewer to the menagerie of single-celled micro-organisms known as infusoria, which spontaneously emerge within a few days of a wisp of hay being added to a glass of water. Among the film’s innovations are an animated sequence illustrating the reproductive cycle of some of the creatures.

The film follows from such natural history filmmaking landmarks as Cheese Mites (1903), a microscopic survey of the creatures flourishing on a Stilton rind filmed through a microscope by Francis Martin Duncan, and Smith’s earlier The Plants of the Pantry (1927), detailing the fungal activity on a mouldy piece of cheese.

Smith’s works within the Secrets of Nature series covered a diverse array of specimens, including newts, bees, aphids, mosses and garden peas. Other standout titles include the first great film about slime moulds, Magic Myxies (1931), and Brewster’s Magic (1933), which fastidiously details every step in the growth and processing of hops, yeast and sprouting barley grains, leading to the alchemical miracle of beer. Mary Field was the writer and editor on many of these, with Smith credited only for the photography, although it is clear that the working partnership was a close one.

The Living Desert (1953)

Director James Algar

The Living Desert (1953)

Notable for their groundbreaking colour cinematography, and almost all directed by James Algar, Disney’s True-Life Adventures series spanned 14 films about the animal kingdom between Seal Island in 1948 and Jungle Cat in 1960. As the first feature-length entry, The Living Desert represents a particular milestone. A portrait of the denizens of the Sonoran Desert, it was prompted by 10 minutes of original footage shot as part of his master’s degree by N. Paul Kenworthy Jr (who would become a regular contributor to the series). It was a massive international success, and won the Oscar for best documentary feature.

Highlights include a bobcat scaling a giant cactus to escape from a herd of enraged peccary pigs, a giant tortoise battle and a tarantula mating dance, all accompanied by Winston Hibler’s authoritative narration. Hibler’s tendency to anthropomorphise his subjects has become a staple of television nature documentaries. The scene of the square-dancing scorpions, intercut with their owl observer, however, perhaps represents one step too far into the realms of kitsch.

World without Sun (1964)

Director Jacques-Yves Cousteau

World without Sun (1964)

Jacques Cousteau’s first feature-length documentary, The Silent World (1956), co-directed with Louis Malle at the very beginning of his career, won the Cannes Palme d’Or, though to modern viewers its infamous sequences of shark-butchery and reef-blasting “for scientific purposes” might seem rather at odds with Cousteau’s life-long calls for marine conservation.

His subsequent depiction of his attempts to put his dream of colonising the ocean floor into reality must count as one of the oddest projects in film history – if not, indeed, human history. Cousteau remains largely above water and off-camera in World without Sun, as his loyal “oceanauts” go about their daily routines. The team strut about the cramped quarters of their Conshelf II underwater base wearing no more than swimming trunks, constantly exhaling plumes of cigarette smoke into the oxygen-poor recycled atmosphere, and dining on tinned sardines as a variety of more appetising-looking aquatic life pass the portholes behind them.

The stunning underwater cinematography provides the main spectacle though, particularly in the final sequence in which Cousteau and his wingman Falco take their legendary diving saucer out for a spin on a fantastic voyage to the ocean depths. Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic (2004) looks positively mundane in comparison.

The Love Life of an Octopus (1965)

Directors Geneviève Hamon and Jean Painlevé

The Love Life of an Octopus (1965)

“The octopus, cephalopod, horrific creature…. flabby, without a shell, it slithers at low tide, using all its tentacles in turn…” Thus begins the narration to this sensuous yet grotesque short, which, accompanied by musique concrète pioneer Pierre Henry’s alien-sounding score, delves deep beyond everyday human experience in its scrutiny of cephalopod sex life.

Jean Painlevé’s portraits of various creatures of both land and (predominantly) sea venture into the realms of the fantastique. His instinctive, expressionistic approach exists in a parallel universe to the more expository tradition of his British counterparts. While Percy Smith had a tendency to anthropomorphise his subjects, Painlevé foregrounded the gulf between the human and the non-human, or drew witty correspondences between the two: American dancer Loie Fuller is check-listed in both Hyas and Stenorhynchus (1929), about two tiny marine crustaceans, and Acera, or The Witches’ Dance (1972), about a peculiar type of sea snail, while Le Vampire (1945), his only portrait of a mammalian subject, the South American vampire bat, begins with a clip from F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) and ends with the creature’s wing seemingly frozen in a Nazi salute.

It comes as little surprise to learn of Painlevé’s earlier association with the surrealist movement: he was the ant wrangler on Luis Buñuel’s Un chien andalou (1929) and wrote the narration for Georges Franju’s Le Sang des bêtes (1949).

The Hellstrom Chronicle (1971)

Directors Walon Green and Ed Spiegel

The Hellstrom Chronicle (1971)

Little remembered beyond cult circles these days, this eccentric treatise on insects taking over the world won an Oscar for best documentary feature in 1972. Narrated by its fake scientist anchor, Dr Nils Hellstrom (played by the actor Lawrence Pressman), its use of timelapse and macro-cinematography to portray its alien-looking world is simply stunning.

Like all the best science and nature films, it also sports a wonderful soundtrack courtesy of Lalo Schifrin (the same year he scored Dirty Harry), which suits the apocalyptic tenor perfectly. Director Walon Green later moved into television production and screenwriting for series including Hill Street Blues and Law & Order, and also scripted RoboCop 2 (1990) and Eraser (1996). In 1978, he made another ‘weird science’ documentary based on Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird’s controversial book on plant consciousness, The Secret Life of Plants, featuring an experimental prog-inspired soundtrack by Stevie Wonder.

Cane Toads: An Unnatural History (1988)

Director Mark Lewis

Cane Toads: An Unnatural History (1988)

This wry documentary takes in just about every conceivable aspect of the football-sized cane toad, first introduced to devastating effect to Australia in the 1930s. Intended as a biological pest control, it quickly became apparent that its tastes stretched to anything but the cane grub and mature cane beetle that was blighting Queensland’s sugarcane plantations. The environmental havoc caused by its rapidly proliferating population is now the stuff of ecological legend.

Director Mark Lewis dwells on the amphibious interloper’s rapacious reproductive habits and voracious appetite for insects, mice, goldfish and even ping-pong balls – basically anything that fits inside its mouth and moves. The main focus is the locals’ strange love/hate relationship with the creature: some keep it as a pet, some take glee in running over the bloated forms hopping across Australia’s highways, while other more serious ‘toad abusers’ boil down the corpses to unleash the hallucinogenic compounds within its toxic exudate.

Though the 47-minute runtime and 4:3 framing give it a distinctly televisual feel, the film enjoyed considerable theatrical success worldwide, leading Lewis, after a string of films on dogs, rats and chickens, to return to chart the toad’s relentless destructive march in the feature-length Cane Toads: The Conquest (2010).

Microcosmos (1996)

Directors Claude Nuridsany and Marie Pérennou

Microcosmos (1996)

The best nature films invoke a sense of wide-eyed wonder, and wonder abounds aplenty within Microcosmos. The opening airborne shots, as the camera descends from the clouds before adopting its dominant worm’s eye view of its world, signal the as-above-so-below approach adopted for its meticulous focus on insect and other invertebrate life. Standout moments include a social gathering of ants at a watering hole, the rippling undulations of snails copulating set to an operatic aria, a train of caterpillars wending their way across the bare earth and a scarab beetle’s Sisyphean struggles with a ball of dung.

The lush and lucid macro-cinematography captures every glistening dewdrop, every leaf or blade of grass caught by the wind, while the absence of any human presence (save for the sparest use of voiceover) among the immersive soundscapes of buzzing and chirping represents a show-not-tell strategy that is wholeheartedly cinematic.

Grizzly Man (2005)

Director Werner Herzog

Grizzly Man (2005)

One of the most fascinating and accomplished of Werner Herzog’s documentaries, this account of the life and death of the well-meaning but dewy-eyed Timothy Treadwell, the self-proclaimed friend of the bears who was devoured alongside his girlfriend by the very creatures he sought to protect, is less a pure nature film than a rumination on the relationship between man and beast.

Herzog relays much of the story through Treadwell’s original camcorder footage, shot during his excursions into the Alaskan hinterlands where the grizzlies roam, mediated by the director’s own trademark authorial presence. This line of narration is as deft a summary of the film’s central thesis as one could wish for: “In all the faces of all the bears that Treadwell ever filmed, I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature.”

Project Nim (2011)

Director James Marsh

Project Nim (2011)

With natural history spectacles now firmly situated within the domain of television, more recent theatrical documentaries dealing with the non-human world have tended to be campaign oriented, resulting in such releases as Sharkwater (2006), The Cove (2009), Blackfish (2013) and Virunga (2014), each drawing attention to man’s mistreatment of the wider world and its myriad lifeforms.

Project Nim adopts a more psychological approach, focusing on a single ape’s suffering at the hands of his more advanced primate relatives. Nim Chimpsky was the subject of an ambitious series of experiments in the 1970s to see whether a chimpanzee raised among humans could learn to construct grammatical sentences using sign language. First taken into the home of a well-to-do bohemian New York family and raised as one of their children, he subsequently found himself unceremoniously shuffled from place to place as he outgrew this unnatural environment.

Stylistically conventional, but compellingly told, James Marsh’s film paints a harrowing and undeniably moving picture of mankind’s relationship to his closest animal kin.

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