In our week-long profile of designers Charles and Ray Eames, we studied their design aesthetic and philosophy and talked about the various media they used to forward those philosophies. They made hundreds of explorations into film, for varied purposes. Produced in 1977, Powers of Ten is perhaps their best-known film—and includes a book version. In it, the Eamses utilized the system of exponential powers to demonstrate the importance of scale.
The premise of the film is simple, though its scope is wide: a narrator—physicist Philip Morrison—guides the viewer on a journey that begins with an overhead shot of a couple in a park. The camera then pans back to see what a ten-meter distance looks like, then 100 meters, then 1,000 meters. Every 10 seconds, the viewer’s distance from the initial scene of the couple is magnified tenfold. We expand to the point of 100 million light years from Earth, a field of view of 1024 meters—the size of the observable universe.
The viewer then zooms back down to the couple picnicking in the park. From there, he is taken below the picnicker’s skin cells, to views of negative powers of ten, eventually isolating a single proton in the nucleus of a carbon atom in a blood vessel.
The Eameses were inspired to create the film by Kees Boeke’s book, Cosmic View: The Universe in Forty Jumps. Their aim was to explore the power of size, continuity, change, and relative importance of events through time and space. Charles stated that he wanted the film to appeal to both a ten year old and a physicist. The resulting nine-minute study demonstrates how well the Eameses make science relatable, understandable, and fascinating.
Charles and Ray never hired a film production company for any of their films—even one of this magnitude. Their work was funded primarily by IBM, who believed that American students needed to be inspired to learn more about math and science; this film was a step toward stimulating young minds to further explore and expand their knowledge.
In 1998, Powers of Ten was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”