Using Technology To Turn Historical Photographs Into Animated Wonders

Source: Alexey Zakharov

Educators have always sought to add visual interest to their lessons, to support learning modalities and to provide illustrative examples of the topics under consideration. From postcards to prints, from filmstrips to YouTube, the power of pictures and movies to aid learning is undeniable. Now, various digital tools and editing applications are enlivening "flat" images in thrilling fashion. The animation of historical photos is bringing primary sources to life in ways unimagined by teachers and students a decade ago.

 "The Old New World" (Photo-based animation project) from seccovan on Vimeo.

Often called 2.5D, or "the Parallax Effect," the rendering of motion within a still photograph allows the eye to traverse the image in a more fully realized manner. The forced examination of details, as foregrounds and backgrounds snap into focus, invites viewers to explore the entire depth of field. In adding movement to static characters, the past becomes relevant as observers imagine the seconds preceding and succeeding the camera's shutter. A crescendo of action added to a familiar scene places the spectator within the historical moment. Each detail now becomes tangible and palpable. Each setting contains nuance and fluidity.

Even more interesting for educators to consider are the ways these adaptations of primary sources reinforce the critical questions about dealing with pictorial artifacts: What role does the photographer or editor play in staging a photo? What is intentionally included, removed, or modified within a scene? Is any artificial capture of a moment truly "real," and how much scholarly skepticism should students lend to every research source?

Adobe Photoshop, After Effects, and Audition are some of the most common tools to render photographs and paintings from 2D to 3D. The History Channel (and several truck commercials) use these effects regularly in their productions. Some excellent tutorials exist (where else?) on YouTube to practice creating these styles of videos (here and here).

 Fukushima - Images by Rebecca Lilith Bathory from chris lavelle on Vimeo.

At their most advanced, these animations ask us to reconsider the historical and the artistic record as changeless constants. At their most basic, however, these videos are just neat. They are inviting and clever. They lure in students and others to enjoy the study of history even more.

For other ideas about creating animations, check out: