Wednesday, September 06, 2017

History of the Ken Burns Effect

You know that technique you see in every historical documentary, with the camera slowly panning across a historical photograph (or painting) to create the illusion of movement? Is that just something that would obviously be used, or was it invented, something with a first example to be cited?  

In "Dawson City: Frozen Time," the recent documentary based on the cache of silent movies found there in the 1970s -- it's playing this month at Hot Docs in Toronto, and no doubt elsewhere too --the claim is made that the original use of the pan-and-zoom technique with still photographs was by National Film Board of Canada stalwarts Wolf Koenig and Roman Kroiter, in the Oscar-nominated 1957 documentary City of Gold, written and presented by Pierre Berton.

It seemed somehow implausible that something that seems so obvious actually had to be invented.  But the current New Yorker has a profile of the American documentarian Ken Burns, who made the technique his own in his hugely influential Civil War series for PBS in 1990. -- to such an extent that the method is now named for him.  Burns specifically credits "City of Gold" for showing him the possibilities.
He recalled two documentaries that had inspired him. One, a portrait of Gertrude Stein, by Perry Miller Adato, from 1970, used actors, reading quotations, alongside a narrator. The other was “City of Gold,” a Canadian short from 1957: the camera moved across archival photographs of the Klondike gold rush of the eighteen-nineties, and transitioned, almost imperceptibly, to near-motionless contemporary footage. On his first viewing, Burns said to himself, “Oh, I know where to go with that.” He spent much of his twenties and thirties in photography archives, with a camera pointed at photos attached, with magnets, to an easel. (He could pan and tilt, but zooms were too unsteady. These had to be done by a specialist, expensively, at an animation table, frame by frame.) Burns wasn’t alone in treating photographs this way—one thinks of the opening titles for “Cheers”—but the technique came to be associated with his work, and was later named for him. In 2002, Steve Jobs invited Burns to visit Apple, and demonstrated a new iMovie feature that engineers were calling the Ken Burns Effect. Jobs asked if Apple could keep the name, and Burns agreed, as long as the company supplied equipment to some nonprofit groups and to his own office. The two men became friends.
Follow @CmedMoore