“Power Trip” tessellates and synchronizes a multi-channel mash-up of pop science cinema spanning half a century of scientific knowledge and imagination. The film begins in the Netherlands, in 1957, with Kees Boeke's Cosmic View: The Universe in 40 Jumps, a book exploring outer space and our inner selves through orders of magnitude. It then takes us, in turn, to Miami in 1968, for Charles and Ray Eames' Rough Sketch film adaption of Boeke's book, and to Montreal in that same year for the National Film Board's Cosmic Zoom version, then to Chicago in 1977 for Powers of Ten, the Eames team's final draft, Venice in 1996 for the IMAX remake Cosmic Voyage, and, finally, Mountain View’s Googleplex in 2012 for the "Cosmic Eye" smartphone app.
I edited together these six versions of the same concept to challenge traditional notions of authorship and copyright though a constant cross-comparison that asserts fair use to demonstrate the iterative nature of ideas. This destabilizing of ownership is particularly important given the largely white and Western provenance of both the makers and the people and places they depict. For instance, Charles and Ray Eames are widely considered to be among America’s most influential designers. Over the course of their prolific and collaborative careers, they made substantial, and often ground-breaking, contributions to a variety of fields including architecture, manufacturing, furniture, and photography. They also made over 125 short films.
The premise and structure of Powers of Ten is quite simple. It opens with a picnic in a Chicago park then gradually zooms out by powers of ten to encompass a view 100 million light years away before plummeting back to earth and then magnifying by negative powers of ten all the way down to a single proton. Decades before the Hubble telescope, Google Earth, drones, and all the other aerial and outer space imagery we now take for granted, Powers of Ten virtually sent viewers up into the sky and then still higher into outer space in a precise, measured, and scientific simulation of ever-increasing speed and expanding perspective before returning to earth to zoom in for a similar journey to the center of an atom in search of the most basic building blocks of life. The nine-minute journey exploring the origins and extent of our very existence thrilled audiences at home and abroad and would go on to become one of the most widely viewed short films of the late 20th Century, screening in schools across the country and around the world. After such a remarkable and extended run, the United States Library of Congress entered Powers of Ten into the National Film Registry in 1998 as a tribute to the film’s outstanding cultural, historical, and aesthetic significance.
But, over fifty years, as viewers have come to expect the visualization of scale to take them anywhere and everywhere, it's worth asking what these aesthetically exciting renderings of scientific concepts are actually accomplishing. For instance, even as drones expose strip mines and bird's eye imagery reveals the impending coastal and migratory consequences of climate change, "Street View" allows networked audiences to stroll across borders with unfettered access by floating effortlessly and frictionless across boundaries of space, time, and sovereignty. Such an entitled and totalizing gaze upon other worlds and peoples can be deployed as a techne of surveillance, dominion, and control. For instance, my initial “rough sketch” of “Power Trip” was a single channel critique of how Powers of Ten redacted the explicit moral framework of Keys Boeke's original book. I explained how Boeke was an education reformer, pacifist, and anti-capitalist who began his book with an image of a schoolgirl in front of a U-shaped building that was constructed by the German military during their occupation of the Netherlands and ended it with an earnest plea for world peace in the nuclear age through careful stewardship of atomic power. I then pointed out that Powers of Ten was commissioned by IBM, the transnational corporation that supplied the U.S. Defense Department and, allegedly, sold and maintained punch card machines that the Third Reich used in death camps during World War II. In order to make space for my analysis, I muted most of Powers of Ten’s original voice-over and spoke as the film played in real time in the style of critical karaoke, so it was less a re-mix and more like a re-make or cover—and a dense one at that.
Reviewers urged me to revise the project and imagine how a less didactic and more poetic mode might better evoke the elegance of the source material. This feedback resonated; after all, Charles Eames designed the film to give a ten-year-old a kind of “gut feeling” about the dimensions of time and space. Following my reviewers’ prompt, I took a more affective and iterative approach to “Power Trip” that emphasized the subjective experience of Powers of Ten in a new, and perhaps more crowd-pleasing, way—much like how the Eames team took their more scholarly "rough sketch" prototype made in 1968 for the annual meeting of the Commission on College Physics and replaced the detailed on-screen instrument panel with a less cluttered and more streamlined interface. While I am pleased with the result, and think that the new form helped “Power Trip” reach a wider audience, I’m not sure that I struck the right balance between attraction and intervention. In redacting myself, I mimicked the Eames’ own move, opting for clean design over messy analysis, and, perhaps unwittingly, remade the remake of a remake that has since been remade many times. I can only hope that my mash-up is not only a nostalgic voyage through interstellar and subatomic space that recalls the awe and wonder of seeing ourselves from afar and within for the very first time, but also, as a multi-channel work enabling constant cross comparison between derivative yet distinct texts, a commentary on the evolution of pop science cinema and the nature of authorship itself.
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BIO: Christopher Boulton has worked for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, written scripts for Travel Channel, Discovery, and Court TV, and co-produced and co-wrote the documentary Not Just a Game: Power, Politics, and American Sports. Dr. Boulton is currently an associate professor of communication at the University of Tampa where he teaches courses in media studies and video production. He has taken students to make documentaries in Ecuador, Morocco, and Thailand, and collaborated with them on a wide range of student film and television projects ranging from science fiction to food competitions. Dr. Boulton’s writing has appeared in the Howard Journal of Communications, tripleC: Communication, Capitalism & Critique, Media Education for a Digital Generation, and The Routledge Companion to Advertising and Promotional Culture.