The Ken Burns Effect is a camera technique that allows the filmmaker to retain some visual interest when all there is to work with is a static image. The camera focuses on part of the image, then slowly pans over it, optionally zooming slowly in or out as it does so. This can be used to slowly reveal details in the case of panning or zooming out, or focusing attention on specific details in the case of zooming in.
If you want to get fancy, slide multiple cells across each other at different speeds to simulate Motion Parallax
and give the illusion of depth.
This technique is most frequently used in documentaries (where period photographs may be the only visuals, aside from Talking Heads
, the filmmaker has to work with) and in Limited Animation
(where one fancy painting can fill in for a hundred or more cells of real animation). In one context, this effect wins awards; in the other, it draws cries of "Lazy Artist
!" Go figure.
The technique is named after
documentary filmmaker Ken Burns
, who used it extensively in The Civil War
and other documentaries. Ken Burns
himself credits Jerome Liebling and the 1957 National Film Board of Canada documentary City of Gold
as his inspirations for the technique.
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- Nine Eleven, the accidental documentary made when two French filmmakers were on the scene for the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001, uses this when showing a still photo of a chaplain's dead body being taken out of the WTC.
- For All Mankind, a documentary about the Apollo missions to the Moon, uses this when showing photos of the Earth and Moon.
- The PBS documentary series Secrets of the Dead both pans and zooms when showing still photos and images, in classic Ken Burns style.
- American Experience, another PBS documentary series, also uses this technique.
- John F. Kennedy assassination documentaries:
- Four Days in November, a 1964 theatrical release, uses this when showing stills.
- The Lost JFK Tapes: The Assassination, a collection of archival footage and news coverage from Nov. 22, 1963 (originally produced in 2009 for the National Geographic Channel), uses The Ken Burns Effect a lot, especially when playing radio bulletins over still photos.
Anime and Manga
- The season 3 episode of Community titled "Pillows and Blankets" uses this camera technique to full effect - fittingly enough, since it's a parody of Ken Burns documentaries (especially The Civil War).
- Used in several episodes of Spaced, with comics (instead of photographs) telling the story.
- War Thunder has this on the loading screens, but with the panning controlled by the user's mouse.
- Atop the Fourth Wall uses this to show panels from the reviewed comics.
- This video about a scoring technique for a homebrew clone of the video game Lumines uses pans and zooms over static images from 0:24 to 1:17 when telling the story behind the clone. An annotation on the video points this out: "interestingly enough, kenburns-style zoom effects like this make the titles in front *more* readable"
- In fact, this effect is quite common on YouTube. If you are uploading an audio recording but lack an accompanying video (for example, a song without a music video), you need some kind of video to go along with an audio. Many YouTube videos use the Ken Burns Effect to pan and zoom still pictures while the audio plays. See this video (of an old Linda Ronstadt tune) for an example.
- Ultra Fast Pony: The episode "Time" is a parody of documentaries, so the opening and closing scenes feature extensive panning and zooming over still images.
- Parodied (along with many other Burns stylistic tics) by Burns himself in "Ken Burns' In-depth Eugene Mirman Profile".