There are many styles of documentary filmmaking, but one of the most well-regarded is that of the award-winning documentarian Ken Burns. His films—which include PBS series on jazz, baseball, and Prohibition, among many others—are hallmarked by a distinct use of still images in addition to moving pictures as a mechanism to tell the stories.
His use of still images in particular is so iconic that the film world has named a whole effect after him. The “Ken Burns effect” involves panning and/or zooming over still imagery to give it a little animation within a film or video. Burns’ documentaries are historical, and enough footage of events being chronicled isn’t always available to craft a film entirely of moving pictures. To fill the gaps, he uses photos. He wasn’t the first filmmaker to do this, but he certainly is the most widely regarded.
The effect lends a visual flow to a piece that wouldn’t necessarily have it if the image was presented unmoving. Fortunately, it isn’t hard to achieve. Most editing software even has a built-in “Ken Burns effect” function. Here are a few tips to help you incorporate it into your film projects.
Make It Meaningful
Don’t just throw photos into your piece for the novelty of it. If you are going to use a still image, make sure its contents lend something to the story you’re trying to tell on film or video.
It’s in the Details
Make sure the audience can easily make out what’s in the photo—too grainy or blurry doesn’t serve any purpose, and when you start the effect of zooming or panning, it will be even harder for your audience to grasp it. Make sure the images are of the highest resolution possible and visually uncluttered.
Slow and Steady
When you start to add the moving effect, whether it be panning or zooming, do it slowly and purposefully. In your editing software, you’ll be able to map out the starting point and the finishing point of the movement, as well as the time it takes to get from point A to point B. Make sure it doesn’t happen too quickly; it can end up looking jerky or twitchy, which is distracting.
Vary the Movement
If you’re using the Ken Burns effect on multiple photos in a piece, vary the direction of panning and zooming. If you are panning slowly left on one image, try panning right on the next one. Try zooming instead. Try panning and zooming at the same time. The more varied the movement, the more fluid the piece should look from shot to shot.