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After Effects Animation Tips: Ken Burns Effects

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You're all familiar with the documentaries of Ken Burns, right? "The Civil War", "Baseball", "Jazz", and "Prohibition" are among his better-known works. One common feature of his docs is the animation of still images by panning and zooming, what has come to be called the "Ken Burns Effect". Although he didn't invent the technique—it had been around for many years beforehand—he certainly popularized it, so much so that it's come to bear his name.

Because Burns' documentaries are so often about historical subjects for which no motion film footage exists, he's always faced the same problem that everyone in his shoes has: how to create moving footage from still images. One common solution is to pan around and zoom in and out of the still, both to follow the narration (for example, in a group shot, to focus the viewer's attention from the group to a single member of the group), and to add visual interest to an otherwise motionless image. 

In the old days of pure film, this was done with a rostrum camera or animation stand. This type of camera would typically be mounted vertically over a flat table on which the image would be placed. The camera had sophisticated mechanical motion controls that allowed for slow, precise horizontal and vertical motion to create pans and zooms.

Nowadays of course, we have software to do this, and in fact Apple's iMovie has its own automatic Ken Burns Effect. But it's limited in its flexibility. In this article, we're going to show you how to create the Ken Burns Effect in After Effects, which will give us much more control over the final results. Let's get started.

Step 1 - Set Up Your Project

First of course, you'll need a subject image. I'm going to be using an old photo of my grandfather Cecil David's Hawaiian band, shot around 1930 (Cecil is second from the left):

Cecil David photo

Your own image should be as high a resolution as possible, since we're going to be zooming into it. After Effects can compensate to some extent for the softening that happens when you scale an image past 100%, but eventually the image will be unrecognizable if you zoom in too far. So, the more pixels you have to work with, the better.

Import your image into your After Effects project, create a new composition of 10 seconds, say, at the frame size you want to use (mine is 640x360) and drag the image into the comp. If the image isn't the full length of the comp, drag the end of its layer bar so it fills the length of the Timeline.

Step 2 - Scale the Image

We're going to be working with the Scale and Position properties for this image, so let's solo those by typing P to solo Position, then typing Shift-S to solo Scale along with Position.

In our project, we want to show the whole band and then zoom in on Cecil's face so next, drag on the first Scale value to scale your image down so that it fits in the frame but doesn't show any black edges. Depending on the aspect ratio of your comp and of your image, some part of the image may be out of the frame but that's OK, we'll fix that next.

Scale the image

Step 3 - Position the Image

With our current scaling, the standing musicians' heads are cut off a bit, so next we'll re-frame the image. To do that, either drag the image in the Comp window directly, or drag on the Position values under the layer so the tops of the musicians' heads are visible.

Position the image

We do lose a little of their feet, but better that than their heads. You'll need to adjust your own scaling and position together for the best framing.

Step 4 - Animate the Scale

Our next step is to zoom in on Cecil's face. So, click on the stopwatch for the Scale property to enable keyframing and set the first keyframe, move the Current Time Indicator (CTI) to the end of the Timeline, and drag on the Scale values until we're well zoomed into the face. Don't worry right now that the face isn't centered. Unless your subject's face was in the exact center of the original image, it won't be. 

Animate the scale

Step 5 - Animate the Position

Next, drag the CTI back to the beginning, enable keyframing for Position, drag the CTI back to the end of the comp, and drag the Position values to center Cecil's face. Again, you may need to adjust scaling and position together at this point to get the face centered and properly scaled.

Animating the position

A quick RAM Preview, and here are the results:

Step 6 - Ease the Motion

Now, notice something significant about this render: the motion starts abruptly and ends just as abruptly, giving the whole move a kind of robotic feel. One of the important characteristics of the Ken Burns Effect is that the "camera" move smoothly accelerates to full speed and just as smoothly decelerates to a stop. This is because in the real world, and with real cameras, nothing can instantly go from stillness to full motion, or stop instantly; there's always some speed-up and slow-down. We're so used to seeing this that anything else looks unnatural. So it's essential that we smooth the motion here to create the effect.

So, Shift-click on the Scale and Position keyframes to select them all, then control-click on one of the first ones and choose Keyframe Assistant > Easy Ease from the contextual menu. Now do another RAM Preview, and you'll see much smoother, more natural motion:

And there you have the Ken Burns Effect in After Effects, with just a couple of keyframes. As always, I encourage you to experiment with what you've learned here today, and as always, have fun!

Check out our After Effects: Core After Effects CS5 course!

Richard Lainhart

Richard Lainhart | Articles by this author

Richard Lainhart is an award-winning composer, filmmaker, and author. His compositions have been performed in the US, Europe Asia, and Australia, and recordings of his music have appeared on the Periodic Music, Vacant Lot, XI Records, Airglow Music, Tobira Records, Infrequency, VICMOD, and ExOvo labels. His animations and short films have been shown in festivals in the US, Europe, and Asia, and online at ResFest, The New Venue, The Bitscreen, and Streaming Cinema 2.0. He has authored over a dozen technical manuals for music and video hardware and software, served as Contributing Editor for Interactivity and 3D Design Magazines, and contributed to books on digital media production published by IDG, Peachpit Press, McGraw Hill, and Miller Freeman Books. Previously an Adobe Certified Expert in After Effects and Premiere, a demo artist for Adobe Systems, and co-founder of the official New York City After Effects User Group, he was, from 2000-2009, Technical Director for Total Training Productions, an innovative digital media training company based in New York and California.


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