The Ken Burns Effect and Me

The Ken Burns Effect and Me

The famous movement on stills technique had its Roots in Slide Shows.

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March 14, 2019

Ken Burns has been credited with devising the “smooth moves on stills” effect that has permeated his various award winning productions. But, for history’s sake, I’d like to claim that this effect was developed simultaneously across the country by “multi-image” slideshow makers.

I’ve written here previously, and in my book “The Videobiz: A Practical Guide for Video Startups”, slidemakers using 2 or more projectors and the capability to transition smoothly between each image pushed the envelope to imitate motion. This, coupled with a great soundtrack, often convinced audiences they were seeing “movies”.

The slide shows often used historical still mixed with original photography. The historical images were shot on a camera stand, first manually– cranking the camera up and down to frame the picture– then, automatically, using programmable copy stands manufactured by Marron-Carroll and others.

The smart director would ask the camera operator to shoot three or 4 shots in a row “pushing in” to the picture (or pulling out) or panning left or right or diagonally. Combining these sequences with dissolves or cuts between the pictures simulated a sequence that added visual interest to otherwise static medium. Above is a short excerpt from such a show we produced in 1977 for Cleaver-Brooks.

Eventually this became second nature, and became part of the language in “multi-image” slideshows. It was a phenomenon I used to call “spontaneous combustion”– the fact that many people working along similar paths wouldld develop similar techniques and solutions to keep progressing along those paths. In other words, we in Milwaukee weren’t the only ones doing this.

Enter Video

In early 1978, we were asked to produce an opening “module” (as we used to call them) tracing the history of the credit union movement for the Credit Union Executives Society based in Madison, Wisconsin. This was our fourth or fifth assignment from them, having produced multi-screen slideshows for their annual and marketing meeting the last few years.

Feeling a bit bored, I suggested we should do the opening module in video instead of slides. Video projectors were pretty rare back then, but we had successfully used video projection for advertising awards shows in the past. That way we could show commercials that had been produced on video in their native format, rather than transferring them to film, which wasn’t cheap.

Renting the projector wasn’t cheap either, but the manufacturers of the one giant projector that coud actually do the job was willing to cut us a break on the $9000 rental cost in order to expose it to an audience of advertising pro’s. Yes, $9000. This giant behemoth, which stook five feet by four feet, had to be transported by train or truck. And allow two weeks.

So we worked out a deal with the manufacturer, got approval from the client, and went about starting to produce the video opener. We rented a video camera, and borrowed a Sony u-Matic editing system from the owner of the local Milwaukee Sub Sandwich Shop Suburpia. Why exactly he had such gear I still do not know. But it had come up in conversation at a bar, so I took advantage of that.

Soon we had hundreds of great black and white photographs detailing the history of the credit union movement. Now, what would we do with them to make this opener visually interesting?

Well for one thing, I had already developed a rather quick paced edit style in slide shows, so I wanted to keep doing that, only with video. We didn’t have any graphics or special effects capability other than quick cuts, so whatever we wanted to do would have to be done in camera. No problem. Photographer (now videographer) Linda Barton and I arranged our pictures chronologically, including shots of United States events to give it a universal flavor. Then, we proceeded to choreograph pans, zooms, pull outs, tilt-ups– anything we could do with camera movement and the zoom lens– and shot the historical video section of the video sequentially in camera. Live video was shot in a more traditional style, but still allowing for the long shot, medium shot, wide shot cutaway basics. It’s interesting to see this now (a short segment is below (sourced from vhs; please excuse the dropouts) and compare it to the earlier Cleaver-Brooks slide show– especially since we used some of the same historical photos.

Editing was then done to a soundtrack assembled– for the first time– as part of the edit. (I had done the majority of our soundtracks up to that time, so this was a natural extension for me.)

When it was all said and done, we had a video. We created some special title effects at a local “real” editing studio– it took all of an hour at most– and inserted those into the opening and close of the video.

Perfecting the Technique

Six months later, we were working on our first documentary– the life story of Eugene O’Neill, in concert with the Milwaukee Rep. By this time we had film editing equipment, and one of my partners, Rob Riordan, did similar magic using stills shot in a faux “rehearsal” by my other partner Ric Sorgel. It turned out beautifully, and that short segment in shown below.

I don’t remember when Ken Burns emerged on the scene, but I do remember mentioning to my wife at home watching one of his beautiful videos, “That style looks familiar.” I’m sure many slideshow makers across the country were thinking the same thing.

VideoBiz Book Now Available!

VideoBiz Book Now Available!

I’m proud to announce that the VideoBiz Book is now available on Amazon.

This book looks at the challenges of starting up or growing a video business, whether that business in serving, corporates, the home market, or something in between.

I started four different businesses in my career. I left my first business, a slide show business (yes, this existed), to get into video. I sold my second business and took a management position with a video equipment supplier for two years (I had a no-compete clause). This taught me a lot from the equipment side of things. After that, I joined a competitor to build up that company’s high end business. After the owner of that company retired and closed the business, I was encouraged by my Walgreens client, Dave Harnish, to start up again so I and some associates could continue to serve his big meeting video needs. That was 20 years ago.

Walgreens Wide Screen Meeting 1997

It goes without saying I learned a lot. There were plenty of successes, and a few failures. As a creative first, and business person second, I learned an incredible amount about both ends of the business. The creative stuff I taught to my staff, and many of those lessons are in the book. The business stuff are lessons that have stayed with me until now, and maybe they are things you already know… but you haven’t heard it from my perspective.

The Video Biz Book

This book is my perspective, and there are plenty of real life examples and case histories attached. There is an appendix full of resources, from quote sheets to creative proposals, to music libraries and video info sources.

As I write this, February 2nd, 2019, I have schedule this book to be free on the 4th and 5th of February. I encourage you to download it and give it at least the once-over. There are lessons in their for everyone! Improve your creative and avoid business pitfalls with The VideoBiz Book ebook on Amazon. (Paperback should be ready by late next week.)

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