Meaning in Motion: Ken Burns and His ‘Effect’

Few of us will ever develop a technique distinctive enough to have it named after us, but most people serious about visual storytelling know what the Ken Burns Effect is: the intentional use of movement on still photographic images. The recent release of Soundslides Plus puts this tool in many more hands. As multimedia reporting grows in influence and impact, more journalists than ever need to understand such techniques, which are common in video and documentary work, but new to photography.

This raises a critical question about using pans, zooms and tilts with still photos:

Now that we can, when should we?

I recently put that question to some expert editors — including Ken Burns himself.

The Ken Burns Effect demonstrated on an image of Ken Burns.

Burns believes the photograph is still the core of visual storytelling, that “the still image is still the essential building block, the DNA, at least photographically speaking, of visual creation.” From that foundation emerge three concepts to consider when working with movement and photography.

1. Be true to the photograph.

For Burns, any motion on an image comes in pursuit of meaning. He says there are no hard and fast rules: “All there is is what works; that is to say, what ultimately has meaning. I’ve been guided for more than 30 years by a sense of the primacy of the individual image to convey complex information. As I became a filmmaker, I trusted that still photograph to be a representation of a moment that was once very much alive. And so I treated it in much the same way that a filmmaker would a long shot, therefore having the possibilities of a medium [shot], a close [up], a pan [across], a tilt [up or down], a reveal, all the devices of cinematography within the seemingly static still image. And I not only looked at the photograph, I listened to it — all in the service of meaning, what it is I’m trying to communicate, what I’m trying to do … What we seek is meaning, and any movement, however dazzling or frenetic, if it doesn’t have meaning, it doesn’t have a place.”

Jim Douglas is an award-winning photographer and editor at KARE-TV in Minneapolis who loves the power of the still photograph. He agrees that there are no hard and fast rules, and says that movement needs to improve the story itself. “The charm and beauty of a frozen image is that it doesn’t take off on you. If it’s a powerful image, I wouldn’t mess around with it. What’s gained by moving on that image? There are times it makes a difference to moving your story along. It can work for you. No ironclad rules apply. Take a critical look and use your intuition.”

Searching for the meaning in the image can mean making an ethical choice as well. In the May 2007 issue of News Photographer magazine, Rich Beckman, professor of multimedia at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, says movement has the potential to alter meaning instead of revealing it. “[W]hat happens when you start panning and zooming within your slide show? Does it change the meaning of a photograph when you zoom out from a detail to the full frame? Or begin on one side and pan to the other? Of course it does. You give emphasis to the detail you choose to begin your zoom on, actually making that decision for the viewers. And a photograph often presents a different message when panned across the page rather than viewed all at once. These techniques are not inherently unethical, but it is important to consider if you are altering the perception of reality or meaning that a still photo conveys when you add motion.”

2. Guide the eye.

Beckman points out that by using motion, you are telling the eye where to look. Burns says that’s part of the search for meaning. “At times you want to move in a slow and deliberate way that reveals something new — that’s telling a story, right? You tilt up (on) somebody and there’s a surprising aspect to their face, or you tilt down from a face and find out that there’s a gun stuck in a waistband — these are storytelling. So movement propels storytelling and meaning, but there are times when you absolutely have to stop and look and drink it in and say that the eye receives it physiologically in a fraction of a second, but you sit there and something else comes and suddenly compositional and other elemental tensions come into play, and then perhaps holding even more permits the meaning that you’re intending to come through, or the meaning that’s inherent to come through.”

Documentary editor (and former National Press Photographers Association Editor of the Year) Jonathan Menell says use motion to look for the small but important things. “A great image is so big you’re never going to see the detail, so I’ll pan from one detail to another detail. Where is this going, what’s coming? Oh, something’s coming into the frame. There’s a way of starting tight and revealing a relationship, or starting wide and moving in to reveal a detail the viewer might have missed otherwise.”

3. Less is more (effective).

Menell says any treatment of sound or picture needs to be an intended use and not a crutch. “A crutch keeps you from falling down, but you’re never going to get going very fast. At the right time and the right place, movement can be very effective in terms of revealing information.”

Burns says it’s important to make thoughtful choices. “We live in an MTV generation, and a YouTube generation in which everything has to move, everything has to be frenetic as a video game. We struggle to think that we’re adding meaning by doing these movements, but of course all we’re doing is moving for the sake of movement, which is no meaning whatsoever. I think that there’s a kind of anxiety that if I don’t move, something will be missing, I’ll lose my audience. But I think we all know that all real meaning in this world accrues in duration. The eye, we know, can physiologically receive an image at a fraction of a second. But that doesn’t mean it’s accompanied by meaning. … And so I think we have to at some point say no to this kind of mindless, anxious movement for the sake of movement. The moving in and out, the seasickness of imagery that happens all the time in our lives and try to replace it with something more durable, something more permanent, something more meaningful.”

Burns says that last word as if it were two — with a pause and then a strong emphasis on the last syllable: “meaning full.” It’s a concept that could come in handy for any editor tempted to use empty effects.

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