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December 6, 2012

How an experimental film changed the way we see Chicago

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CHICAGO —

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.

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 faked. 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."

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Slide show on "The Making of 'Powers of Ten.' "

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