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Why the Ken Burns Effect makes creating video so cool

Why the Ken Burns Effect makes creating video so coolIf you’ve used iMovie to create videos, you may have noticed the option for “Ken Burns Enabled”. It’s a feature that lets you control a still image almost as if it were a video clip. Technically it’s quite simple – just a matter of panning and zooming – but the end effect can be quite striking.

Ken Burns is an American documentarian – he makes documentary films. He’s known for his usage of archival photographs to tell stories about people and history. However, he didn’t name the effect after himself.

When Apple was implementing the technique into iMovie, Steve Jobs asked Burns for permission to call the feature the “Ken Burns Effect”. Initially Burns refused, but finally agreed when Apple made some sort of donation (he did not want his name used for commercial purposes).

Burns has publicly credited others who’ve used the technique before him, and even those who taught him to do it. But his name became synonymous with the technique on virtually every video editing software platform. As some have said, it’s similar to Hitchcock having become synonymous with suspense films or the Dolly Zoom (another film perspective technique you can see simulated here).

From slideshow to story

In an interview with PBS, Burns commented on how he perceives the effect given his name, “[I]t’s a very superficial version of a very honourable attempt on my part to will old photographs alive”.

Burns is passionate about telling the story behind those old photographs. He’s worked on several series that have aired on PBS including The War and The Roosevelts. His passion becomes clear when you watch them.

While researching for this blog I reviewed some of the excerpts from The War. His documentary is so powerful I was brought to tears as I saw both the savagery and the heroism captured in photos. Just seeing some of the images themselves would have been moving, but he succeeded in bringing those photos to life as they captured death and the dying.

The interview I mentioned above refers to a scene from The Roosevelts that also tells a story using a still photograph to help us understand Theodore Roosevelt’s impact. The video below is from that episode, and the still photo begins at 39 seconds. If you look at the photograph and listen to the narration, you will understand how Burns uses these photos to tell the stories of the past.


That’s why it’s cool

So the ability to pan and zoom over a still photo all by itself is “superficial” as Burns called it. But the technique offers all of us using modern video editors the chance to use it to tell our own stories.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve taken pictures of things, then later on thought to myself, “I should have taken a video too!” But I can still tell the story the video would have shown by using the Ken Burns effect on the photos I took (and probably some narration, music and/or text).

All of us can create videos that tell the stories of our lives – or our products in business using photos. It’s the final video and the story it tells that matters, not the original format of the media.

Oliver Burt

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