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Photos + Movement = Photeo (Part 1 of 5)


by Stephen Haskin, Megan Torrance

March 5, 2012

“In eLearning, the idea is to create the opportunity for the learner to have an “ah-ha!” moment. Ah-ha! moments are the parts of learning that stick, and you can’t give yourself more opportunity to create an ah-ha! moment than by using all the visual elements and techniques at your disposal.”

Photeo. What a funny word. Photeo is just what it sounds like — a mashup of “photo” and “video.” (We’re pronouncing it, “foe-tee-oh.”) One of us (Megan) coined the term about a year ago.

The word differentiates a static photograph, or any image whether still or moving, from a more video-like experience that employs anything you can see or hear, but not necessarily video.

Ken Burns popularized this concept when he created “The Civil War” series on PBS in the late 1980s. The Canadian Film Board used the technique previously in the early 1950s, but Mr. Burns certainly made it popular. By using this technique, along with well-selected music and well-written narration, he created a sense of movement and emotion out of still photographs.

The approach soon gained a label: “The Ken Burns Effect.” (Click here for Mr. Burns talking about why he used the “Effect”) Mr. Burns has moved far beyond this effect. So have we. When Burns started to use this technique, there was only one way to produce it; this involved mounting a movie or video camera in a complex rig that looked like some kind of a Rube Goldberg device. The rig was called a rostrum camera, and the one Burns used could move in three planes. Then someone figured out how to program a computer (probably an Atari or Commodore 64) to move the camera along the X-, Y-, and Z-axes in a way that would match the narration.

These days, there are many methods and programs that easily add motion to a still image or video clip, and which can make words or a little image move across a larger scene. No fancy rigs needed! This is photeo.

Photeo phundamentals

When we’re designing and developing eLearning, the photeo technique can be so easy to accomplish that it’s almost silly not to use it at some level. In fact, you may have already created or used photeo at one time or another. There’s nothing earth-shatteringly new in this. But it seems that no one ever talks about it, or identifies it as a technique that has a rationale and necessary reasons for use.

In this article, we intend to correct that omission. In parts two and three of this series, we’ll show you how to create several different sequences that will set you on the photeo path of creativity. The most important thing to remember is that it’s easy … the first photeo you do might take an hour, but the second one will be half that and after that you’ll fly. The technique has no constraints and it’s about the most creative thing you can do in eLearning.

A photeo segment in eLearning can use photographs, scanned images, drawings, words that move, audio voices and sound effects (sfx), video (your own or purchased stock video), movie clips, and whatever other digital asset you can put into an eLearning segment.

In a fundamental way, a photeo segment is the digital extrapolation of the old movie montage. Montages are frequently seen in romantic comedies, used as a way to mark the passage of time or the passage through a relationship. In other words, a montage (or a photeo) is a support for telling a story and creating continuity.

In romantic comedy, it’s almost mandatory that a montage be slipped in someplace. In eLearning, the idea is to create the opportunity for the learner to have an “ah-ha!” moment. Ah-ha! moments are the parts of learning that stick, and you can’t give yourself more opportunity to create an ah-ha! moment than by using all the visual elements and techniques at your disposal.

Avoiding “seductive details”

There is one caveat about creating Photeo: Ask yourself whether photeo is actually going to add to learning, or is it a distraction that will eventually lower evaluations? Mayer’s (2001) Coherence Principle indicates that it’s best to avoid extraneous pictures because they can interfere with the learner’s attempts to make sense of the presented material. According to Harp and Mayer (1998), extraneous pictures (and their text captions) can interfere with learning through distractions and disrupting attention. Extraneous images may also prompt learners to make inappropriate associations.

On the other hand, relevant pictures and multimedia can add to a learning experience. Appropriate photos or video segments can evoke emotional responses in learners, which can increase their level of engagement and involvement in the presented materials.

There are times when it’s easy to discern when not to make a photeo. Learning a wiring diagram is one time that comes readily to mind when it would not make sense to use photeo. Compliance training in any industry is a second way that comes to mind: The pharmaceutical, medical and financial services industries have a lot of training for compliance. These topics just aren’t usually good for photeo-based content. Soft skills, some how-to skills, and behavior changes are some applications where you might use photeo.

Why make photeo?

Apart from that caveat, why would you use photeo in your eLearning? There are many reasons. Here’s a short list of them:

  1. Photeo is far cheaper than standard video production and it can also be much more visually compelling. Unless you’re willing to tell a story with video, which takes a lot of planning and set-up, photeo can make your concept and story come to life.
  2. Video is often not an option because of budget or time.
  3. If your training will need a lot of updates, it’s easy to update elements in a photeo project. Getting talent (specific actors) together in the time available isn’t an issue either.
  4. Photeo is a great solution when bandwidth is an issue, video over the intranet in your organization already takes up too much of it, and IT is not happy.
  5. Photeo is a very powerful way of telling an eLearning story.
  6. Finally, clients LOVE photeo. Conceptually, it’s easy to grasp. Budgets are smaller with photeo. What’s not to love and embrace?

What goes into a photeo?

What could be in a photeo segment? This list is not complete in any way, but you’ll get the idea.

  1. Photographs you’ve shot
  2. Photographs you’ve purchased
  3. Photographs or images you’ve scanned
  4. Photographs you’ve scrounged from the internet or that are in the realm of the free. Think (Library of Congress) or Creative Commons Licensed images. Do a Google search for images with a Creative Commons License and see how much you come up with.
  5. Words that you make move, or animated text sequences
  6. Sound effects
  7. Narration
  8. Music
  9. Video you’ve shot
  10. Video you’ve purchased (royalty free clips)
  11. Video (or whatever) you’ve legally cadged from the internet, old film clips, whatever was once video, cannot be duplicated and/or is in the realm of free (think

Photeo genres

There are a few genres of photeo that we can identify: The first is “photo photeo.” Photo photeo primarily uses photographs that you’ve shot in a sequence or for a particular project or is made of photographs you’ve purchased that have a generic look to them about the subject matter. They’re put together in any number of ways to create the feeling and imagery you need to get your training ideas across to the learning audience. The second genre is what we’re calling “scavenger photeo.” This kind of photeo is made by “scavenging” around on the Web or in magazines, finding pictures with a Creative Commons license or from the Library of Congress or iStock, Fotolia, Dreamstime, Pond5, Bigstock or anywhere else you can find images or old film clips. Or use whatever you can find and combine it with sounds and sound effects to make a scavenger photeo. The third genre is creating the video-like experience with screen captures you’ve created or whatever you can find or create that works for your project.

Think visually

The key concept to remember when creating a photeo is to think visually.

Thinking visually: How does that work? How do you think visually? It’s actually pretty easy. Thinking visually is a state of mind more than anything else. When I read a script, the first thing I do is read a paragraph, then close my eyes and think about what images the words in the paragraph evoke. Or I look for a theme, motive, cause, or whatever works to see images. Then I take a pen and paper (yes, really!) and start to write or draw a visual sequence of images. Very roughly. No pretense of art or artistic things here. Just getting visual ideas on paper.

Thinking visually: an example

This is how thinking visually worked on a project one of us (Steve) did several years ago.

I was at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, mostly converting lectures to on-line courses for public health officers in the state of Michigan. The resulting courses were tedious to create (if you could call it being creative) and exceedingly tiresome to watch. We could tell this from the evaluation scores and the numbers of people who were taking the “training” outside of the original live presentations.

The all-inclusive project was for a bio-terrorism initiative that the CDC was sponsoring. This particular part of the project was specifically about public health law that deals with placing quarantines on public institutions such as hospitals. In the live classroom setting, the morning was taken up by lectures and slides and the afternoon was devoted to a “tabletop exercise.” The tabletop exercise was a dry, 25-page document that dealt with someone who had weaponized smallpox virus (impossible, but scary nonetheless).

I had to force myself to begin reading the exercise document. However, by the third page I started to get ideas. Fox News (think yellow journalism) was screaming off the pages at me. So I rewrote the exercise into a script and, with the help of an outside development company, made the tabletop exercise into a dramatic enterprise.

The only problem was we didn’t have enough money for video production. It would have been a complex production, with location shooting in a clinic or a hospital, actors, lots of lights, camera set-ups, etc. Complex equals dollars and in this case, probably $3,000 to $4,000 a minute of completed video at a minimum. So we did the next best thing: photeo. (We didn’t call it that because the word hadn’t yet been invented.)

To create the piece, we purchased several libraries of stock medical photographs, found some dramatic music and an announcer that was dramatic enough to give the story some gravitas. We broke the exercise into seven parts by day and by time of day. Example 1 is a link to a short segment of the photeo. You can figure out what happened to the Web servers when public health people in the field started to hear about this.

Example 1. Bio-terrorism photeo


This photeo used only five elements: photographs, type, sound effects, an announcer, and music. Total cost to create the above concept: $25,000. Watching IT scramble as the servers crashed (I did warn them) because too many people (about 100) were trying to get on the servers at the same time: priceless. We made about 34 minutes of photeo which works out to $735 per minute. Obviously, that’s far less than $3,000 a minute. You can’t do video, unless it’s totally guerilla for $735 per minute. By the way, the evaluation scores went through the roof.

It’s interesting to note that if the production were done today, it would cost even less because iStock, Fotolia, Dreamstime, Pond5, Bigstock and all the other stock photography and sound effect sites didn’t exist then, and stock photos used to cost $100-400each.

Time for examples

To help you understand what a photeo is and how it works, here is one non-example and two examples. First, the non-example.

A non-example of a photeo

Example 2 is an example of a project that some might think is photeo, but by our definition it’s not. Taking pictures and putting transitions between them isn’t photeo. There’s a whole conceptual and thought process that goes into creating photeo and that process isn’t exhibited here. Photeo needs to be a “video-like” experience. In the case of Example 2, there are words and pictures dissolving through to more words and pictures. That doesn’t make it memorable. The pictures are dissolves or simple effects found in many programs. The music isn’t effective either. The sentiment is good, but the storytelling is poor from a visual and aural perspective.

Example 2. Not a photeo


An example of a simple photeo: no video involved

Example 3 is a photeo that only uses a few stock photographs and an old movie clip. It predominately consists of set-up screen captures, made using Captivate (or Camtasia) and a few other tricks. This clip went viral and has well over two million views.

Example 3. Exodus


Note that in the still image above, this is a typical Windows log-in screen. The creators have inserted a icture of “Moses holding up the Tablets,” by Rembrandt as the personalized user. This is a clever use of creating a picture of almost nothing that provides visual information about what this work is about. Watch the backgrounds and words carefully throughout and you’ll see how masterfully this piece was created.

A different kind of photeo

Example 4 is another kind of Photeo composition, using pictures and video. This is a movie trailer for a film that’s almost completely photeo, but with interviews. The movie wasn’t nearly as good as the trailer! But both use old photos, words, sound effects, narration, taped interviews, and other parts of what makes a photeo a photeo.

Example 4. Photos + video = photeo!


Conclusion of Part 1 of the series

This is just a little exposure to photeo. The possibilities of photeo are endless and limited only by your imagination and time. In the next installments, we’ll go through the process of creating a photeo project. It’s not really hard at all.

  • Part 2: Making Your Photeo—Considering Photeo assets and how to collect them.
  • Part 3: Making Your Photeo, A practical guide with job aids and video training.


  1. Harp, S. F., & Mayer, R. E. (1998). "How seductive details do their damage: a theory of cognitive interest in science learning." Journal of Educational Psychology, 90, 414–434
  3. Mayer, R. E. (2001). Multimedia learning. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.


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Videos don't work.
I really enjoyed this. However, how do you even begin to plot this out? Do you create a really detailed storyboard? Where do you start? What's the process? I'm hoping you'll provide answers to these questions in the remaining two parts to the series.
Jen, don't worry. Steve will tell you how it's done.
I am SO excited about this technique!! We have a seriously low budget and to be able to tell stories with 'phoeos' would be incredible! When do parts 2 and 3 come out?!
anonymous poster #1: Which browser are you using? The videos run fine for me on an iMac/Chrome browser, iPad/Safari browser, iPhone/Safari browser, iPhone/Safari browser, Windows PC/Firefox. They also run fine for everyone else I've heard from. Vimeo is hosting the videos, however, and there are some known issues with videos hosted there not running consistently on iPhones ... so far, we don't have a solution for this.
Parts 2 and 3 will be out as soon as we can get them.
I was glad to see you added the Coherence Principle into the article. Way to may technology driven e-learning courses.

I was not clear on what is a photeo from your examples. The non-example included the items on your “What goes into a Photeo” list except video. OK, I deduced that a photeo must have video. Then you gave an example of a photeo without video. I think you failed to explain what the “whole conceptual and thought process” is and how the non-example lacked it. I failed to understand what the magic ingredient was that makes something memorable.

It may have been better is you would have explained how your photeo help meet a learning objective and gave the ah-ha moment to aid retention.

Looking forward to the next article.
Hi, cj - I asked Steve to respond to some of your questions, but in the meantime:
- The article says that, "A photeo segment in eLearning can use photographs, scanned images, drawings, words that move, audio voices and sound effects (sfx), video (your own or purchased stock video), movie clips, and whatever other digital asset you can put into an eLearning segment." That's "can use" video, not "must use".

- To me, the non-example is just a slide show. Static photos (not a one of them moves), overlain with titles/captions and accompanied by tinkly piano, and delivering a platitude (or sermonette, to be more exact) for a message. The examples use movement and narration, along with a variety of media, and engage the viewer mentally. Speaking for myself, I was a great deal more interested in the examples than in the non-example. The "ah-ha" moments: realizing that something more sinister than chicken pox was going on in that ER and that the resources were not up to the challenge (this is part of a PBL exercise, and does not in and of itself represent a learning objective, rather as part 1 of 7 parts it supports the learning objectives of the PBL by setting the scene); getting a better understanding of the excitement Jews feel about Passover (as a Catholic, this is news to me -- also it was fun to watch and made me interested to reconsider my own feelings about the Exodus story); getting a clear picture of Sholem Alecheim and how he related to the early 20th century (and also to a couple of my favorite writers of that period, Mark Twain and O. Henry) -- and I was impressed to see what a "modern-looking" guy Alecheim was, and how his vanity comes through in his photos even a hundred+ years later.

Hope this helps. Some of the uncertainty may have come from my edits. I will be more careful with Parts 2 and 3, which will appear during March and April.
@ Bill and cj--Bill you hit it on the head. Photeo doesn't need video in order to be successful. It needs exposition and a feeling of movement and story. The slide-show really doesn't make it for me because, while the words and pictures 'sort of' match each other, the images really don't evoke a feeling of movement through the story. Perhaps they do to some...we all resonate differently to images and how they're presented, but to me a simple slide show just doesn't move the story along.

Now I'm dying to read the next parts. When can we expect them? I don't want to forget about this great stuff and/or miss it.
I love this technique. Another couple of flicks to see it in action from movie pros:

The Kid Stays in the Picture
Dogtown and Z-Boys -- It's amazing how much of that movie is actually not a *movie* at all!
@jkunrein Yes. Those films are great examples of the technique. The possibilities for development of Photeo are endless and there has been very little use of it in eLearning. Nor have I ever seen any discussion of where and how it best works in the training we make.

Part 2 will be around about mid-March near the Learning Solutions conference and Part 3 with some job aids and how-to's will be around sometime at the end of March or beginning of April.
Looking forward to reading Parts 2 and 3.
Hi Bill & Steve:

Thanks for taking time to reply.

I applaud your strategy of teaching a concept via examples and non-examples.

After cogitating on your reply, I went back and compared the example and non-example. They both contain static photos and text (granted more dynamically added in the example); both have a background sound track. The only difference I noted is that a zoom effect was used in the example (which could be considered as a quick static graphic change).

I understand that you were more interested. This leads me back to the subjectivity. I didn’t care for the example without video. Maybe missing the introductory material, it was difficult to understand what the content was trying to communicate. Bill mentioned that photeoes needed a story. In my opinion the non-example told a story. Brain-Based Learning Theory will affirm that one of the first mental filters is does the incoming information make sense; if not ignore it.

Bottom line: I still cannot not quantify in a non- subjective manner what is or is not a photeo. I admit, I could be learning impaired. My acid test was if I could explain it to a co-worker. I couldn’t. :-(

Please don’t misunderstand my intentions. I think the method has potential. For me making the leap to application means fist gaining comprehension. I’m just not there yet.

Look forward to the next articles.
What software did you use to make the photeo?
cj: In the basic "Ken Burns Effect" (the prototypical photeo), "Action is given to still photographs by slowly zooming in on subjects of interest and panning from one subject to another. For example, in a photograph of a baseball team, one might slowly pan across the faces of the players and come to a rest on the player the narrator is discussing." (

That is not what is in the non-example. Steve is suggesting that the resources for the technique need not be limited to still photos. Take a look at the trailers for the movies Judy Unrein suggested (they're on YouTube , although the "clips" for The Kid Stays in the Picture is more clearly photeo).
Great article! Looking forward to the rest of the series!
There's another term for this: motion graphic. I've made it happen using humble PPT.

There's another term for this technique: motion graphic. I've made it happen using humble PPT.

This technique has been used by CBT/eLearning designers & videographers for about 20 years! Where have you been? Slapping a new name on it doesn't make it a "new design technique" or "new technology." Yes, you can do this with a number of development tools! Sorry, to burst your bubble!
This is simply digital storytelling. While the name of the methodology has been problematic the process has not been. Don't pretend that all the work done with this over the past 10-15 years in community dev, health and education has not taken place by rebadging it. Do a google search for digital storytelling and see what you find.
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