No documentary has told me more about the nature of human existence than Charles and Ray Eames’ 9-minute short, Powers of Ten: A Film Dealing with the Relative Size of Things in the Universe and the Effect of Adding Another a Zero. Sure, part of its hold on me is nostalgic; I recall being about nine years old when I was wowed by it. And now there’s a wonderfully dated school-classroom charm to the graphics and narration of this 1968 film, which was later revised in 1977; but its deeply profound impact is entirely in its simple concept. It demonstrates, through a slow tracking back of our perspective, the relative size of things.

We start with one man at a picnic on the grass in Chicago. As the camera pans back, we see what 10 feet looks like, and then 100 feet, and then 1,000, as we also hear the relative distance a man, a cheetah, an airplane can move in ten seconds. As we gain perspective on our infinitesimal place in the universe, we see how phenomenally far we are from the sun.

Powers of Ten takes us to point of being 100 million light years away, before we pan back to the man on the picnic blanket and delve into his skin, his blood cells, DNA and atoms.

It’s so difficult to get one’s mind wrapped around the concept of our place in the universe — you might as well make a sketch of the face of God — but the Eames’, that brilliant American designing duo, make a good effort.

It’s humbling and daunting to try to fathom the vast emptiness of outer space, but it’s also a vivid reminder of the immense richness of our own planet. We may just be dust in the wind, but we have life!

Maybe it’s not a documentary, per se, without characters and human narrative, but it’s a bit of nonfiction filmmaking that provokes more thought than any other I’ve ever seen.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen