Charles and Ray Eames | Blacktop | Tops | The Expanding Airport | Toccata for Toy Trains | Eratosthenes | Topology | IBM at the Fair | National Fisheries Center and Aquarium | Babbage | The Black Ships | SX-70 | A Computer Perspective | Copernicus | Atlas | Franklin & Jefferson Proposal Film | The World of Franklin & Jefferson

Classic Film and Television Home Page

Charles and Ray Eames

Charles and Ray Eames were American designers, who directed films, wrote books, and designed buildings and objects. They were a married couple (Charles was a man and Ray was a woman). Their longtime Office (their studio) is delightfully portrayed in 901: After 45 Years of Working (Eames Demetrios, 1990), a film contained as an extra on the DVD of Powers of Ten. Their grandson Eames Demetrios also wrote the book An Eames Primer (2001), a detailed look at their work.

Some common subjects in the works of Charles and Ray Eames:

Mathematics and Computing: Information: Techniques:


A Water Film

Blacktop (1952) is a film showing water and soap suds streaming over a blacktop-covered lot being washed. The film partly shows beautiful abstract patterns being created. And partly is a scientific study of the forms of water and soap.

Blacktop is perhaps influenced by filmmaker Ralph Steiner. His H2O (1929) shows patterns of water. Films about water have been avant-garde staples ever since.

Blacktop is unusual, in that it shows two kinds of fluid: water and soap suds. The two make contrasting kinds of visual patterns. Most films on water instead show only one kind of fluid in motion.

Suggestions in the Imagery

The flowing water and suds recall the poured and dripped paint in Jackson Pollock's abstract paintings. Pollock and his drip technique became famous in 1949, when Pollock was featured in Life magazine. Abstract art had very high prestige in this era.

The flow of the water anticipates the way later Eames films often show the "flow of people through buildings or environments".

The expanding, merging and changing boundaries of soap suds regions, anticipate the changing boundaries of ancient empires on the map in Atlas.

The swirling soap suds also look a bit light star clusters or galaxies, anticipating Powers of Ten.

Clarity and Professionalism

Blacktop has the crystal clear photography that will mark most of the Eames' film work. The Eames clearly wanted their work to look "professional", equal to that of Hollywood movies and photographs published in magazines. This perhaps relates to the image the Eames presented of themselves: they were innovative, experimental, but not socially alienated, bohemian or hippies. They were engaged with the world, and trying to improve it.


The Two Versions

Tops is the title of two separate, but related, films the Eames made in 1957 and 1969. Both show spinning toy tops.

Tops (1969) is more systematic. It shows the different kinds of tops: their shapes, how string is wound on different kinds of tops, different mechanical devices for giving them spin before they are released. In some ways, it is a science documentary on the different kinds of tops that exist, and how they work. It also has a theme and variations construction, showing the "different varieties of a common type of object", in this case tops.

Tops (1957) also features variety in top shapes, strings and spinning devices. But it is more of a free form extravaganza, often celebrating groups of tops in movement. It is on the same DVD as Tops (1969), and makes a good "sequel" to the more systematic 1969 film. I understood tops much better after watching the 1969 film; then that understanding helped me appreciate and understand the 1957 work.

Tops (1957) is in black-and-white, the 1969 version is in color. The same approach appears in other films for which the Eames made an earlier and later version, such as Powers of Ten.

Visual Patterns

Some of the tops have circles painted on them. The spinning circles anticipate the planetary orbits in the Eames' astronomy films.

The Expanding Airport

The Expanding Airport (1958) is an animated film, that embodies a proposal for the Washington DC airport.

Kinetic Architecture

The Expanding Airport has more about kinetic architecture: buildings with moveable parts or components. The Expanding Airport shows how innovative mobile units could ameliorate the long distances passengers have to walk in airports.

The book Kinetic Architecture (1970) by William Zuk and Robert H. Clark offers an extensive look at this fascinating field. It covers everything from revolving restaurants, to a series of classrooms in railroad cars that can be moved from location to location. The Wikipedia article offers further links.


The Expanding Airport is animated, and takes advantage of animation to include: These multiple kinds of material all convey information, that unite to explain the architectural concepts.

Science Fiction

There are science fiction motifs in The Expanding Airport. The film opening with astronomical imagery. The architectural innovations are "futuristic". Most explicitly, at the end the film shows those innovations being used in the future, in outer space.

Other "underground" or "experimental" filmmakers had links with science fiction. Ed Emshwiller was a leading science fiction illustrator, as well as an experimental filmmaker.

Toccata for Toy Trains

An Environment

Toccata for Toy Trains (1959) is a look at model trains of the circa 1900 era. The trains are shown running on tracks, against elaborate toy backgrounds of cities and countryside. An imaginary, toy world is created, full of trains, toy pedestrians, cars and cities.

The toy world becomes an entire environment: a "constructed space that allows humans to wander inside it". The Eames liked to create environments, often showing entire buildings in other films. These environments are usually full of people in motion. This includes the toy pedestrians in Toccata for Toy Trains.

Variations - and Ralph Steiner

Toccata for Toy Trains has a theme and variations construction, showing the different kinds of toy trains. And also different kinds of toy pedestrians and train passengers.

Also showing variations: the various mechanical linkages causing wheels to spin and levers to go up and down on the trains. These levers and wheels recall a bit Ralph Steiner's film Mechanical Principles (1930). Mechanical Principles is a pure work, showing linkage after linkage, operating as pure mechanical devices. Steiner admires the imagination displayed in the linkages, as well as the visual beauty and patterns the linkages create.


Eratosthenes (1961) is a short animated film explaining mathematics, part of the series IBM Mathematics Peepshows created for the museum exhibition Mathematica.

A Polymath Hero

Eratosthenes resembles later Eames science documentaries such as Copernicus and The World of Franklin & Jefferson: At the end of Eratosthenes, there is a mention of his friendship with fellow scientist Archimedes. This anticipates the emphasis on networks of intellectuals in The World of Franklin & Jefferson. Eratosthenes has a cute image, showing the men with an arm around the other's shoulder, a common gesture of friendship in 1961.


Topology (1961) is a short animated film explaining mathematics, part of the series IBM Mathematics Peepshows created for the museum exhibition Mathematica.

Animation: Used to Explain Mathematics

Topology explains "deformations of curves", by showing the curves being bent into numerous different shapes. It is a prime example, of taking advantage of the possibilities of animated films, to explain a mathematical concept.

Later, in Exponents: A Study in Generalization (1973), animation will be used to group and re-group exponents, moving them around on the screen, thus expelling why various laws of exponents work and are true.

IBM at the Fair

IBM at the Fair (1965) is a film record, of the Eames-designed IBM Pavilion at the New York World's Fair (1964).

Kinetic Architecture

The IBM building has a unique auditorium. The audience sits in bleachers, that are then lifted sixty feet into the air!

The music conductor in the auditorium also has a special chute, that whisks him upward. It reminds one of the cylindrical lift that shoots Ruby Keeler upward, in the musical number "I Only Have Eyes for You" in the film Dames (1935).

Multiple Screens

We get extensive glimpses of the film the Eames created for the IBM Pavilion. Called Think, it is the climax of a series of films the Eames made since the 1950s, that use multiple screens to project numerous different images.

National Fisheries Center and Aquarium

National Fisheries Center and Aquarium (1967) is a film, outlining the Eames' proposal for a national Aquarium to be built in Washington DC. The Aquarium was never constructed. However, both this film and detailed plans survive.

An Environment

The Aquarium is one of the Eames' environments. Like other such environments, the Eames emphasize the progression of people through the space: The model work showing people move through the entrances recalls a bit Toccata for Toy Trains.


Many of the Acquariums I've visited are simple collections of fish. By contrast, the Eames' Aquarium is full of educational displays. This is consistent with the Eames' life-long work in creating educational exhibits. These displays convey and teach information.

Many of the lessons center on how evolution developed different, specialized kinds of sea creatures. Others inform about the environmentalism. One suspects that both kinds of exhibits would be anathema to toady's right wingers. Then again, today's monstrous conservatives seem to want to destroy education and science.


A Pioneering Computer

Babbage (1968) is a brief look at the Difference Engine of Charles Babbage, one of the world's first computers (first half of 19th Century).

Babbage is not perhaps compelling as a pure film experience or work of art. But it is surprisingly informative. While still photos of the Difference Engine are common in books, this is the first time I've seen the Difference Engine in motion. It makes a useful supplement to the Eames' own book A Computer Perspective, which discusses Babbage's work.

Babbage conveys how the Engine was intended to be operated. The narrator reads from Babbage's own instructions, while we see the Engine at work. This gives a feel for how the Engine was intended to be used.

Visual Patterns

The revolving circular wheels that make up the Difference Engine are a recurring subject in the Eames' work.

The Black Ships

The Black Ships (1970) is a film about Commodore Perry's mission to Japan, negotiating the opening of Japan to Western contact (1852-1854). It is mainly based on Japanese art of the era.

Explaining Science and Technology

Perry brought models of Western technology, to demonstrate to the Japanese. These included a small railway, and a telegraph set up between two buildings. Perry resembled the Eames themselves: he set up "exhibitions of advanced technology" for informational purposes. It is easy to see how Perry's work would fascinate the Eames.

The Black Ships also shows the many illustrations the Japanese made of Perry's technology, both of the models he brought, and the devices on his ships, such as anchors. These illustrations too are "educational visual materials about technology". The 1970's creations of the Eames frequently included historical documents showing how science and technology were conveyed visually in different eras. A Computer Perspective, Copernicus, The World of Franklin & Jefferson are rich is such historical visual materials. These documents too resemble and are predecessors to the Eames' own work illustrating and explaining science and mathematics.


SX-70 (1972) is a documentary, showing features of Polaroid's new camera, the SX-70.

SX-70 is a remarkably informative film. It is packed with information, all of which is explained with both depth and clarity. The flood of ideas anticipates Eames' masterpiece in detailed scientific explanation, A Computer Perspective, on which the Eames were working at the same time.

The technical informational core of SX-70 goes through two sections or stages:

A Computer Perspective

A Book and an Exhibit

A Computer Perspective (1973) is a book about the early history of computers. It examines not just computing machines, but the rise of mathematical techniques, and the role they played in industry and society.

A Computer Perspective began life, as a museum-style exhibit of the same name (1971). I have only seen photographs of the exhibit: some of them are included in the book. While the exhibit seems perfectly sound, I suspect that the book is a better medium for the presentation of this material. It is compact, easily distributed, and everyone can have a copy at home!


A Computer Perspective is one of the major classics of multi-media. The book encompasses three types of material: text, photographs and mathematics. Every page is a rich combination of photos and text. And mathematics is discussed throughout.

A Computer Perspective shows how profoundly mathematics is integrated with modern-day life.

Other Multi-Media

Multi-Media is much discussed, but specific multi-media works are rarely mentioned. Quite a few multi-media books should be much better known.

LIke the Eames' A Computer Perspective, books on geometry often mix text, pictures and mathematics. See for example Geometry from Euclid to Knots (2003) by Saul Stahl, an introductory survey, or Knots: Mathematics with a Twist (2002) by A.B. Sosinskii (or Sossinsky), a popular introduction to Knot Theory. Books on mathematical recreations also often involve such a multi-media mix: see The Colossal Book of Mathematics (2001) by Martin Gardner, or The Tangram Book (2001) by Jerry Slocum.

Breakthrough Fictioneers (1973) edited by Richard Kostelanetz is a huge anthology, of many kinds of innovative works that fall broadly into the category of "narrative" or "fiction". Many use a mix of visuals and words.

Honor Your Partner; 81 American Square, Circle and Contra Dances, With Complete Instructions for Doing Them (1949) by Ed Durlacher is a "how-to" book on square dancing. The book's mix of music, dance, photos and text is especially rich and varied, in terms of the different kinds of media it uses. It contains two sections:

Mystery fiction often includes maps, floor plans and diagrams: An Atlas of Fantasy (1973, 1979), edited by Jeremiah Benjamin Post, reproduces maps of many imaginary places, mainly from science fiction and fantasy stories. See the Wikipedia article.

Jonathan Crowe's blog The Map Room is a massive source of information about contemporary map making. The tag Imaginary Places covers maps of fictional regions.


Copernicus (1973) is a documentary about the Polish astronomer who proposed that the Earth orbits around the Sun.

Copernicus was made the same year as the first version of the Franklin & Jefferson films. It has much in common with them:

The lack of in-depth exposition of ideas makes these films different from some of the Eames' earlier work. These films are not pure science or math documentaries. Nor are they a very deep dive into history like A Computer Perspective. Ideas are hardly absent though, and there is quite a bit of scientific material.

The portrait of Renaissance science and scholarship in Copernicus would make it a good companion piece to The Age of the Medici (Roberto Rossellini, 1973).


Atlas (1976) is an animated film, showing a map of the Ancient Mediterranean world. It displays moving, changing boundaries of the Roman Empire and other empires, showing how they expand and contract over time.

Atlas resembles Powers of Ten:

Films like Atlas could be made showing changing boundaries of other geographic regions in other eras. One suspects that the Eames hoped Atlas would be a "pilot", demonstrating how geographic information could be conveyed by film.

The title Atlas is perhaps significant. An "atlas" is a collection of maps. While Atlas shows a single map, it is constantly changing over time, "morphing" into different shapes. So it is not just one map, but a whole collection of maps, evolving over time.

Franklin & Jefferson Proposal Film

Franklin & Jefferson Proposal Film (1973) is a detailed sketch, offering both a look at the proposed The World of Franklin & Jefferson exhibit, and an early draft of the accompanying film. In many ways, the two films are quite close, although The World of Franklin & Jefferson is a good deal longer.

Franklin & Jefferson Proposal Film sometimes contains interesting information left out of the longer The World of Franklin & Jefferson. For instance, we learn more about the Frenchman whose questionnaire led Jefferson to write his book on Virginia. We learn that the young Franklin met Newton's editor. Franklin's studies of water spouts is included. There are more images of Jefferson architecture, such as the University of Virginia. Different pictures sometimes pop up on the timeline.

Both films, packed with information, make interesting complements to fiction films on the same subjects, such as 1776 (Peter H. Hunt, 1972) and Jefferson in Paris (James Ivory, 1995).

Water in the Street: Links to Blacktop

Early street scenes, showing the types of city streets where Franklin grew up, are covered with water. This recalls the Eames' Blacktop. We get numerous shots of the wet street, making a whole little mini-film about water and pavement. In the later The World of Franklin & Jefferson, the water is gone, and the streets are now covered with snow. This is charming, but less interesting than the water in the Franklin & Jefferson Proposal Film.

The World of Franklin & Jefferson

The World of Franklin & Jefferson (1977) is a film closely related to the Eames exhibit of the same name. Both show the life, times and many associates of Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.

Information Providers

The portrayals of both Franklin and Jefferson stress their roles as information providers, craftsmen and/or designers: in other words, figures much like the Eames themselves: The sheer polymathic character of both men, the way that they worked in so many directions to inform and assist their fellow men, is underlined. This multi-faceted approach also recalls the Eames.

We see astronomical models used, looking much like those in Copernicus.

Contacts Between Nations

Jefferson is a seen as a person involved with contact between nations, an Eames theme. The late research Jefferson sponsored on Native Americans, their customs and languages, in the Lewis-Clark Expedition, echoes that in Jefferson's early book on Virginia.

Franklin is depicted as the American Colonies' "unofficial ambassador" to Britain. And later as the chief US representative in France.

The Timeline

The detailed timeline is accompanied by pictures. These pictures are usually of still images, not motion pictures. But several are usually onscreen at once. In this they recall the Eames' work with multi-screen films.