I am a scientist in the Randall Division of Cell and Molecular Biophysics. I am also a cinematographer. Making movies of cells and tissues under a microscope is a regular occurrence in our laboratory. To be clear, there is no director in these productions; the cells are responsible for their own performance and I am only there to facilitate their story. Movie making is now commonplace in biology and is part of any experimentalist’s toolkit.
Who were the pioneers of cinema photomicrography, as it was originally called? A number of scientists in the UK played a central role in the early development of tissue culture and cinema photomicrography, with many working at the renowned Strangeways Research Laboratory in Cambridge. With the help of the Wellcome Library, two films that had been sitting on a shelf in our laboratory from two Strangeways cinemicroscopists have been digitized and are now freely available for all to see.
The more recent of these films, Cells in Culture (1955), represents experiments performed in the 1950s and 1960s by the pioneering cell biologist, Michael Abercrombie, who is best known for his work on cell migration (which is critical to understand processes such as cancer metastasis).
What is amazing about these movies is their quality. While they were taken over half a century ago using standard 16mm format (today all scientific filming is digital), they still look amazingly clear with a resolution that approaches what we currently achieve using our modern microscopes. It is also interesting that Abercrombie added prefaces (in the form of intertitles) to each of the experiments in the movies, which give us some information about the type of cell we are looking at or the number of seconds between frames (these are all time-lapse films).
The older of the two films is from a scientist that few today would recognise (he doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry). Ronald Canti was a pathologist who was a very early adopter of filming as an experimental tool. His obituary in the British Medical Journal in 1936 highlighted that his filming apparatus allowed him to generate a “world-famous cinema photomicrographic study” which was “shown in all continents of the world”. His death was not just covered in scientific periodicals, but in the popular press as well, suggesting he was indeed a pre-eminent scientist of his day.
The Cultivation of Living Tissue, was a series of movies sponsored by the British Empire Cancer Campaign, a predecessor of Cancer Research UK. These films were transferred to 16mm film in the early 1930s for wider distribution. However, the actual experiments from the movies are likely to be a decade older as they represent a reel of highlights showing the research at the Strangeways Laboratory (the British Film Institute holds the original 35mm material in their archive).
Part 1 of the series shows the new technique of tissue culture and we see movies of a number of migrating cell-types. While time-lapse movies are now common, this mode of filming was novel in Canti’s day. As a result it was important for him to convey a sense of the passage of time to his audience. He came up with an ingenious idea to simultaneously film an analog clock in the upper corner of the movie. This allowed the audience to see the minute hand frantically spinning as the cells were migrating, thus demonstrating just how slow these cellular movements were.
In Part 2 – all good movies have a sequel – we see movies of living embryos. It was not just individual cells that scientists were growing in vitro, but whole embryos and intact tissues. Finally, in Part 3 are the experiments that made Canti famous. He was best known for studying the effects of radiation and as noted in his obituary, his photomicrographs helped convince “more people of the efficacy of the radiation treatment of cancer than any other form of publication”. In these films we see the movement of normal and cancer cells before and after the addition of radium (the effect is quite stark).
Who was the audience for The Cultivation of Living Tissue? There are references to their display at conferences around the world. However, it is clear that they were also a public engagement exercise. The films were widely shown to a variety of audiences, from a Friday evening discourse at the Royal Institution, to university students at an American college in Ohio. Even the Prime Minister of the day received a private viewing.
It is now routine to make movies to address not just basic cell and developmental biology problems, but also cancer biology, immunology, and neuroscience. A look at recent scientific journals reveals that a significant percentage of papers today have supplementary movie files. It was due to these cell biologists, working at the interdisciplinary interface between biology and cinematography, that movie making is now such standard practice.
Author: Dr Brian Stramer is a researcher at the Randall Division of Cell and Molecular Biophysics at Kings College, London.