Powers of Ten: How Charles and Ray Eames’ experimental film changed the way we look at Chicago—and the universe.

Powers of Ten: How the Eames’ Experimental Film Changed the Way We Look at Chicago—and the Universe.

Powers of Ten: How the Eames’ Experimental Film Changed the Way We Look at Chicago—and the Universe.

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Dec. 4 2012 5:00 AM

The Power of Powers of Ten

How the Eames’ experimental film changed the way we look at Chicago—and the universe.

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The tale of how Chicago became the crown jewel of Powers of Ten is one best told by Alex Funke, cinematographer and Oscar-winning effects artist on spectacles like Total Recall and Lord of the Rings. Funke’s 10-year run at the Eames Office was bookended by work on both Powers of Ten films, the first of which began in 1968. The black and white “rough sketch,” in which the point of departure for the cosmic zoom was a Miami golf course, offers a stark contrast to the more refined 1977 version that took 13 months to complete. Funke says:

One problem with the sketch is that, as soon as you widen out, obviously you’re not looking at Florida anymore.  So we wanted to pinpoint a spot we could pull straight back from. While not the geometric center of the U.S., as a visual icon, Chicago was perfect. And Charles was very fond of the city. He was also fond of using a football field as a size reference: a full field, half a field. What could be better than starting the film on a nice patch of grass beside Soldier Field?

The sequence of shots that follow, each one hatching from the next like nesting dolls, represent the finest aerial photography of the city ever captured, a quantum leap over previous expeditions. “We contacted the Chicago Aerial Survey and commissioned a series of three large-scale photographs to be taken on a sunny day,” Funke explains. “For the widest shot, they went up in a pressurized high-altitude plane, a Cessna, which was really high. Later at the office we received the images on Ektachrome positive film, captured with these gigantic aerial mapping cameras. Everyone in the office gathered around the light tables to look at them. It was quite marvelous. Everything was sharp.”


Next came the challenge of shooting the still photographs with a motion-picture camera in a way that conveyed constant acceleration. The solution was ingenious. They opened on a close-up of a 3-inch photograph of the picnickers on the grass, which had been carefully glued into the center of a 30-inch photo that showed a much wider view of Chicago at the next “power.” The camera then tracks back from the 3-inch photo until the edge of the larger 30-inch photo is reached. Cut. The 30-inch photo was then shrunk down to 3 inches, placed into the center of the next “power” and the process repeated itself until the last link in the chain—1024, the image representing the distance of 100 million light years—was reached.

While reminiscing about this process, Funke recalled a “magic number” off the top of his head—the 240th root of 10—that was the key to controlling the precise speed at which the camera was pulled back, by means of turning a giant hand wheel. The camera rig and wooden track that made the maneuver possible were built by Funke’s “partner in crime” on the project, Michael Wiener, a Sausalito, Calif., native. “In his late teens Michael had gone to Denmark, learned to speak Danish, and apprenticed himself to a boat builder,” Funke says. “He was a journeyman and certified Danish shipwright. A brilliant craftsman like Michael was exactly the kind of person Charles loved to hire.”

Having made the most of the three images captured by the Chicago Aerial Survey, the foundation shifted at 106 to a NASA image provided by the EROS Data Center, a division of the U.S. Department of the Interior, in Sioux Falls, S.D. “EROS is the repository of pretty much every photo made in the U.S. by an entity in the government,” Funke says. “Anything from a handheld camera pointed out of a biplane in 1920 to NASA material.”

Simply slotting in the NASA image and taking a breather wasn’t possible. As with every frame in the film, imperceptible alterations had to be made to ensure consistency between disparate source materials, an arduous process that ate into the production schedule. Most glaringly, the NASA image did not match the necessary 30-inch dimensions of the other images in the film, and the edges had to be fleshed out and painted in. When the paints that appeared to the naked eye to blend in perfectly later registered as slightly off when photographed, the Eames Office solved the problem by creating a whole new palette of painting colors.

“There was also a lot of airbrushing to be done,” Funke says. “For example, the photos from the Chicago Aerial Survey were a tiny bit askew. The airplanes weren’t exactly looking down on the landmarks, so we had to do a perspective adjustment. Part of that was done by tilting the paper when the prints were being made to skew the perspective.” Working with Cy Didjurgis, the best airbrush artist in Los Angeles, the crew had to take each photographic image apart and reassemble it, so the geometry would match—a tweak to each structure in Chicagoland.

Another steady hand on the project was Dennis Carmichael, a young Art Center grad who was called in for painstaking tweaks, like the removal of boats rippling the surface of Lake Michigan that would have caused continuity errors when linking shots taken at different times of day. “Dennis was a great detail painter, and he worked very fast,” Funke says. “His bread and butter consisted of painting food for newspaper advertisements, because a pork chop in a photograph looks terrible. After he’d finish a day of work on Powers of Ten, he’d go home and work on cantaloupe and prime rib.”

Powers of Ten and prime rib: a perfect blend of art and commerce. And for a city accustomed to admiring its own reflection on the lakefront, a new way of looking at the world. Though anyone who knows Chicago, of course, also knows how rapidly the city changes. The portion of Burnham Park that served as the launching pad for Powers of Ten is now known as Museum Campus and has undergone significant renovations since the 1970s. Highway lanes have been stripped away. The grounds are greener and more pedestrian friendly.  And the remodeled home of the Bears, misidentified as “Soldier’s Field” in the film, now cradles a spaceship atop its Greek columns.

Julia Bachrach, historian for the Chicago Park District, helped pinpoint the spot where Powers of Ten was set and confirmed that the grounds currently reside within the Gold Star Families Memorial and Park, an area dedicated to fallen police officers. An important caveat, however, is that the famous lawn shot was, in Funke’s words, “a total cheat.” The actual live action of the picnic scene was filmed in Los Angeles, where Charles and Ray could oversee all aspects of production for the critical opening moments. I spoke with Eames Demetrios about this spot and asked if he’d ever made the pilgrimage. “One of the funny things about when you go to the site in Chicago is that’s it’s actually on a swell,” says Demetrios. “You’re so used to seeing it in the movie with everything flattened out. The footage of Chicago is actually the most disguised illusion of the whole film.”

James Hughes is a Chicago-based writer and editor who has contributed to Grantland, the Atlantic, and Film Comment.