What is the Ken Burns Effect?

In the world of video production and editing, Ken Burns is a legend for his long-form documentaries that span history, music, and sports. In fact, his narratives are so iconic that the main storytelling technique he uses has been dubbed the "Ken Burns effect" over time. Below, we've shared the magic behind the Ken Burns effect, why the filmmaker relies on it so frequently, and how today's basic editing programs can simulate the effect fairly well.  

Who is Ken Burns?
Known for epic documentary series like The Civil War, Jazz, and Baseball, Ken Burns is a national treasure. His films take their time to establish important characters, frame them in the context of historical events, and create a realistic narrative that is thoroughly captivating and informative. All of his films employ interviews, photographs, newsreels, and multiple narrators to paint a comprehensive picture. Of these techniques, the Ken Burns effect is when the camera zooms or pans on a still image, bringing it to life. 

Where Does the Ken Burns Effect Originate?
Though Burns may use his effect more than any other filmmaker, he wasn't the first person to come up with it. Burns credits a 1957 documentary film called City of Gold, which tells the story of Canada's Klondike Gold Rush through archival photographs. Directed by Colin Low and Wolf Koenig, the film won the Cannes Film Festival's Palme d'Or, and was produced by the National Film Board of Canada.    

Why is the Effect Used?
Generally, live action footage is the most captivating way to tell a story in film, but for many historical subjects, video footage is unavailable. To make the most of photographs and newsreels, Ken Burns uses camera techniques like the wide shot, close-up, tilt, pan, and reveal for dramatic effect. This also allows him to focus on the most important subject in a photo, so that it syncs up with the narration.   

How Can I Create the Effect on My Computer?
Today, simple editing software like iMovie has the "Ken Burns Effect" as one of its many options, so you can create a screensaver-like movie with all of your favorite photos. Perfect for weddings, vacations, and family reunions, the effect provides a practical simulation of Burns' iconic zooms and pans, though it doesn't have the director's intent. 

To apply the Ken Burns effect in iMovie, select the desired clip in your timeline, click on the Cropping icon (it looks like a frame), and then choose "Ken Burns" in the Style section. A "Start" and "End" frame will appear on your clip, allowing you to control the camera's placement, zoom, and panning. Just click on the frames to drag and resize them, and then click the "Apply" button in the top right corner to save your changes. 

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