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Films of Charles & Ray Eames

Image // Unrated // August 23, 2005
List Price: $79.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by John Sinnott | posted October 4, 2005 | E-mail the Author
The Films:

The husband and wife team of Charles and Ray Eames were the modern equivalent of the renaissance man.  In the course of their lives they worked in many disciplines and excelled at each of them.  They were architects, photographers, teachers (Charles Eames was a professor of poetry at Harvard for a time), and the creators of museum exhibits, but they are best know for their design work.  The pair revolutionized 20th Century furniture using new materials and processes to make cheap and comfortable yet durable chairs out of molded plywood or fiberglass.  During WWII they lent their talents to the US government making strong but lightweight components for glider planes.

They didn't stop there though.  They also experimented in film, creating over 100 short subjects. The best of their movies have been released on six separate DVDs which have now been compiled into a nice box set: The Films of Charles and Ray Eames.

These films can be roughly segregated into two categories; instructional movies and films that expose the beauty in everyday objects.  The Eames, especially Charles, had an amazing eye for details and seeing things in a new light.  This allowed him to develop a direction style where the simplest things became works of art.  Whether it be toy trains of washing off a black top surface, the Eames could make the mundane seem elegant.  Some of the best examples of these films included in this collection are Tops, where a variety of spinning tops are filmed, and Toccata for Toy Trains, in which a toy-train journey is experienced from the point of view of the toys.

Even more important though is their instructional videos.  The Eames had a gift for explaining complex or misunderstood concepts in easy to understand terms that the everyday man could follow.  Their most famous film, and justifiably so, is Powers of Ten a look at the effects of multiplying by ten.  This movie takes some large numbers and gives them a grounding in reality.  After watching this it is easier to get a grasp on the scale of things; be it the galaxy or the diameter of a molecule.  A simple idea that is elegantly executed.  Other instructional videos that are outstanding include Atlas and IBM Mathematics Peep Shows.

These films aren't the boring reels that would be shown in middle school science or art class though, they are all engaging in one way or another.  They make you look at the world in a different way and entertain at the same time.  The only movie that I actively disliked in the set was 901: After 45 Years of Working, and that wasn't even created by the Eames, but filmed after their deaths.

The films included in this six disc boxed set include:

Volume One:

Powers of Ten - A wonderfully entertaining and enlightening film about what happens when you keep on adding zeros to a number.  Starting off viewing a square that is one meter on each side, the camera pulls back and another square is drawn which is ten time the original one.  Every ten seconds another square is presented which is ten time the size of the previous one.  The viewer speeds out into space seeing the planets, stars, galaxy's and clusters.  Then on the return trip we don't stop at a meter but continue seeing a smaller scale until we stop when focused on a proton in a carbon atom.  One of the Eames most famous films, and justifiably so.
 
 

901: After 45 Years of Working - Not actually made by Charles and Ray, this was the weakest film in the collection.  A half hour look through the Eames studio after Ray's death before it was all packed up and carted off to various museums.  This was sparely narrated and not very enlightening.  Basically images from a cluttered set of office and work space that lacked the artistry of the Eames films, and didn't really tell much about the people who inhabited it.

Volume Two:

Toccata for Toy Trains - a wonderful short that shows how beautiful everyday objects can be.  Vintage toy trains are put through their paces as passengers start at a train depo and go on a journey through a toy village.

House: After Five years of Living - the Eames designed their house and constructed it totally out of off the shelf industrial components.  This film consists of stills of the house and surrounding and grounds, showing how livable their project was.

Lucia Chase Vignette - an offshoot of House, this short film has the Eames daughter chasing a child who stole her diary through their house.

Kaleidoscope Jazz Chair - an experimental film that has some of the Eames' fiberglass chairs dancing around and being viewed through a Kaleidoscope.

The Black Ships - another interesting short.  The narration tells of Admiral Perry's opening up of Japan in the 1800's, while the images are from Japanese drawing and paintings that were made during Perry's visit, showing his ships, men, and the gifts he gave the emperor.  A unique way of looking at the meeting of two cultures.

Atlas - Shows how the European continent was ruled by different empires over the last few thousand years.  A map shows the boundaries of various empires grow and shrink as time passes.

Blacktop - another look at everyday objects and events.   This film shows the washing of a elementary school playground blacktop.  It shows the suds flowing and the paths the rivulets of water take.  Oddly hypnotizing.

Volume Three:

The films on this volume were made for and at a museum exhibit that was presented during America's bicentennial celebration.

The World of Franklin and Jefferson - biographies of the two founding fathers are given, comparing and contrasting their lives.

Franklin and Jefferson: Authors of Independence and Architects of the American Experiment - this is an abridged and slightly altered version of the previous film.  It presents much of the facts that the first film covers, but in a more concise manner.

The World of Franklin and Jefferson:  The Opening of an Exhibition - a look at the exhibit that the Eames designed.  Set to classical music without narration, this goes on a little too long, but gives you a sense for what the display looked like.

Volume Four:

Design Q&A - Charles Eames answers questions about design and its place in society while stills that illustrate his answers appear on screen.  A very concise yet through look at the discipline.

IBM Mathematics Peep Shows - a set of short films made for IBM.  These are really wonderful.  This set of films uses simple language and drawings to explain such obtuse mathematical concepts as topology and symmetry.  There are also films on mathematical functions, exponents, and Eratosthenes the Greek philosopher/mathematician who first calculated the circumference of the earth with a protractor.

SX-70 - a promotional film for the SX-70 instant camera.  Much better than I thought it would be, this film not only touts the simplicity of the camera, but also discusses the mechanics, optics and chemistry that went into creating it. Artful images and down to earth explanations make this a rare film: an extended commercial that actually informs the viewer instead of just selling a product.

Copernicus - using vintage books and woodcuts as well as contemporary images of the places he lived, this film tells about Copernicus and his discovery of the Earth's place in the solar system and the way it rotates.

Fiberglass Chairs - without narration, this film shows the construction of a fiberglass chair, from prototype design to the manufacturing process, to the completed product.

Goods - shows Charles special ability to be able to see the beauty of everyday objects.  A lecture he gave at while he was teaching at Harvard, he illustrated his talk with a tripyct of slides that constantly changed.  He talks about how amazing a ball of twine is; all wrapped up and seemingly endless, and the potential inherent in a ream of paper.  A wonderful short piece.

Volume Five:

Tops - a look at tops of all kinds: big and small, fancy and plain, common and rare.  Interesting shots of these everyday toys.

IBM at the Fair - a film record of the IBM exhibit at the 1964 NY World's Fair which the Eames helped designed.

A Computer Glossary - a little dated now, but this film explains how computers work and what terms like "software" and "subroutine" mean.

Eames® Lounge Chair - a short film on the chair that bears the Eame's name.

The Expanding Airport - a prophetic look at how passengers traveling by air will have to walk much more in the future to get from their car to the plane.  To solve this problem, they propose some very unique solutions, just about all of which have never been adopted.

Kepler's Law - Kepler's three laws of planetary motion are stated and illustrated.

Bread - a look at all of the myriad types of bread.  Impossible to watch and not get hungry.

Polyorchis Haplus - this small jelly-fish like sea creature floats and moves about an aquarium.

Tops (from Stars of Jazz) - an earlier version of the film that started this disc off.  This time with a Jazz score.

Volume Six:

Day of the Dead - a technicolor movie that captures the Day of the Dead festival in Mexico.  The tale of this celebration is told through the objects that are sold and used in the festivities.

S-73 - a look at the design of a collapsible sofa.  One that doesn't take up a lot of space while being transported but will still be easy to assemble, comfortable, and long lasting.

Babbage - Charles Babbage designed the first computer in the early 1800's.  A working model of his  'Difference Engine' was eventually constructed, and this model is shown working while the instruction manual is read over the images.

Alpha - a very short film that shows and alpha (?) going through some algebraic steps.

Exponents: A Study in Generalization: another very short film that illustrates some of the properties of exponents.

Solar Do-Nothing Machine - a solar powered machine that has many spinning and moving parts that ultimately does nothing.

Aquarium - a film on the designing a national aquarium.

Parade - the Eame's second film, this is similar to Toccata for Toy Trains, this has toys putting on a parade to the tune of a John Phillip Souza march.

The DVD:


This is a set of six DVDs each in its own Amaray case and all enclosed in a slipcase.

Ironically, these DVDs that present the films of two of the most important designers of the 20th Century are rather poorly designed themselves.  Originally released as separate volumes each one is only an hour long, with the first volume lasting only 46 minutes.  These films could have easily been presented on two or at most three discs, at a great savings of cost.  Or at least released in slimline cases to save space.

The first volume didn't have an introduction, so it is much harder to understand the 901 film.  That film would have faired better if it had been presented at the end of the last disc.  Introductions do appear on the other volumes.  These introductions are all identical, and appear at the beginning of the volumes with the exception of volume 5, where it inexplicably appears at the end.

The Eame's first film, Traveling Boy, is no where to be found in the set.  The next two films that they made are included, but I found it odd that the films that started it all was omitted.

Audio:

Most of these short films are in mono, but some of them feature stereo soundtracks.  Some of these films date from the 50's and the sound doesn't have the range and clarity that we've come to expect from contemporary films, naturally.  Taking this into account, the movies sound very good.  There is very little hiss or noise, and the reproduction is mostly clear.  Viewers will be very satisfied.  There are no subtitles.

Video:

All of the films in this collection are presented in full frame.  As far as I could tell, this was their intended aspect ratio.  The films are old but look very good for their age.  Some of the films have specks and slight print damage but these aren't ubiquitous.  Each disc is only an hour long, so there are very few digital defects.  A few instances of cross colorization popped up, and there was some minor aliasing but that was about all.  A nice looking set.

Extras:

Unfortunately there aren't any extras included on these discs.  An interview with the couple or and behind the scenes footage would have been nice.

Final Thoughts:

I really enjoyed most of the films in this set.  There are some really outstanding works presented here, such as Powers of Ten, Goods, and Tops.  Several of these I've already shown to family and friends, and the set has more replay value than you would first think.  Ironically the DVDs themselves seem to be put together in a rather haphazard manner, and not with a preplanned design, but this is a minor gripe.  Though I wish that the retail price was much lower, there are less than six hours of content altogether and no extras, this is still a set worth owning. Recommended.
 

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