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Film / Powers of Ten

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Powers of Ten (full title Powers of Ten: A Film Dealing with the Relative Size of Things in the Universe and the Effect of Adding Another Zero) is an educational 1977 short film by Charles and Ray Eames. The prototype of the film, titled A Rough Sketch for a Proposed Film Dealing with the Powers of Ten and the Relative Size of Things in the Universe, was released in 1968. Both works were inspired by the 1957 book Cosmic View by Dutch author Kees Boeke.

The film starts with a bird's eye view, exactly measuring one square metre, of a man and a woman at a picnic in a park near the south end of the Chicago lakes. The man lies down and sleeps and the woman reads. Accompanied by explanatory narration by Philip Morrison, the camera view slowly widens to a square of ten metres, then 100 metres, then 1 kilometre, widening by one power of 10 every ten seconds. The zoom continues in this fashion, encompassing the entire earth at the seventh power of 10 (10,000 kilometres), then the solar system, the Milky Way, until reaching the 24th power of 10 (100 million light-years), which was then considered to be the scale of the observable universe.


The camera then zooms back inward very quickly (one power of 10 every two seconds) to return to the starting image of the picnic, before returning to its original rate (one power of 10 every ten seconds) to zoom into a close up of the sleeping man's hand, revealing a cell, then DNA, then a carbon atom, and finishing with a view of the subatomic quarks at the negative 16th power of 10 (0.1 fermi or femtometres).

The narrator Philip Morrison adapted the film into a book, with each power-of-ten view represented by one image, surrounded by commentary about the objects and phenomena surrounding that particular order of magnitude. The film also inspired the 1996 IMAX documentary Cosmic Voyage narrated by Morgan Freeman, and the 2012 iOS app and short film Cosmic Eye.

In 1998, Powers of Ten was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry.


It can be watched here.

Powers of Ten contains examples of the following tropes:

  • Astronomic Zoom: The Trope Maker / Trope Codifier. The entire film consists of a long zoom outward to a cosmic scale and then inward to a subatomic one.
  • Epic Tracking Shot: The film starts with a picnic blanket in a park and pulls out, marking every time the distance has increased to a power of ten, until our entire galaxy is just a dot in space. Then, we zoom all the way in again and keep going until we get down to the structure of an atom.
  • Insignificant Little Blue Planet: Played with. The view always centres on Earth, and the phenomena surrounding all scales below the positive seventh power of 10 (10,000 kilometres) are Earth-oriented. However, a couple more orders of magnitude outward and Earth becomes too small to see as the view widens to the solar system, then the Local Interstellar Cloud, then the Milky Way Galaxy etc., and it is shown just how unfathomably minuscule Earth is in the grand scheme of things.
  • Reveal Shot: Encompassed by a continuous outward zoom that begins with a picnicking couple and ends with a view of what was then considered the scale of the observable universe, revealing more and more of the earth, the solar system, the stars, the galaxies along the way. This trope serves for educational rather than dramatic effect here.
  • The World Is Just Awesome: This is considered the original pullback-into-the-vastness-of-space short film, starting with a couple lying on a blanket in a park and pulling away until our entire galaxy is just a speck of light - then coming back, and zooming in to the atomic level. One can't help but be in awe.


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