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Cheese Mites and Boxing Kangaroos and Sea Waves, Oh My! — Early Natural History Filmmaking

by Mutt
Cheese Mites and Boxing Kangaroos and Sea Waves, Oh My! — Early Natural History Filmmaking by Mutt
   Film itself could be said to have been born out of the study of natural history. A series of stills, considered by most film historians to be the origins of the moving picture, were taken by English photographer Eadweard Muybridge in 1877 of the racehorse Occident airborne in the midst of a gallop to answer a popularly-debated question of the day: whether all four of a horse’s hooves are off the ground at the same time during a gallop. The images were copied in the form of silhouettes onto a disc and viewed in a machine called a Zoopraxiscope, proving that all four hooves did indeed leave the ground at one time, and pioneering the motion… Read more

  

Film itself could be said to have been born out of the study of natural history. A series of stills, considered by most film historians to be the origins of the moving picture, were taken by English photographer Eadweard Muybridge in 1877 of the racehorse Occident airborne in the midst of a gallop to answer a popularly-debated question of the day: whether all four of a horse’s hooves are off the ground at the same time during a gallop. The images were copied in the form of silhouettes onto a disc and viewed in a machine called a Zoopraxiscope, proving that all four hooves did indeed leave the ground at one time, and pioneering the motion picture and cinematography. The negative was lost but a second series of photographs taken the following year, entitled Sallie Gardner at a Gallop or The Horse in Motion, has survived and been widely reproduced, as have numerous other studies of animal and human motion which he went on to produce. These studies have been cited as a major inspiration on film pioneers such as Louis Le Prince, William K. L. Dickson and Thomas Edison.

Following in this tradition, the earliest actual films featuring animals aren’t natural history or wildlife films, but rather actuality films of captive animals in zoos, circuses and sporting events, which are nonetheless credited with highlighting public interest in animal behaviour; surviving examples of these would include Max Skladanowsky’s Boxing Kangaroo (1895) , the British Mutoscope and Biograph Company’s Elephants & Pelicans at the Zoo (1895 & 1896 respectively), Birt Acres’s The Derby (1895), Performing Animals; or, Skipping Dogs and The Boxing Kangaroo (both 1896) and Alexandre Promio’s Pelicans, Tigers & Lion, London Zoological Gardens (all 1896). A more realistic portrayal of the natural world would come from actuality films of seascapes, a popular subject for pioneer filmmakers; surviving examples of these would include Birt Acres & Robert W. Paul’s Rough Sea at Dover (1895), considered by some to be the first natural history orientated film, and Henry Short’s A Sea Cave Near Lisbon (1896). Whilst the first true wildlife film, featuring a combination of wild animals, natural location and natural behaviour, was the Edison Manufacturing Company’s The Sea Lions at Home (1897).

The development of the close-up by film pioneer George Albert Smith made more intimate studies of animal behaviour possible, starting with his own Spiders on a Web (1900); other examples of these would include William K.L. Dickson’s Fight Between Tarantula and Scorpion (1900), featuring a controversial staged battle, Charles Urban’s Unseen World series of micro-bioscopic films, beginning with Cheese Mites (1903), F. Percy Smith’s equally controversial series of films demonstrating the abilities of insects, starting with The Balancing Bluebottle (1908), re-released as The Acrobatic Fly (1910), and including The Strength and Agility of Insects (1911), and James Williamson’s The History of a Butterfly – A Romance of Insect Life (1910). Percy Smith, an enthusiastic and inventive early exponent of the nature documentary, had also pioneered the use of models to re-enact animal behaviour with To Demonstrate How Spiders Fly (1909) and time-lapse photography with The Birth of a Flower (1910) .

Ole Olsen’s controversial The Lion Hunt (1907) highlighted public taste for big-game hunting with its contrived footage of the shooting of two captive lions on a section of the Danish coast redressed to look like darkest Africa. Such was the success of the film, after it was smuggled to Sweden, that Bear Hunting in Russia (1909) quickly followed. Famous wildlife photographer Cherry Kearton returned from Africa with more authentic footage for With Roosevelt in Africa (1910) but was pipped at the box-office by Hunting Big Game in Africa (1910) featuring a Roosevelt lookalike shooting a captive lion on a redressed Californian game preserve. One of the first films to challenge this approach was An Otter Study (1912), which as well as groundbreaking underwater photography of the creature also featured a dénouement in which it escaped the men and dogs pursuing it, all hunting scenes were excised by the 1920 re-release highlighting changing public tastes in the post-war period. Kearton captured the public mood of the time and went on to establish himself as the first star naturalist with films such as With Cherry Kearton in the Jungle (1926) and Dassan: An Adventure in Search of Laughter Featuring Nature’s Greatest Little Comedians (1930). Whilst filmmaking couple Osa and Martin Johnson also proved popular with a series of safari films starting with Simba (1928).

Pioneering wildlife filmmaker Oliver G. Pike’s In Birdland (1907) had the director dangling from British coastal cliffs to film a hugely popular insight into the lives of Britain’s seabirds, which has now sadly been lost, but his adventurous spirit survives in the simmilar themed St Kilda, It’s People and Birds and Cliff Climbing – The Egg Harvest of Flamborough Head (both 1908). Pike’s Glimpses of Bird Life (1910) featured a groundbreaking use of positioning and adjusted focal plane which established British wildlife photographers as leaders in this field. Following a short wartime hiatus, Pike’s Secrets of Nature: The Cuckoo’s Secret and Charles Knight’s Secrets of Nature: The Sparrow-Hawk (both 1922) launched a series of films which were described in 1930 as “the sheet anchor of the British film industry.” Following in this tradition were Pike’s controversial A Family of Great Tits, featuring disturbing footage from inside a specially constructed nesting box, and Julian Huxley’sThe Private Life of the Gannets, which would become the first wildlife film to receive an Oscar, by winning the 1937 Academy Award for Best Short Subject, (both 1934) .

See also: Films with Animals by kenji

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