Gerald Thompson was a filmmaker specializing in natural history documentaries, utilizing special effects. While his films available to the U.S. market are relatively few, his work is exceptional. Overall, Thompson contributed to over 50 educational nature films and many books on natural history.
Born in Brighton, England, in 1917, Gerald Thompson moved to Scotland with his parents and spent his early years living in inner Glasgow. It was during this time that he developed his passionate interest in natural history. He knew from an early age that he wanted to be a zoologist, and at age 20, Gerald was invited to join The Oxford University expedition to the Cayman Islands as assistant Etymologist.
In 1939, he volunteered at the outbreak of war and was sent to The Royal College of Science, London, to read a one year entomology course to study ways of protecting food from insect infestation. Britain’s war effort included heavy stock-piling of food; these stores were likely to be contaminated by insects. In 1944, he began his tenure in the Colonial Forest Service in Ghana. He began teaching at Oxford at the Commonwealth Forestry Institute in 1950, where he taught through 1968.
In 1954 he began a detailed study of the Alder Woodwasp, Xiphydria camelus, a very local insect about which little was known. To better illustrate the story, he bought a 16mm Bolex cine camera in 1960. His next need was to develop techniques for close-up cinematography, since the insects ranged in size from two inches to one eighth of an inch, too small for conventional photographic methods, and too large to film through a microscope. The end result was his first film, ‘The Alder Woodwasp and its Insect Enemies’ (released in the U.S. by Encyclopaedia Britannica under the title 'Insect Parasitism: the Alder Woodwasp'.
Regarding his innovative film techniques Gerald wrote: “I was developing my close-up cine-photographical techniques, with the able assistance of Eric Skinner, my technical officer. We had our sandwich lunches in the preparatory room of my laboratory. It was at these lunches that I began to appreciate some of the difficult and very intricate problems that faced my companions in photographing insects in their natural habitats. It was necessary to obtain high light intensities without creating high levels of temperature that would be lethal to the insects. Conventional glass heat filters were only partially effective and then only for short periods of time. The solution that I devised was both simple and effective and, as a bonus, very inexpensive. This involved large 3-litre boiling flasks of cold water interposed at several points between the light source and the glass heat filters. This system provided the exact levels of light intensity that I wanted but with no heat. I called this “cold light.” The whole apparatus resembled one of Heath Robinson’s inventions as it included obsolete hair-dryers obtained by Eric from ladies' hairdressers.”
During the next nine years Gerald made nineteen academic films on such subjects as stickleback behavior, tiger beetles, spiders, butterflies and moths, all of which appeared on British television. While on a visit to the United States the Ealing Corporation, distributors of short biological films for education, told Gerald that they wished to expand their catalogue by more than eighty titles. They offered to provide the capital to enable five people, including Gerald’s son David, who had worked with him for several years, to form a commercial company to make the films. The result was the founding of Oxford Scientific Films Ltd., and in 1969, custom-made buildings were erected in the old quarry in Gerald’s garden. At the age of 52, Gerald resigned his university post and ventured into the world of film as a fulltime professional.
In 1974, for its 'Bio-Science' series, National Geographic began distributing ten exceptionally photographed films produced by Thompson to North American schools.
In 2000, Gerald became the non-executive President of World Educational Films Ltd, a company set up by his son David (himself a Co-founder of Oxford Scientific Films and a renowned wildlife cameraman), his daughter Patricia, who inspired the beginnings of the new company and Stephen Evans, a physicist with a Masters in Computer Engineering.
Gerald Thompson passed away on August 22nd, 2002. The rights to Gerald’s films have passed to son David and daughter Patricia Harvey-Thompson, who continue to market selected Gerald Thompson films through their World Educational Films website.
‘Insect Parasitism: The Alder Woodwasp and its Enemies
Thompson-produced films distributed in the U.S. by
National Geographic for its 'Bio-Science' series: