- 01 April, 2006 17:14
I've never met Ken Burns, the respected US documentary filmmaker. Nor have I seen the 13-hour long documentary on the US Civil War that made him famous. But I feel I know him well.
It's all thanks to a simple method Burns used to bring life to archive pictures - his pan-and-zoom technique, where the film camera slowly tracks across a series of still pictures and zooms into a face or point of interest. He found that it was a novel way of adding greater visual appeal to archive photos, and overcame the absence of original footage of the subject matter. Traditionally, this technique uses a large assembly called a rostrum camera, something that few of us have access to.
In fact, it proved so successful that the effect he used now bears his name - and has been borrowed by just about every documentary filmmaker since. But the "Ken Burns effect" isn't just ubiquitous in film: it's also booming in popularity in consumer video and image-editing applications.
I'm not sure what the first Windows app to use the Ken Burns effect was - as well as video-editing applications like Pinnacle Studio, you'll find it in Microsoft's free Windows Media-based Photo Story 3.0 (www.microsoft.com/photostory, see the Windows column on page 94) - but it's the belated arrival of the effect in the latest version of Photoshop Elements that will open the creative floodgates, for better or for worse.
Take it slow
While there's no doubt that applying the magic of Burns to a static slideshow adds a sense of movement, the trouble is that breakneck-speed pans and zooms often make the slideshow look as if it was recorded by a lurching drunk.
It's possible to produce respectably understated effects though Elements' pan and zoom feature. With some other programs, such as Apple's iPhoto, setting accurate location and zoom settings for the start and end of the effect relies on guesswork.
Adding an effect to an image in an Elements slideshow is much more satisfying. To set a start point, drag a green bounding box over an area of the photo in the Slideshow Editing window. Drawing a red bounding box sets the focus area for the end of the effect - the smaller the box, the more dramatic the effect - see Figure 1.
What's clever is that the green bounding box remains visible in the Preview window as you overlay the red box, so it's much easier to predict where your pans and zooms will end up. Note too, in the Photo Bin at the bottom of the Slideshow Editing window, these bounding boxes remain visible at all times. You can judge for yourself if you're overusing the effect or repeating it too frequently.
As well as being easier to use, the Ken Burns effect in Elements is more powerful than any I've seen, because you can build up multiple pan and zoom effects. When you click the Add Another Pan & Zoom button, Elements creates a duplicate slide in the Photo Bin and sets the end point of the existing effect as the start point of the next one. This makes it possible to achieve effects such as a slow pan over a landscape, followed by a close-up of a point of interest. If used sparingly - and that's always the caveat with any effect - you would think you were watching a movie. Tools are also provided so that you can record a background narrative (see Figure 2), though you may find you need a better microphone to do this bit properly - see "USB mic with muscle" (on page 2).
On its own, the Ken Burns effect doesn't provide a good enough reason to upgrade Photoshop Elements. For quick slideshow generation, I still prefer either Picasa or ACDSee.
But I do like the way that the Elements slideshow now works almost as a standalone multimedia-authoring tool. From the single Slideshow Editing window, I can adjust images, add MP3 audio tracks, and apply narrative. And then, even better, I can export my completed slideshow so that it's viewable on a widescreen TV - see Figure 3.
USB mic with muscle
Slideshow-creation programs such as Elements and Photo Story 3.0 allow you to record "audio captions" to go with the images in your slideshow. It's difficult to get high-quality audio results though, especially using a cheap microphone to record annotations. A bad recording makes the presentation sound amateurish.
But the barrier has long been the high price of pro-level microphones, typically starting at $250 and rocketing upwards from there. I'm happy to report that's no longer the case.
I recently invested in the Samson C01U (www.samsontech.com), which claims to be the world's first USB-based studio-quality microphone. Unlike other microphones of similar quality, the CO1U is a cinch to set up. Reassuringly heavy, it comes with its own pre-amplifier, so there's no need for any intermediate box to boost the sound. To get the microphone working in Windows XP, simply plug the cable into a spare USB slot and it will be automatically recognised and ready to go. Aside from the 3m USB cable - enough to let you walk around a little, or distance yourself from the whirring of your computer - there are no other trailing wires, it is powered straight from the PC.
The Samson is ideal for recording the spoken word - it already has a big following among those recording podcasts. I've joined the fan club, even though I don't claim to be a microphone expert. The sound it produces is remarkably natural, with virtually no background noise. This level of performance is possible because the C01U is a cardioid microphone, which means it concentrates on sounds directly in front of it to the exclusion of noises from the side or in the background.
Of course, there are cheaper models around that can and will be enough for basic narrative, but the sound quality of the Samson puts it in a different league. You may be able to order from overseas to save yourself some money, but if you'd prefer to go local and avoid the wait for delivery, it's available from www.venuemusic.com.au for $199.