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The Ken Burns Effect

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This film is stuffed to the brim with strange, unnecessary, artificial zooms. I have a feeling that they did this mostly because they couldn't be bothered to move the camera around...because that takes effort... The majority of shots are static, and they probably realised how boring that is for what's supposed to be an energetic kids movie.

Also known as "kinestasis", 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. A Feet-First Introduction is often in order.

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 (1990) and other documentaries; his younger brother, Ric, who worked with him on The Civil War, has also used it in his own documentaries, including The Donner Party (part of PBS' The American Experience series). Burns himself credits Jerome Liebling and the 1957 National Film Board of Canada documentary City of Gold as his inspirations for the technique.

Among animators, this technique is sometimes called a "Filmation Pan," because Filmation made such frequent use of it (e.g., Kirk delivering his "Captain's Log" summary as we slowly pan across a painted alien landscape in Star Trek: The Animated Series).


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  • As noted above, the Trope Maker was 1957 short film City of Gold, which used pans and zooms of photos of the 1897 Klondike Gold Rush to liven up the action.
  • Ken Burns was the Trope Codifier with The Civil War, which was all photos and Talking Heads, but he uses it in all his documentaries, starting with Brooklyn Bridge (1981), continuing on through The Statue of Liberty, The Civil War, and others, and including projects such as Prohibition, The War, and The Vietnam War that have plenty of live-action footage.
  • 1973 Manson Family documentary Manson is an example of this effect from well before Ken Burns started making movies. Not only did the filmmakers pan and zoom with still photos, they also moved photos around the screen.
  • Used extensively in Amy, possibly because that film eschews another documentary trope, Talking Heads. One particularly chilling instance has a Ken Burns pan on a grainy photo of Amy Winehouse suddenly freeze as her friends talk about her first overdose.
  • Hoop Dreams is mostly live-action but uses this trope occasionally, such as when the camera zooms in on Spinning Paper news articles or when it zooms in on Arthur's middle-school yearbook photo.
  • 9/11, 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. In fact, Ken and Ric Burns themselves have been involved in a number of documentaries aired as part of this series.
  • 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.
  • Classic Albums: The camera will zoom in on still pictures or details of the album covers.
  • In the Realms of the Unreal: It's about the artworks of reclusive outsider artist Henry Darger, cuts the Darger's illustrations of his sprawling magnum opus into layers and pans across them at different speeds to create a parallax effect that makes the images look more three-dimensional.
  • In the 1997 informative video The Kids Guide to the Internet, the webpages of 1997 were small and text-heavy. To make it visible to the viewer, the page is zoomed in and panned left to right.
  • The Times of Harvey Milk: Used heavily throughout the movie, with many many pictures being panned and zoomed. Possibly the most notable instance comes when a newspaper photo of Dan White (Milk's murderer) is shown as his confession plays. As the audio clip goes on, the camera zooms in on White very very slowly, ending with a tight closeup on his eyes.
  • The Sorrow and the Pity: Used periodically throughout the movie. In one quite effective shot the camera shows Marshal Petain, then pans over to show Hitler on the other side of the picture, thus illustrating the Franco-German summit in 1940.
  • Hearts and Minds: Used sparingly, as the film is mostly live footage. One instance shows a picture of Ho Chi Minh, then zooms out from the picture as Senator Fulbright muses about how Ho wrote to the United States government in 1946, expecting support for a rebellion against colonial oppression.
  • Gates of Heaven: Used only once, when Phillip Harbert points to a framed photo of William James, and the camera pans over the photo while Harbert recites a James quote: "Emotions are not always subject to reason but they are always subject to action."
  • O.J.: Made in America uses this trope fairly sparingly, usually with slight zooms meant to focus attention on the subject of a picture, commonly O.J. Simpson.
  • The James Dean Story, a 1957 documentary co-directed by a young Robert Altman, was an early example, generally employing quick pans and zooms. The film's intro touts its use of "a new technique—dynamic exploration of the still photograph."
  • Turner Classic Movies makes heavy use of this in the short documentaries sometimes used as filler between features. Typically a film still, or a production still, or a photo of a movie star, will be subjected to extensive panning.
  • Used sparingly in Trouble the Water, one example being a slow zoom onto a photo of Scott Roberts' grandmother, as he talks about how she died in Hurricane Katrina when the doctors and nurses at her hospital abandoned her and the other patients.
  • When We Were Kings: We see a grainy newspaper photo of reporters George Plimpton and Norman Mailer, staring in open-mouthed astonishment. The camera then zooms out to reveal that it's a picture of George Foreman tumbling to the ground as he's knocked out by Muhammad Ali.
  • Dawson City: Frozen Time uses this throughout. It also mentions that the Trope Maker was City of Gold.
  • Early on in the Vietnam War documentary In the Year of the Pig, this is used on a photo of a man at a helicopter with ammunition belts draped around him. He gets a Feet-First Introduction and then it pans up to his face.
  • The works of Jon Bois, particularly his Dorktown series, are often visually centered around a single chart or collection of charts that the camera pans around and zooms in on over the course of the video.

    Non-documentary examples 

Anime and Manga

Films — Animation

Films — Live-Action

  • Battles Without Honor and Humanity uses this in the recap of the events that begins each film, and during some transition sequences.
  • Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid uses this to liven up the photo montage that illustrates the gang's trip to New York City and thence to South America.
  • Black and White in Color uses this throughout the opening credits, which play over a series of era-appropriate early 1900s still pictures of French soldiers. It's a film set in a French colony in Africa in 1915.
  • The Christmas That Almost Wasn't uses this for the ending montage of Santa delivering presents.
  • Days of Heaven uses this throughout the opening credits, which play over a series of era-appropriate 1920s still pictures.
  • Dillinger (1973) uses this for the opening credits, in which the credits play over a series of stills of the Great Depression as the camera pans and zooms. This is also used for a couple of Time Passes Montages within the movie.
  • Subverted in The Facts in the Case of Mister Hollow. The film consists of pans and zooms over a strange photograph, but the camera not only moves past obstacles to view impossible angles, the image changes when the viewer isn't looking.
  • I Am Joaquin: Used nonstop from the beginning to the end, in a 20-minute short film about the history of the Chicano people and their culture. There is no live footage in the movie, just 20 minutes of still photographs, with the camera panning and zooming to bring the photos to life.
  • Both Lady Snowblood and sequel Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance have sequences with stills and drawings, a nod to the original comic, complete with pans and zooms.
  • The Last Metro: A lot of quick panning and zooming of still photos in the opening montage in which an unseen narrator explains the setting (Paris during the German occupation of World War II).
  • Still pictures and this trope are used in The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean for a comic Time-Passes Montage, which shows Roy's posse doing stuff like catching a bad guy in an outhouse and catching another bad guy seemingly about to violate a sheep.
  • The 1963 adaptation of Lord of the Flies used this effect to depict the events leading up to the plane crash.
  • The last reel of silent film Sadie Thompson has been lost due to decay of the negative. When Kino released the film on DVD, they included a "restored" ending that used still pictures from the set along with the original dialogue. The DVD employs the Ken Burns Effect, panning and zooming to make the still pictures more lively.
  • The opening credits of Soylent Green use this effect to portray the progression of life in the US from the wide-open prairies of the turn of the late 19th century to the polluted, overcrowded cities of 1970.
  • Three Brothers: Both pans and zooms used when Raffaele is looking over the crime scene photos of a judge, like him, who was assassinated by terrorists.

Live-Action Television

  • 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).
  • Similar to the Sadie Thompson example above, many official and fan-made reconstructions of missing Doctor Who episodes use this technique on set photos and sceencaps (alongside clips from existing episodes, CGI, and composited images) timed to the existing audio.
  • Used in several episodes of Spaced, with comics (instead of photographs) telling the story.
  • This effect was used for the old-timey photos shown in the opening credits of Cheers.
  • Also used by the intro to the final season of The Virginian ("The Men from Shiloh").
  • Mystery Science Theater 3000: In the episode The Christmas That Almost Wasn't, the movie uses this effect for one scene near the end. So they parody it by also using this effect in the final host segment, with the various characters exchanging gifts.

Video Games

  • War Thunder has this on the loading screens, but with the panning controlled by the user's mouse.
  • Fate/stay night does this with its fight-scene artwork but using faster and more dramatic camera effects than the typical occurrence of this trope.
  • OFF slowly pans the camera across detailed black-and-white illustrations while explaining each zone's particular industry, e.g. farming cattle for metal.

Web Media

  • 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".
  • While SCP-3972 mostly uses Stock Footage, at times it features static images being panned and zoomed. It's not called "Ken Burns presents: SCP-3972" for nothing!

Western Animation

  • The Moon and the Son: An Imagined Conversation: Used repeatedly for the still pictures of the narrator, his father, and their family, as the son tells the story of his toxic relationship with his dad. Sometimes also used with animated backgrounds.
  • Walking: Before all the shots of people walking, there are several stills of people not walking—sitting in cars, at home in apartments, waiting on a bus. The camera glides over these stills, which act in contrast to the exuberant motion of the people walking.

Alternative Title(s): Ken Burns Pan, Kinestasis


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