The Eames Audience Experience

Posted January 18, 2016

Charles said of the many films he and Ray produced, “They’re not really films. They’re just attempts to get across an idea.” That humble statement belies the extraordinary and elaborate efforts that characterize many Eames film presentations.

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Charles and Ray often used multiple screens. They first took this approach with their film Glimpses of the U.S.A. at the 1959 American Exhibition in Moscow, and then refined the technique for House of Science, produced for the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair.

They took an additional step to engage their audience when they produced their third film Think!—the centerpiece of the IBM Pavilion at the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair—by adding an in-person host to welcome all their guests. This tuxedo-clad man personalized the experience by addressing everyone directly. Then, he interacted with the screens of the “Information Machine” and explained the film’s ideas as an integrated part of the show.

The Eameses may have come up with this idea in 1962, after watching their film House of Science with an audience. In a letter to a friend, Charles wrote about a “…very interesting crowd reaction when the guide casually announced that the ‘producer’ [Charles Eames] was in the audience. The crowd reacted entirely different. Seemed to be drawing more from the film—laughed and responded on cue, and applauded loudly at the end. This was repeated on four occasions and the results were identical. I believe it is of more significance than a show of deference to the ‘creator’—in some way it woke them up and they were forced to pay attention.”

Charles and Ray couldn’t be there for every screening during the two-year run of the New York World’s Fair, but they could and did include a host in every show that took place inside the Ovoid Theater.

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“The Barbican Eames exhibition (21 October 2015 – 14 February 2016) includes detailed sketches and plans for the IBM Pavilion and Ovoid theater, as well as a scaled model. Think!, a short film which uses images of everyday scenes to explain how computers process data, is also on display across multiple screens, as it would have been in the Pavilion. It’s a fantastic example of the Eames’ eye for a great image and their ability to distill complex ideas into easy-to-understand concepts,” according to Creative Review‘s “Ten Things To See at The World of Charles and Ray Eames.”

Here is a description of the New York World’s Fair presentation from an 1964 IBM brochure:

About 500 people wait with you to be carried upward into the Information Machine. Suddenly, from an opening in the green canopy overhead, your host drops down, riding a tiny platform. A quick welcome to the Information Machine, and he disappears up into the theater as suddenly as he arrived. Then the 60,000-pound Wall carries you smoothly upward in full view of Fairgoers on the ground.

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You rise into the darkness of the theater, the huge bay through which you entered is drawn up, the world is closed out, and the show begins. You adjust quickly to the dim light inside the Information Machine—and soon you make out the multi-faceted interior, the fifteen screens of various shapes and sizes that line the curved wall. Suddenly your host reappears on a balcony before you. As he starts to explain that this is really an information machine—because it is a way of telling you quickly and vividly all sorts of facts—the screens burst into a blaze of light and color. Some of the pictures move, some are still and flash on for brief moments before vanishing—but always the pictures, the sound, the host himself are woven into a coherent whole.

 At the bidding of the host, information leaps at you from all directions. Just to show what the machine can do, he fills the screens with miscellaneous information about himself—his credit card, the change in his pocket, what he had for breakfast, what’s inside his closet, even a little chat with his mother up in Schenectady.

‘That’s how the Information Machine works,’ your host tells you. ‘Now this is how we would like to use it…You’ll see that the method used today in solving even the most complicated problems is essentially the same we all use daily…

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Another example, he announces—and suddenly you are in the roaring midst of a road race. With all screens filled with action, you see far more than if you were actually on the spot: you are in many places at once, on the curves, in the pits, with the onlookers, in the driver’s seat, inches from the ground next to the front wheel…

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In concluding a review of the Pavilion for the July 1964 Popular Science magazine Henry Comstock wrote, “If the 30 ton People Wall returns you to earth still wondering why data-processing machines are useful, it’s no fault of IBM’s.”

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