Skip to main content

Still Life: Ways to Make Your Pictures Move

By Jamie Crausman

Documentary filmmakers often use still images—mostly photographs—to help tell their stories, and prefer to have “camera moves” that complement the visual flow. Until a few years ago, the most popular way to accomplish this effect was with a motion-control camera stand. Today, some producers are using computer-editing software. As an editor, I have experience with both methods.

The camera stand method involves moving the image in front of the camera and using a zoom lens. This is a real optical zoom, so resolution isn’t lost when honing in on a small area. Some systems can shoot film as well as video.

Roland House, the Arlington, Virginia-based post house, employs a “Manipulator,” a large stand with a camera pointing down at the art, which lays on a table that can move two-dimensionally in any direction and is controlled by computer. The operator uses joysticks to frame and mark the beginning and end of a move, then registers the length of the move on the computer. The move is approved in real time, then recorded on tape.

A good operator can adjust the ramp speeds of starts and stops to look smooth, and the moves are almost always straight-line. The system is capable of more, but it involves identifying “key frames” and viewing in a trial-and-error fashion—a time-intensive process. With acquired skill, a good operator can shoot up to 12 moves per hour.

Visual Productions, based in Kensington, Maryland, employs what CEO Berle Cherney calls “Animotion.” With this optical system, the art sits on a vertical two-dimensional surface that moves in front of the horizontally pointing camera. Cherney doesn’t use a computer; he programs moves in real-time using sliding potentiometers for speed and a rotary dial resembling a car’s steering wheel for direction. This system, which can shoot both film and video, allows the operator to make constant adjustments, depending on the composition of the art. The moves don’t look at all mechanical, and can be viewed while being programmed. The digital system memorizes the move and can play it at different speeds. A skilled operator of this system can often shoot more than 20 smooth, fluid moves per hour.

In the software-based motion-control arena, Adobe After Effects and Stagetools Moving Pictures are two systems that share crucial characteristics. In order to avoid loss of resolution when zooming in, images have to be scanned at high resolutions, then imported into the program. For the most basic point-to-point moves, the operator needs to establish the starting and ending compositions, enter the timing and render the move. Then it can be viewed in real-time. Under the best of circumstances this process takes about ten minutes, but can be considerably longer. It took seven minutes to render a straight-line, 15-second move. The same move at 30 seconds took almost twice that time.

Most straight-line moves look mechanical. To avoid this, the operator can program “key frames” within the move. Starts and stops can be difficult, but they can be refined. Original images can be manipulated in programs like Photoshop. There’s room for versatility, but the big downside is time: three to five moves per hour might be a good pace. Cost analysis is not simple. If you own capable editing equipment and software and do your own editing, you’ll save money, but spend lots of time. If you pay an editor, it could easily cost the same or more than optical systems.

All of these motion-control systems have merit, and each is appropriate in the proper circumstance. If I’m using only a few stills, and have the software on my computer, I’d use that. If I’m working at an on-line facility that has something like a Manipulator, and it’s convenient to work there, and I have a limited number of stills, I would go through the process there. If the use of stills is critical to the production, and I need to get the most creative treatment, I would go to someone like Cherney, or Ed Joyce of the Boston-based Frame Shop, both of who, based on their years of experience, can offer surprisingly effective suggestions.

Don’t make these decisions lightly. Editors are generally not trained to design composition and movement, yet because of the capabilities of the equipment, they’re often expected to design title sequences, special effects, and motion-control. I’ve worked with the specialists. They bring as much to the production as a live-action cameraman. They work fast, and suggest choices I never would have thought of. The end result is unquestionably better, it takes less time and the producer saves money.

You can get there from here. Your route depends on how you choose to travel.


Jamie Crausman is a free-lance editor in the Washington, DC area. He has also been active in product development, beta testing, and training for Discreet Logic.