20 minutes of tiny wonders

20 minutes of tiny wonders

Our worlds have shrunk to domestic space. Seeking distraction, we look at objects in our kitchens, living rooms and back gardens anew. How do familiar things appear when we shift our perspective to the close-up?

Filmmakers have long been obsessed with universes in miniature. The desire to reveal unseen marvels through micro-cinematography began with the early 20th-century cinema of attractions. These films were the Tik-Toks of their time: attention-grabbing shorts designed to elicit maximum thrill, squirm and delight.

Drawing together works by early amateurs and renowned directors, this pocket series offers five pint-sized bursts of wonder. The stars of these films? A fly, dancing seahorses, vampire vines, plastic ladles and a magisterial lemon.

The acrobatic fly

Directed by Percy Smith, 1910, 3 min

The acrobatic fly was a sensation in 1910 and it’s not hard to see why. Tied down with silk (and released unharmed afterwards), a housefly performs a series of carnival tricks: lifting a tiny dumbbell and juggling a ball twice its size. From his home studio in London, Percy Smith (1880–1945) pioneered the popular nature documentary. Here, he downsizes the thrills of the big-top circus to the tip of a matchstick.

The seahorse

Directed by Jean Painlevé, 1934, 2 min 19 sec

French director Jean Painlevé (1902–1989) had an unusual niche: surrealist cinema starring sea creatures. His most famous work shows the miraculous reproductive process of the seahorse in extreme magnification. While the female produces eggs, the male gestates them and gives birth. In this excerpt, the tiny offspring play tug-o-war. The film was shot in large seawater tanks in a Paris basement. A huge commercial success, it sparked a seahorse craze in 1930s France and inspired Painlevé to design a line of aquatic jewellery.

The strangler

Directed by Percy Smith, 1930, 6 min 54 sec

Don’t be deceived by the time-lapse close-ups and enchanting new score by Tindersticks. The strangler is a horror film in miniature. It stars the dodder, a vampire vine which feeds off plant victims. Smith was renowned for devising innovative (and bizarre) shooting methods involving homemade contraptions fashioned from gramophone needles and cameras rigged with alarms to tell him when to change the film.

Le chant du styrène

Directed by Alain Resnais, 1958, 13 min 11 sec

Before Alain Resnais directed the arthouse classic Last year at Marienbad (1961), he made this little-known ode to plastic for a French manufacturing company. Watch the first two minutes and 11 seconds and marvel as brightly coloured, polystyrene tendrils unfurl like organic forms. With 380 million tonnes of plastic produced worldwide each year, we’re well-versed in the art of looking away. This film zooms in on a material that continues to mould and remould our world.


Directed by Hollis Frampton, 1969, 7 min 15 sec

A classic of American experimental cinema which turns the passage of light and shadow across a piece of citrus into a transit of cosmic proportions. One long take, one lemon, one film to turn to when you really want to reflect on the objects in your midst.