The Ben Kurns Effect

There’s nothing more boring than something just sitting there on a movie or TV screen doing nothing. Think test pattern here – boy, I remember being a 5 year old, sitting in front of the TV at 6 in the morning waiting for that test pattern to go away and for Davey & Goliath or New Zoo Review to come on (if you watched D&G as a kid and haven’t seen Moral Orel on Adult Swim yet, you neeeeeed to go see it right now, don’t ask questions just do it).

Documentary filmmakers have long known this, because they often have more archival photography available on a subject than film or video footage. They use a technique called “pan & scan” (also known as “pan & zoom”) to do camera moves on still images to make them more interesting to the viewer. You’ll often see this referred to as the “Ken Burns Effect,” as his documentaries (the one on Jazz, in particular) use this technique extensively. But it’s been going on for way longer than Mr. Burns has been around. We used to do this with camera stands, which you still find in the odd studio here & there – basically a flat, well-lit surface where you lay the photo with a video camera mounted on a pole, pointing down to the photo. The signal from the camera runs to a tape deck, and the camera is either panned & zoomed manually or mechanically, depending on the sophistication of the particular camera stand. Some of them are pretty tricked-out, with the ability to control the camera’s position & zoom with precision via remote control.

Hardly anybody uses camera stands anymore – it’s much easier to scan the photo and do the pan & scan in software. You get more precision, can experiment more easily, and you don’t have to purchase & maintain the camera stand itself. Of course, if you’ve got a digital photo then this is the only way to go.

You can pan & scan high-resolution photos in both After Effects & Premiere Pro while maintaining their full resolution. This means you can zoom in on details without having the image get all pixilated and cruddy. If you’re editing a piece that involves using stills, then it’s better to do the pan & scan in Premiere Pro. The steps are basically the same whether you do it there or in AE.

First of all, import your photo using the standard File>Import command. Premiere Pro imports photos at a duration of 5 seconds, but you can change this.

The project panel tells me that my photo is 2592 X 1944, which will let me zoom in very close at full resolution.

If you’d like your image to run for a longer or shorter duration, right-mouse click on your image file in the Project Panel, select Speed/Duration, and enter your desired duration.

Then, cut the image into your sequence in the same way you would a video clip. Once it’s in your timeline, click it and then open the Effect Controls Panel (usually docked behind the Source Monitor), and click on the triangle to the left of “Motion” to twirl down the Motion properties.

If you don’t see the Current Time Indicator on the right side of the Effect Controls, click the white button with the 2 left-facing triangles to reveal it.

For this example, we’ll start out zoomed in real close, then zoom out to reveal the entire image. If you want to start zoomed out you can do the next steps in reverse, but before you do anything you need to make sure that the Anchor Point is set on the object you want to zoom out from or zoom in to. When you click on the word “Motion” in the Effect Controls, the Anchor Point (the little circle with the “X” in the middle) appears on the center of your image. To move it over your “object of focus”, click & drag on the Anchor Point values in the Effect Controls until the Anchor Point is centered over your object (or face, or whatever).

Now you’re ready to animate. We’ll begin with a basic camera move, and then you can modify to your taste. Let’s have the image start out still for 1 second, then zoom out over the course of 2 seconds. Move the Current Time Indicator (CTI) in the Effect Controls Panel ahead by 1 second (use the timecode in the lower-left corner as a guide). Then, set initial keyframes for Position, Scale, and Rotation by clicking on the stopwatches to the left of their names. Double-click the Rotation value and set it to -40 degrees, or something similar. This is the starting position of your camera move.


Next, move the CTI ahead by 2 seconds. Set Rotation back to 0, and click-and-drag on the Position and Scale values to “zoom out” to your final camera position. Premiere Pro automatically adds new keyframes at the current CTI position.

Go ahead and roll back in your timeline to the shot right before your panned & scanned image and play back to see how your camera move works in the context of the timing & pacing of your edit. You might want to adjust the duration of the camera move, which can be done simply by moving the keyframes, or you might want a more fluid camera motion. By default, Premiere Pro creates a camera move that starts & stops on a dime – in other words it’s not particularly elegant. Now, if you’re cutting an MTV-style piece with really fast pacing, this might be what you want, but in most cases you’ll want the camera to ease out of its initial position and ease in to a smooth landing. Start by clicking-and-dragging across the initial 3 keyframes to select them all. Then, right-mouse-click on any of them and from the pop-up menu select Temporal Interpolation>Ease Out.


Repeat for the ending keyframes, this time selecting Ease In. Roll back and play your adjusted camera move.

At this point you can treat your image as you would any video clip – e.g. you can add effects and transitions if you wish. With some photos, you might notice a certain degree of “interlace flicker” as the image pans & scans. If that’s the case, increase the amount the Anti-flicker Filter in the Effect Controls and that should make it look much nicer.

5 Responses to The Ben Kurns Effect

  1. Steve Kilisky says:

    I prefer using AE for this type of work, but of course you’d expect me to say that. No really though, to really finesse the motion path, and speed control as well as motion blur, AE is the tool to use. Now Bob, when are you going to show them the 3D Ben Kurns moves in AE?SteveP.S. How was the Herring?

  2. Hey, someone’s been in Stockholm! That’s five minutes from where I live! :-)PS. Try to do this on an Avid, which (to my knowledge) still doesn’t let you import an image that’s larger than the project dimensions.

  3. Bob Donlon says:

    Yeah, that’s me in front of the fish place at Slussen (I think) near my friend’s place in Sodermalm. Was there a few weeks ago.

  4. Andrew Hearn says:

    hey! This looks like an interesting blog, but link to the RSS feed in incorrect, it looks like it should be: (you have .rdf)Cheers!

  5. I have strong objections to keyframing position.. you get MUCh better results using Anchor Point over in AE. And to respond to an earlier post, you can import large images into Avid for the last 4 years using their Pan and Zoom plug-in.-Rich