Stop watching the skies. Prepare to enter a world unlike you’ve ever encountered, as documentary makers Jasper Sharp and Tim Grabham invite you to look down into the weird and fascinating realm of… Well, simply read on and discover for yourself.
In my opinion, the ideal approach to making any documentary is to look for a subject that has an interesting story to tell. A story that moves, engages and surprises. Now, if that’s not an immediate given, then you better make sure that at least you have a very intriguing, original topic or subject that’s worthy of being explored. Both by you, as a documentary maker, and your future audience. Tim Grabham and Jasper Sharp very well understood this, as they decided to go ahead and craft an extraordinary documentary around a certain threefold group of botanical curiosities within the amoebozoa phylum, called the Myxogastria, the Dictyosteliida and the Protosteloids. Commonly known as the deliciously named slime moulds. Or, in other words what people used to think of when they heard the word fungus. Because they’re not.
Are you still following? Doesn’t matter. What matters is what ‘The Creeping Garden’ makes us gaze at on screen. And what these slimy inhabitants from the nether regions of your average forest or garden have to tell us. Grabham and Sharp are passionate about their filmmaking. They are eager to learn more about this unusual subject matter they chose to make a documentary about. And it shows. ‘The Creeping Garden’ covers a wide spectrum, shedding light from different angles on… well, basically what it is to be a slime mold and how we, us, humans, took it upon ourselves to learn from these icky organisms and… wait for it… Interact with them.
‘The Creeping Garden’ opens with a flashback to an NBC news report from 1973 about the discovery of unidentifiable “shapeless quivering masses that have been found in backyards.” As if it was the premise for a B-movie variant of one of those sci-fi/horror classics from the fifties, like ‘The Blob’ (1958) or ‘Invasion Of The Body Snatchers’ (1956). The newsreader also informs us that after initial growth and changing colors, however, most of the blobs appear to be dying. But then we fast-forward to present day and we soon learn those blobby organisms have always been here and are in fact still among us. It gets even more fascinating – or scarier, depending on your point of view – when modern day scientists discovered by now that the slime mould actually harbours some primitive form of intelligence.
Grabham and Sharp put quite a wide range of people with different fields of expertise in front of the camera to have them elaborate their points of view on the topic, from amateur biologists to eccentric scientists and peculiar artists. Aside from studying these organisms and learning from them, we also get to see them in action. Or, put to use, is more like it. With Sharp having conducted the interviews, his interviewees seemed often all too eager to expand on the subject matter with some highly amusing explanations as a result. To the common audience their research at some occasions may appear so ridiculous, that their motivations and justification border on the absurd. I mean, putting slime mould on a map of Europe and have them imitate the continent’s traffic infrastructure? Really? Yes, they did. Other chapters in the documentary show us how to collaborate like a human slime mould and what, for example, “computation through organic substrates” means. We witness sonification of the mould, there’s nanotechnological applications in the mix and we get to see mould chips operating a robot. Computer chips made of slime moulds, you say? Yes, they did that, too. And we all know how terribly wrong organic chip technology can go. If you don’t, then you clearly haven’t seen ‘The Lift’ (1983) yet. Ask writer/director Dick Maas, he knows. And last but far from least, watch a slime mould play a piano. Yes, you just read that right as well.
The film is sprinkled with great mould footage. Some visuals are truly mesmerising, coming from microscopic images, laboratory testings and filming the mould in its natural habitat. Seeing the organisms actually move, sometimes feels like watching underwater footage, with the slowly pulsating mould resembling coral fauna and flora, elegantly bobbing along with the ocean’s current. To obtain this footage, Grabham pulled off a bit of pioneering work due to the limitations by means of shooting. Past methods to show us how moulds grew and moved, relied mostly on the filming technique of stop motion, also know as time lapse. ‘The Creeping Garden’ briefly educates us about this process by taking a side step into the Victorian era, then leading us into the early 1930s for a little homage to British naturalist/historian Percy Smith, who was the first amateur filmer to patiently document the liveliness of the slime mould on camera (by photographing on celluloid film rolls) through the painstaking process of “time magnification.” This showed us the mould moving over a period of days, or perhaps weeks. Grabham, however, captured the mould footage on digital video tapes (MiniDV cassettes shooting HDV), which can only record upto 60 minutes of material. Previously, no record seemed to exist of researchers actually bothering to record any mould for only one hour, as they were convinced the organism wouldn’t move much, or not move at all, within that time frame. But working with the restrictions of MiniDV made Grabham gradually speed up the footage during playback (from doubling the speed to even ten times faster, depending on the activity of various moulds). This resulted in the strangely throbbing mould masses we get to see on numerous accounts, making up for some oddly intriguing and slightly eerie images.
On a final note, with Grabham in charge of the editing and teaming up with sound mixer Paul Pascoe, the sound design was meticulously crafted. Even a slug going for a stroll through the forest left her crispy sounding footprints on the picture. For the film score, Sharp and Grabham were fortunate to have Jim O’Rourke step in to provide an original soundtrack. O’Rourke‘s soundscapes support the visuals – the collaborated efforts of five DOPs – splendidly as well as elevating the entire film to a higher level. A future home release of ‘The Creeping Garden’ would do well as a limited 2-disc special edition, with the documentary itself on DVD/Blu-ray accompanied by the music score on CD. Or, since vinyl records are so hot again these days: Why not release O’Rourke‘s complete score on 12” vinyl with ‘The Creeping Garden’ included, housed in the gatefold album cover? Wouldn’t that be something? Heck, I’d release it myself, if only I had a record label. Any label owners out there reading this…? Go check out ‘The Creeping Garden’ then. And give Sharp, Grabham and O’Rourke a call. And Woob aka Paul Frankland as well. His excellent tracks on both the opening and closing titles are very fitting and need to be on that OST too…
…I’m going to shut up now.
Trailer on YouTube.