Sunday, September 23, 2007

Exceptional filmmaker

I'm a little ashamed to admit that I've never yet had time to view any of the mammoth documentary films created by the celebrated 54-year-old US filmmaker Ken Burns.

It's literally a matter of finding time, because each of this man's major productions—The Civil War (1990), Baseball (1994) and Jazz (2001)—lasts for an average of a dozen hours. So, it's a bit like planning to read Tolstoy.

The reason I mention this award-winning cineast [apart from the fact that critics on the web are currently praising his most recent fifteen-hour masterpiece, The War] is that his name appears when you're using the excellent Macintosh video-editing tool named iMovie. He invented a simple but ingenious technique known today as the Ken Burns effect, which consists of applying subtle panning and zooming to photos, with a view to breathing life into otherwise fixed images. And Apple's software tool implements this effect in a methodical manner.

I'm convinced that my former mentor Pierre Schaeffer [1910-1995] would have been thrilled to discover the simple power of the Ken Burns effect. At the Research Service of the ORTF [former French broadcasting system], we were often accused of producing TV documentaries of a "talking heads" kind, which might have been created just as well in radio. Like Schaeffer, I've always considered that images don't really need to move very much in order to be meaningful, if not exciting. They merely have to give the illusion that they're moving. From this point of view, I see the Ken Burns effect as a highly Schaefferian concept.

Schaeffer, celebrated throughout the world as the inventor of musique concrète (music composed of sounds that would normally be described as noises), used to warn us that, if you intend to recreate the sound of a bucket of nails falling onto a steel plate, for example, then you must not be tempted to use a microphone to record the actual sound produced by a real-life bucket of nails falling onto a steel plate. You can obtain a far more "realistic" sound by using a specially-prepared piano, or ideally a synthesizer. It's a Schaefferian truism to say that, to give the impression of being authentic, things don't really need to be authentic. They merely have to... give the impression of being authentic. And this is precisely what "movements" of the Ken Burns kind succeed in achieving.

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