Lightness & Density: The Films of Charles & Ray Eames

Posted February 21, 2014

Charles & Ray’s “films contain some of the most generous, sincere and original ideas of the century.”

The article below by Michael Neault is from his blog, Snore & Guzzle, originally published in 2008.  After reading it, learn more about Eames films by clicking here.  All images in this article are ©Eames Office, LLC.

This emptiness is normal.
The richness of our own neighborhood is the exception. 

– Powers of Ten

Single frame from POWERS OF TEN by Charles and Ray Eames

Single frame from Powers of Ten by Charles and Ray Eames

Lightness & Density: The Films of Charles & Ray Eames

Charles & Ray Eames were artists adept at an astonishing number of disciplines. They produced museum exhibitions, architecture, logotypes, toys, slide-shows, furniture, books, photography, paintings and over 100 films. However, their films are the least discussed of their output. One of the main reasons is the sheer difficulty in acquiring access to them. Only about a quarter of their films have been released on home video. They are one of the few American artists with an entire era named after them, but their films are rarely placed on a level with their furniture or architecture. And yet their films contain some of the most generous, sincere and original ideas of the century.

When you enter the property of Charles & Ray Eames in Santa Monica, California, you pass a stacked cord of firewood, a shed of old tools, potted plants in clay jars, and a multitude of mulch-covered paths. There is nothing particularly remarkable about the landscape but, by virtue of their very proximity to the Eames’ house, everyday objects acquire a unique charge that can only be described as Eamesian. The Eamesian touch is tempting to describe, but best left for the images to speak for themselves.The film House (After Five Years of Living) (1955) documents the structure Charles & Ray designed, and lived in from 1950 until their deaths. The film is a series of 35mm stills, and by shooting over a period of several years, Charles was able to capture very precise moments and perspectives in and around the house. You see the house as Charles might have seen it and get a sense for the spatial relationships and how light interacted with the architecture. Some of the more subtle details are highlighted in these photographs: a window with butterflies pressed between the glass; a small black and white photograph of trees on the facade; the spiral staircase from multiple angles. House was produced using a unique system of optical fades, which Charles invented especially for this film. Charles & Ray had a knack for invention, and it’s a quality they share with Stanley Kubrick – when confronted with a technological constraint, they would not be discouraged, they would innovate.

Considering their knack for invention, one of Charles’ most famous quotes seems counter-intuitive: “Innovate as a last resort.” This quote only makes sense in the context of their research and methodology. The Eames’ had a keen sense of history, and spent a good deal of time researching before they committed to a project. If they could build upon their pedigree, rather than create anew, they would. They wouldn’t innovate just for the sake of innovation.

Charles & Ray moved to California from Michigan, where they met at Cranbrook Academy of Art. Charles was teaching and practicing architecture with Eero Saarinen and Ray was a student of fine arts. Upon arriving in California in 1941, they began experimenting with molded wood, using a machine they had crafted to pressure-treat wood. After finessing the technique, they were contracted by the US Army to produce splints and stretchers made from a single mold. The molded plywood experiments would ultimately develop into their best known furniture designs: the plywood chairs and later, the Eames lounger. The assembly of the Eames Lounger is documented in Lounge Chair (1956), a simple, black & white promotional film made for the Herman Miller furniture company. Elmer Bernstein made an improvised score on this film, and worked with the Eames on nearly all of their films. Even though Bernstein was working on the score for the epic The Ten Commandments (1956) at the time, he found time to work on a small film made in a workshop.

The manipulation of plywood was revisited and refined into many forms throughout the life of the Eames Office. The original premise behind the plywood chair was to make an organic piece of furniture with the least possible components. There is a general stratagem in science that says the best solution to a problem is often the simplest, and therefore the most elegant. Charles & Ray Eames applied this concept to their furniture designs, and later, their films.

The first chairs were designed without upholstery, and therefore exposing the base plywood. This represented an important ideal for Charles & Ray. Objects and materials should be appreciated for their intrinsic worth, and should not be disguised as anything else. This ethos is displayed in Toccata for Toy Trains(1957), made the same year the Eames Lounger was produced. The introduction to the film contains a narration by Charles: “In a good old toy there is apt to be nothing self-conscious about the use of materials. What is wood is wood; what is tin is tin; and what is cast is beautifully cast. It is possible that somewhere in all this is a clue to what sets the creative climate of any time, including our own.”

This statement feels somewhat out of place in a film that is ostensibly made for children, but it was common for Charles to smuggle ideas in unlikely places. For the Eames, honesty was a virtue applied not only to human emotions, but projected onto all materials and inanimate objects.

Toys occupy several of the Eames films, including Tops (1969), a purely visual film that documents the short life span of a spinning top. It’s essentially a silent anthropological film and captures tops from different cultures and eras. The Eames Office contained a menagerie of toys, and it was Charles who once asked rhetorically, “Who would say that pleasure is not useful?” Both Toccata for Toy Trains and Tops are shot from the extreme perspectives of close-ups – an expressionistic technique that lets the audience experience toys as if from the eyes of a child.

Toccata for Toy Trains was actually inspired by director Billy Wilder, who gave the Eames a precious miniature locomotive called the “Grand Duke.” Wilder and Eames met on the MGM lot, and were introduced by Alvin Lustig (a California based graphic designer). They maintained a close relationship and Charles & Ray accompanied the newlywed Audrey and Billy Wilder on their honeymoon. Charles produced a montage sequence for Wilder’s Spirit of St. Louis (1957), which featured images of a subject dear to his heart: airplane craftsmanship. (This film is notably the only foray into Hollywood filmmaking. It is telling that Charles & Ray were never seduced by the glamour and money of the studios.)

Later, Charles designed a reclining lounge chair for Billy, and also gave him the first Eames Lounger off the assembly line. Wilder even commissioned a house to be designed by the Eames, but it was never built. Charles Eames introduced Billy Wilder to designer Saul Bass, who later designed the colorful patchwork titles for Wilder’s Seven Year Itch (1955). Bass would ultimately become Hollywood’s foremost graphic designer.

One of Wilder’s closest collaborators, writer I.A.L. Diamond, is credited as a co-writer and consultant on View From the People’s Wall (1966). This film is a condensed version of Think (1964), a multi-screen presentation played at IBM’s pavilion during the New York’s World Fair in 1964-1965. The “people wall” is a reference to the stacked stadium seating of the Ovoid theater. The Ovoid Theater was the centerpiece attraction of the IBM Pavilion, designed by Charles and Eero Saarinen. It was an egg shaped structure that stood 90 feet above the ground. Inside was a bewilderingly complex set of 22 screens, of varying shapes and sizes, where 35mm projectors played a synchronized film presentation. The film is essentially a lesson in problem solving. Although it was experienced by fair-goers for the sensational entertainment, it was not unlike taking a short college class. The lesson was simple. Problem solving was not reserved for elite scholars and engineers. If one could approach familiar problems in the same manner as complex ones, solutions could seem more within reach. It’s a provocatively simple and positive idea.

The film IBM at the Fair chronicles the architecture and exhibitions of the pavilion, with a breeziness that barely hints at the amount of effort that went into its construction. Within the film there a several cameos of Eames furniture, and a brief glimpse of Ray herself, who looks directly into the camera.

Here, it is important to note that Charles & Ray were active at an pivotal juncture in the history of design. They were working in post-war America, where business was experiencing unprecedented growth, and the American public had acquired a taste for good design (for just one bit of evidence, see the film American Look(1958), sponsored by Chevrolet). They were working for IBM — one of the most affluent companies in the world, and a company helmed by Thomas J Watson, Jr, an exec who was famously concerned with the image of his company. Paul Rand was employed as creative director at IBM for many years.

It is not entirely clear at first how IBM, as a client, would benefit from an extremely expensive film on problem solving, and one that didn’t even highlight IBM products. Thomas Watson has stated that his company had an ongoing self-interest in cultivating a well educated American society. Eames Demetrios, in his book Eames Primer, saw it like so: “Charles tried to put it in a more hard-nosed context of genuine value for the company over the longer term — not just the notion that a well-educated public would in the long run be a healthier society and a better market for IBM’s products, but also that a society with deeper understandings was a better one for IBM to operate within.” When you take into account the technology that IBM was developing and marketing, this becomes a very progressive notion. And at the same time, one gets the impression that Charles was putting a wicked spin on the situation to further his own interests. He once said about IBM, “I think I could even persuade them of the value of the toy films if I had to.”

The Eames’ films are frequently lumped into a category known as “classroom” films or “sponsored” films (which are exactly what they sound like: films shown in a classroom setting, and films funded by corporate sponsors, respectively). And while neither is technically false, it isn’t entirely accurate either. While Charles & Ray were frequently contracted by corporations like Polaroid, Westinghouse, and IBM, they never made films on demand. Nearly all their films represent a symbiotic relationship between the artist and the client, and they only made films when there was genuine interest. Witness Westinghouse ABC (1965), which is essentially a montage of the Westinghouse product line (note that the Westinghouse logo was designed by Paul Rand). Even here there is a spirited interest in the subject. In the film, Charles & Ray focus on the technology and typography at a break-neck tempo and transform what would otherwise be an incredibly dry subject into something rich and lively. Also, in SX-70 (1972), intended as a promotional film for the newly released Polaroid SX-70 camera, the Eames’ take advantage of the opportunity to discuss optics, transistors and to display their own polaroid photographs.

Charles & Ray Eames used film as a “tool,” and asserted that their films were vessels for an idea. For them, the idea was more important than the medium. When one interviewer proposed that their films might be interpreted as experimental, Charles replied, “They’re not experimental films, they’re not really films. They’re just attempts to get across an idea.” Paul Schrader, in the lone academic article about their films, “Poetry of Ideas,” published in Film Quarterly in 1970, said, “The classic movie staple is the chase, and Eames’ films present a new kind of chase, a chase through a set of information in search of an Idea.”

If you think of ideas as a product, the films were simply the most effective method of delivering the ideas to the public. And considering the Eames’ appreciation for mass production, you might even consider their film output to be ideas produced en masse. There are few filmmaker analogues to the Eames’, and while they made non-fiction films, they’re not really documentaries, they’re more like film essays — a genre most people think to be occupied exclusively by Chris Marker or Agnes Varda. Yet, while Marker is often sprawling, Charles & Ray crafted a visual language as spare and precise as that of Hemingway’s. Rarely do their films exceed a single reel of film, which is roughly 10 minutes.

Paul Schrader developed an argument in his Film Quarterly essay that the Eames’ films practice a type of “information-overload,” wherein the audience is subjected to a surplus of information — “more data than the mind can assimilate.” While there is a good deal of data to be absorbed, I don’t believe it was designed to be overload. It’s hard to imagine that a designer as pragmatic as Charles Eames would’ve set out to boggle people’s minds. Consider one of the rare interviews Charles gave as a supplement to a French design exhibition. He was asked, “What is your definition of design.” And replied: “A plan for arranging elements in such a way as to best accomplish a particular purpose.” The rest of the interview is so succinct that it almost feels terse.

Charles was pre-occupied with the idea of “noise” in communications systems, an idea explored in A Communications Primer (1953). Information overload would’ve resulted in an impenetrable wall of information.

If there’s one theme all the Eames’ films share, it’s clarity. Most of the Eames’ films can be understood and appreciated by audiences of all ages, and all backgrounds.

Powers of Ten (1977) is the Eames’ best known work and a culmination of many ideas and themes. It is also something of a skeleton key for understanding the rest of their work. It presents the profound idea of orders of magnitude, with the subtitle of the film being: A Film Dealing With the Relative Size of Things in the Universe and the Effect of Adding Another Zero. The film was originally developed in 1968 and was entitled, A Rough Sketch for a Proposed Film Dealing with the Powers of Ten and the Relative Size of Things in the Universe. The “rough sketch” in the title is testament to the Eames’ penchant for perpetually iterative design. This is the case for many of their projects — Tops was initially made in black and white in 1957, and perfected 12 years later in color; the Eames Lounger was an idea 30 years in the making; Powers of Ten took so long to evolve that in the time it took to produce, science had broken through yet another power in the understanding of quantum physics.

The narrative of Powers of Ten uses the simple device of an imaginary traveler shooting out to the cosmos and then boomeranging back to the micro-cosmos. We begin with a couple having a picnic in a park, and as the man lies down for a nap, the journey commences. The camera rises like a ghost from his sleeping body and flies out to the far reaches of the known universe. It then returns to the man and proceeds to journey deep into the cell of the human body, finally landing on the micro-structure of a carbon atom. Measured in meters, it maxes out at 1025 and ends at 10-16. It is all done in a single, continuous, seamless shot. You might call it the most ambitious tracking shot in the history of cinema. The seamlessness in editing can be compared to the fluidity of a spinning top, the compound curves of the plywood chairs, or one of the many photographs Charles took of eggs. The film is narrated by Philip Morrison, a physicist at MIT, and a close friend of Charles & Ray.

From frame one, the audience is presented with what Edward Tufte would call, in relation to information design, a multidimensionality of information. There are numerous examples of multiplicity in image, where one design element is made to do the work of two or three. And not unlike reading a map, the audience is presented with signs and symbols to eliminate redundant information, and to compress data.

The first shot shows a man on a beach blanket (reading Voices of Time by J.T. Fraser, for good measure), and the left side of the frame is labeled 1 meter, which equates to the maximum height of the frame, and on the right, the frame is labeled 100 meters. As the journey progresses, the frame recedes systematically and becomes a measuring stick for space on the X and Y axis. As the camera moves away from the man in the park, we are informed that we are moving at a pace of 1010 meters per second, and that “in each ten seconds of travel the imaginary voyager covered ten times the distance he had covered in the previous ten seconds.” Rather than moving at an arbitrary pace, the film equates the momentum of the tracking shot with that of space, and so, the exponential series is charted on the Z axis of depth and time. Therefore, not only does one see the progression of space, one feels it in the progression of time. Simultaneously, the narrator is citing visual metaphors to further convey the relativity of objects — “104 meters, 10 kilometers, the distance a supersonic aircraft can travel in ten seconds.”

Powers of Ten has a cyclical structure, and could be played from tail to head with the same effect. The short mathematics film Alpha (1972), made for the museum exhibition “Mathematica,” was designed in the same manner. In classrooms, the teacher was instructed to run the film forwards, and then backwards to illustrate the point. The film form itself is as much a reflection of mathematical concepts as the film is a study of them.

Philip Morrison, as quoted by Tufte in his book Envisioning Information, once described the visually rich human history of charts, graphs and maps as “Cognitive Art.” Powers of Ten could also fit neatly into this category. It is perhaps the first map to incorporate the element of time.

Once the camera reaches its furthest vector, at 1025 or 100 million light years, the voyage pauses for a moment, and the narrator remarks: “This lonely scene – the galaxies like dust, is what most of space looks like. This emptiness is normal. The richness of our own neighborhood is the exception.” And once the voyage back to Earth starts, the narrator comments further: “Notice the alternation between great activity and relativity inactivity, a rhythm that will continue all the way into our next goal: a proton in the nucleus of a carbon atom beneath the skin on the hand of a sleeping man at the picnic.” He’s comparing the juxtaposition of galaxies and the vacuum of deep space, and the relatively vast distance between tiny particles at the atomic level.

While this is clearly practical information for the science student, it is also telling commentary on the Eames’ own artistry. Their films have a tendency to alternate between what Italian writer Italo Calvino might refer to as “lightness and density.” Most of their films are a careful balance of heavy information interspersed with refreshing bits of featherweight beauty and humor. In all of their short mathematical films, after a set of challenging equations, a small animated heart pops out just before the end of the film.

In his Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard, Italo Calvino reminded the audience about the reciprocal relationship between lightness and density. He was speaking about literature, but used a metaphor that Charles & Ray would probably find appropriate:

“At this point we should remember that the idea of the world as composed of weightless atoms is striking just because we know the weight of things so well. So, too, we would be unable to appreciate the lightness of language if we could not appreciate language that has some weight.”

In the final and smallest stage of the film, we approach the carbon nucleus. The narrator says, “We are in the domain of universal modules. There are protons and neutrons in every nucleus, electrons in every atom, atoms bonded into every molecule out to the farthest galaxy.”

It’s one of the last statements Charles put on film, and it’s a comment — not about the difference of things, as one might think at the start of the film — but about the universal sameness of things. As such, you begin to understand Powers of Ten is much more than just a document representing orders of magnitude. And it all happens in 9 minutes.

Charles Eames died the year after Powers of Ten was released. After Charles passed away, Ray Eames spent the next ten years chronicling the expansive portfolio of the Eames office into a giant book called Eames Design. She also spent time preparing their materials for archiving at the Library of Congress. There are 800,000 photographs now stored at the Library.

Charles was once asked by the Royal College of Art in London to create a documentary about 901 Washington Boulevard — the headquarters and workshop of the Eames Office. Within the workshop was an integrated space that had darkrooms, cutting rooms, a theatre, a kitchen and a woodshop — basically everything the Eames’ needed to work self-sufficiently. It was also outfitted with an unusual musical invention. Charles & Ray crafted a musical tower made from metal tone bars, not unlike those you might find on a glockenspiel. They assembled the bars vertically, braced by a chute, so that when you dropped a ball into the tower, it would play a music-box-like melody. It was a fitting musical accompaniment for the space.

Charles documented 901 (as they liked to call it) through a kaleidoscope for the Royal College, giving the space a mysteriously fractured and colorful atmosphere, and totally obscuring any real clues about the space. Only years after Charles & Ray had passed away, and weeks before the Library of Congress came to cart away their materials was the workshop documented by their grandson, Eames Demetrios in 901: After 45 Years of Working (1990). As Gordon Ashby once noted, “901 was Charlies’ instrument – and he knew exactly how to play it.”

Editor’s note: This article was original written for an Eames retrospective exhibited at the Dryden Theater at George Eastman House. The following films were screened:

16mm Films

Tops (1969, 7 mins)

Toccata for Toy Trains (1957, 13 mins)

Lounge Chair (1956, 2 mins)

Kaleidoscope Shop (1959, 4 mins)

SX-70 (1972, 11 mins)

View from the People’s Wall (1966, 13 mins)

901: After 45 Years of Working (Eames Demetrios, 1990, 29 mins)

35mm Films

IBM at the Fair (1965, 8 mins)

Alpha (1972, 1 min)

Exponents (1973, 3 mins)

Westinghouse ABC (1965, 12 mins)

House (1955, 10 mins)

Powers of Ten (1977, 10 mins)

Many thanks to the Library of Congress and the Eames Office, LLC.

Snore & Guzzle is a private press started around 1999 by Michael Neault. At Snore & Guzzle’s principal interest is story telling, and story listening. Storytelling, that is, in all its multivarious modes and manifestations. As a press, Snore & Guzzle prints mostly short-form fiction and creative non-fiction. As a website, they collect and share the most interesting things they can possibly find. As a cooperative, Snore & Guzzle is composed of: red striped straws, birch bark, sinkholes, vanilla bean, india ink, concord grapes, glacial meltwater, dimples, calluses, fresh cream, bassoons, brushes, a handful of moist loam and all my bright, crackly friends. The name is drawn from a very long book written by an author who wrote only one book, and then disappeared.

Michael Neault is a media and content producer with a focus on interactive media and emerging technologies. He works with museums and institutions around the world to translate curatorial visions into media-based narratives. Likes include: collections, storytelling, the brain, cinema, data visualizations, cartography, exhibit design and swimming holes. Michael works for Second Story Interactive studios in Portland, Oregon. You can also find him on Twitter: @michael_neault