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.

eames launcher

Perhaps no American city appreciates being at the center of the universe more than Chicago. Workmanlike and down-to-earth the majority of their days, Chicagoans savor those moments when all roads lead to the prairieland. Even as we grapple with an international reputation for our inexcusable crime rate, we all breathed a sigh of relief when this summer’s NATO summit, the first on U.S. soil outside the Beltway, showcased the city’s international reach without ravaging the Loop. During this year’s election night celebrations inside McCormick Place, the country’s largest convention center, we were afforded another opportunity on the world stage.     

On election night, hoping I might encounter some of the same crowd spillover that defined the camaraderie and openness of Obama’s victory rally in Grant Park in 2008, I was confronted instead with the usual convention-center congestion: street closings, revolving doors spitting out those without tickets, road flares glowing in the crosswalks. Shut off from the monolithic superstructure housing all the fun, I wanted to rip the roof from its foundation and peer down at the spectacle within. While McCormick Place trended on Twitter worldwide, I imagined distant onlookers pinpointing the exact spot where I was standing on Google Earth, trying to get their bearings. And I was reminded of the power of Powers of Ten, the 1977 experimental film that surveyed these grounds from above as never before.

Has Chicago, or any city, been captured as beautifully and precisely on film? Has a sequence spurred more awareness of the vastness of space than the now-classic Powers of Ten zoom? And would there even be a Google Earth to tinker with had this masterwork not poured from the minds of Charles and Ray Eames?

Advertisement

The film’s premise is deceptively simple. For nine minutes, the narrator, physicist Philip Morrison, guides the viewer on a fantastic voyage that begins with an overhead shot of a couple lounging by the lake in a Chicago park, a spot close to Soldier Field, home of the Chicago Bears, and equidistant to McCormick Place and Grant Park. The camera then tracks back above the cityscape and up through the stratosphere, reaching back to the edge of the known universe. We then drop back down to Earth, Felix Baumgartner-like, and reunite with the parkgoers. The persistent camera continues its descent, now plunging past dead skin cells in one of the picnicker’s hands before isolating a single proton in the nucleus of a carbon atom, plugging away in a tiny blood vessel. 

Endlessly imitated in commercials and Hollywood films (Men in Black and Contact among them) and predating Google Earth (and Google Mars) by decades, the zoom continues to captivate viewers, leaving them either awed or overwhelmed by journey’s end. Paul Schrader, a devout admirer of the original “rough sketchPowers of Ten film that predated the final Chicago-based version by a decade, wrote that the interstellar roller-coaster ride allowed the viewer to “think of himself a citizen of the universe.” Charles Eames wanted the film to appeal to a 10-year-old as well as a physicist and claimed the goal was for viewers to experience a “gut feeling” about dimensions in time and space. The message was received. In 1998, Powers of Ten earned a spot in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress, the same institution that claims over 1 million archival items gathered from the Eames Office after their doors closed in 1989. That same office space in Venice, Calif., was later occupied by Facebook. When the Eameses established a temporary office in the Merchandise Mart in Chicago, circa 1950, in a previously unused, Charlie Kaufman-esque top-floor space, even the owner of the building, Sargent Shriver, wasn’t quite sure what they were up to. But the Eameses were once again ahead of the curve. Sixty years later, their makeshift office will soon be home to the Chicago offices for Google. 

This year marks the 35th anniversary of Powers of Ten, and Dec. 15 is the centennial of Ray Eames’ birth. (Ray completed her own remarkable powers of 10 journey in 1988, passing away 10 years to the day after Charles, her husband of 37 years.) The magic of their mind meld has been preserved in Beautiful Details, a spectacular new book exploring the Eames legacy that will enliven, or perhaps leave you questioning, your coffee table and the furniture that surrounds it. Perhaps even the cosmos.

The book, the first authorized work of its scale, was spearheaded by Eames Demetrios, grandson of Charles and Ray and principal of the Eames Office, a gallery and educational space now located in Santa Monica, Calif. In Beautiful Details, Demetrios notes that Eames films were never outsourced. “[Charles and Ray] never hired a film production company to make the films for them—even a technical tour de force like Powers of Ten.” Having harnessed the collective brainpower of the Eames Office, the film was completed with the financial support of IBM, which shared Charles and Ray’s concern that American students were falling behind in math and science and needed to be stimulated.

Subtitled “A Film Dealing With the Relative Size of Things in the Universe and the Effect of Adding a Zero” and based on the 1957 book Cosmic View by Kees Boeke, the guiding principle of Powers of Ten is that every 10 seconds our distance from the initial scene—the couple in Chicago, captured in an aerial shot 10 meters wide—becomes 10 times greater before reversing course to explore the galaxies within the human body.

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.”

  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Nov. 21 2014 1:38 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? See if you can keep pace with the copy desk, Slate’s most comprehensive reading team.