Monday, June 30, 2008

That Damned Metric System!

This show had been requested by popular demand at the last show that I did in Raleigh. These films were made during the late 1970s push for the nation to adopt the metric system of measurement. Gee, it seem so easy to learn compared to the English system. I wonder why it was dropped in the 1980s?

Generally, math films are hard to watch. Most are very dry and, while trying to make a math concept easier with examples, tend to muddle up things. I did a show a couple of years ago called "Math!" where I pulled out some math films that seemed to rise above the genre (Donald in Mathemagic Land, some rare Multiplication Rock, The Weird Number and of course, Powers of Ten). So putting together a night of compelling metric system films was going to be a challenge. I had a short list of titles that I was going to put on a compilation called "That Damned Metric System". Here are the films that I showed:

The Metric Film (1975) Lewis Hall
Discusses the history of the metric system, conversion to the metric system and how to solve measurement problems. There's some tongue-in-cheek scenes such as the official "meter bar" being gently placed on a shelf and being locked away in a safe in France - only to hear it drop off the shelf behind the safe's door.

Wonder Baby (1978) Metric Marvels series - Yohe & Newall
This is part of the Metric Marvels series made by the same talent behind the Schoolhouse Rock. So the animation, humor and song stylings are there but the subject matter is so simple (the metric system is so much easier to understand than the English system) that the concept of each piece makes it more confusing. This contrasts other Schoolhouse Rock pieces which had the challenge of simplifying hard elementary school lessons into catchy songs and cartoons.

This particular film features the animated superhero Wonder Gram in a discussion of metric measurement. (a young Wonder Gram converts pounds to kilograms). Basically, Wonder Gram (an overweight Wonder Woman) was a fat kid. Her parents, embarassed by her weight, decided to list her weight in kilograms so it would seem less (since 2.2 pounds equal one kilogram). Wonder Gram then reveals that she can change her size (from a gram to a metric ton).

Metric Meets The Inchworm (1974) Bosustow Entertainment
Uses a story about Fred Inchworm (whose voice is a poor man's Jimmy Durante) to explore the basic components of the metric system and show the advantages of converting to this form of measurement. Fred quits working at the ruler factory when they go metric and goes from job to job trying to find an occupation that hasn't switched over to metric.

Wonder Gram (1978)
Metric Marvels series - Yohe & Newall
Tells how Wonder Gram foils a gang of snack thieves and demonstrates the multiples of metric weight. This film had the catchiest song of all the Metric Marvels series.

Make Mine Metric (Or how I learned to stop worrying and love the gram) (1975) Braverman Films
Presents a light-hearted introduction to the metric system and the situations it will cause in our daily habits when driving speeds, supermarket purchases, dress sizes and other every-day items are recast into metric figures. This one was aimed towards adults and was maybe a little too clever for itself.

Eeny, Meeny, Miney Milliliter (1978)
Metric Marvels series - Yohe & Newall/NBC
Explains how Liter Leader helps a camp cook deal with an army of hungry children by showing him how to use a metric measuring cup.

Measure Weight - Think Metric (1974) Barr
Introduces the concept of measuring weight in metric units. Shows two girls as they visit a chemist to learn about the standard units of weight. Tells how they use their new knowledge to compare the weight of common things in their home and to bake a metric cake. The audience love when then girls decide to weigh a sleeping cat. The cat is picked up and dumped in a produce scale and begins batting at the scale's measurement arm. The audience audibly gushed. Everybody seems to be a sucker when it comes to kitties on the screen.

Mara - Mara - Marathon (1978) Metric Marvels series - Yohe & Newall
Shows how Meter Man uses a track meet to explain kilometers and other metric distances. None of these films were particularly memorable - although they weren't run as often as the Schoolhouse Rock series.

A Rough Sketch for a Proposed Film Dealing with the Powers of Ten and the Relative Size of the Universe. (1968) Charles Eames Films
Powers of Ten was probably the first film that I saw as a kid that used the metric system. It's a very elegant way to teach about scale, orders of magnitude and the metric system. This particular version that I screened was a "rough sketch" that I found in a collection. It is not as smoothly animated as the final film and it has a British female narrating. Plus it starts off in Miami, Florida, where the final film starts in Chicago. Given that it is a "rough sketch", I don't know why it was distributed to the public except maybe Eames was trying to raise money for completing the final film which was release nine years later.


Roloff said...

Hilarious! Nice to see a fellow collector. I'm compiling a 16mm evening of myself featuring (partly) animated educational films, and just picked up THINK METRIC for that reason. Apart from girls weighing a sleeping cat, does it also feature animated instruments? If not, I have a different THINK METRIC than you do!

Jaysd3rd said...

Where did you find footage from the Metric Marvels? (I can't find them anywhere)