December 27, 2013

If You're Making Films with Still Images, Here Are a Few Things to Consider

Famed director David Lean once said that one should be able to cut any frame out of a roll of film and be able to frame it and hang it on the wall. There is great power in the still image. Seeing as most filmmakers will at one point use stills in their work (especially documentarians), it'd be a good idea to get a solid understanding of what a single frame can do. A video by Vashi Nedomansky of Vashi Visuals proves to be helpful by not only identifying several films that harness the power of still images (even carrying the weight of a full film), but by also offering a few tips on using them from an editor's perspective .

There are virtually endless ways to use and approach still images in your films, and Vashi mentions a few in his post. Probably the one that comes to mind first is how documentarians use them to help tell their stories when recorded interviews and moving images aren't available. However, narrative filmmakers can also use them to create a desired emotional response by juxtaposing them, creating a montage of images that tell a story in the same way moving images do.

Probably the most recognizable narrative film that uses stills is the short film that inspired 12 Monkeys, 1962 French science fiction film La Jetée. Filmmaker Chris Marker uses still images almost exclusively in the film, and is truly an excellent case study on the power of an image, as well as the importance of editing.

When I was trying to come up with a contemporary equivalent to La Jetée, I honestly couldn't think of one (if you know one, let us know in the comments), but the first thing that did come to mind was Tim and Eric's animated series Tom Goes to the Mayor, which is a good reminder that stills are not only great storytellers, but can be versatile (and hilarious), a sentiment Vashi echoes in his post.

Vashi shares a few examples: George Lucas' 1965 student film Look at Life, Alan Pakula's 1974 film starring Warren Beatty The Parallax View, and indie pop group MS MR's music video for their single "Hurricane". Check out how each use stills in montages in Vashi's video below:

Great film theorists/filmmakers, like Sergei Eisenstein and Lev Kuleshov, explained in detail the importance of editing, laying the foundation for the montage theory. And if one might consider a still photographic image the simplified cinematic shot, then the role editing plays in constructing an effective sequence is just as important. For those who are interested in using stills in your next project, Vashi explains what to consider when using them in your work:

Just like editing moving images -- the pace, choice of shot, and resonant emotional effect of still images are all critical to achieve success. It can often take much longer to build a sequence this way as more imagery is needed and every image must be perfect for that one moment on screen. On top of that -- one ill-placed visual can break the flow created and destroy the fragile house of cards being built.

What do you guys think? What are some important things to consider when using stills in your work? What other examples of still image movies can you think of?

Link: Film and Video Editing using Still Images -- Vashi Visuals

[via Cinephilia and Beyond]

Your Comment


"the black windmill" by Don Siegel has a great use of stills in the opening sequence too. Simple and powerful way to introduce the viewer into the story to be told by the movie. if you relax you can almost feel the kids moving along the editing of the still images. :)

December 28, 2013 at 2:25AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

guto novo

Great reference Guto! I coincidently just watched "The Black Windmill" yesterday. I loved the music and the block letters used in the credit sequence...definitely very striking and I agree it felt like it WAS moving. Thanks for mentioning it!

December 28, 2013 at 2:39AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM


People don't attempt it because of La Jetee (you seriously want to be compared to that?) and its a technique that's been beaten to death in music video and advertising.
Here, just to completely lower the tone, is David Fincher (!) using only stills in the service of AOR rockers The Wallflowers from the '90s:

So, yeah. I can start looking up the ads I've worked on that used it, but its a long list. Luxury goods LOVE that technique.

Not unlike super slowmo, 'frozen moments' , 'Matrix' pans, pseudo stillmotion animation with real people etc, stories told only with stills are difficult to make feel fresh, unless you are unaware of their history.

December 28, 2013 at 2:43AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM


Terminal Bar left a deep impression on me. Brilliant use of stills and fantastic storytelling.

December 28, 2013 at 2:47AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM


Terminal bar is an excellent example... Heres a short 1 min documentary using B/w stills i did back in 2008 for an immigration project commissioned by Moti Roti

December 28, 2013 at 6:26AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM


Maximum kudos. Brilliant film.

December 30, 2013 at 8:29AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM


Great Film. I was not aware of it or the story of the bar. Thanks for the link.

January 2, 2014 at 2:16PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

Agni Ortiz

(nostalgia) by Hollis Frampton literally uses photographs to tell its story. It's a beautiful film. Very simple but innovative: the film (like so many) is about memory and remembering/forgetting; the way the film is edited directly mimics the sensation of remembering and forgetting. One of my favourite films of all time. It's only about 35 minutes too.

December 28, 2013 at 5:36AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM


John Woo used it a lot to punctuate important points in his films and it's used to brilliant effect in Miami Vice episodes as well.

Black Windmill is a stunning film, watched it a few months ago, so efficient and minimal and horrendously underrated.

December 28, 2013 at 6:21AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

Filthy Punt

Obviously 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) when Keir Dulleas character "Dr. Dave Bowman" enters the star gate. The still images are intercut with the dynamic movements of the light streaks from the portal.

December 28, 2013 at 7:41AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM


You can watch the entire sequence here:

December 28, 2013 at 7:48AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM


I did a short film using just still photos in the style of film noir. Feel free to check it out. It may not be the greatest thing in the world, but I really wanted to try noir lighting.

December 28, 2013 at 10:18AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM


There's a Film by Jonas Cuarón calle Año Uña (Year of the Nail in english) that reminds me of La Jetee.

December 28, 2013 at 11:45AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

Karl Pinzon Bustillo

What do you think?

December 28, 2013 at 4:08PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM


Thanks for taking the time to document what happened in Italy; it is also a reminder of similar situations around the world, where a disaster becomes a showcase for the ineptitude of politicians and the underlining corruption that permeates the fabric of today's society.

January 2, 2014 at 2:25PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

Agni Ortiz

Thank YOU

January 5, 2014 at 5:52AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM


Ahh La Jetee. Perhaps the best film that I was introduced to during film school. Harrowing, horrifying, and seemingly entirely possible. Chris Marker will be missed.

December 28, 2013 at 10:39PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

Matthew Reis

I teach filmmaking to elementary schoolers (mostly 5th graders) in an after school program. Our Spring 2013 project was 5 interlocked stories (sorta like Cloud Atlas), one of which was told using still images (I showed them La Jetee as an example). What I love about LJ is how the form of still photos is part of the theme of the nature of time as a series of moments, and how the smallest details matter most. Truly amazing.

Anyhoo making ours seemed like it would be easy, but it was incredibly difficult. Timing, transitions, making sure each photo is full of things to look at, etc. It was a LOT of detail-oriented editing and decision making, and I thought it would be the freebie of the 5 projects.

I'm embedding the project here - the still photo part starts at 6:13, and then a second part around 12:24 (there's an animation piece in the middle). Please be kind. They're kids :)

December 28, 2013 at 11:27PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM


December 30, 2013 at 9:48AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

Anthony Marino

This is an amazing post, one of the best i have read in the recent times. Making film with stills? Goof concept that is almost lost in the world of 3D and CGI filled movies.

January 1, 2014 at 10:19PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM


This one is a favorite of mine, I believe it won a vimeo award a few years back.

January 2, 2014 at 5:57AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM


That is probably the best and most direct way to deliver a point with just stills, a good voice over and music I have ever seen. Thank you, Mateo.

January 2, 2014 at 2:48PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

Agni Ortiz

The insect women had an interesting way to use stills. Worth to have a look.

January 2, 2014 at 6:21AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM


from memory London (1994) by Patrick Keiller is all shot in stills although frankly my memory of the mid-nineties is not entirely reliable. it's slow but absorbing, leaving the viewer to fill in the gaps. like a book. I imagine it has the potential to confuse and irritate lots of people today but I seem to recall liking it [see earlier caveat]

January 2, 2014 at 3:45PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM


I think the opening of I STAND ALONE from Gaspar Noe, has one of the most compelling still´s use i ever seen.
I´ts amazing how the whole´s life of the character is told in just a few minutes.
You can watch it from minute 2:09.

January 2, 2014 at 9:54PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM


I began as a sells photographer and although i have made over 30 documentaries, i still rely upon having my stills camera with me. If you go to my website and then to exhibitions you can find a stills film i made to promote an exhibition of mine called HOME. It is pure stills until it cuts away in the middle to some filmed docu sequences…enjoy

January 3, 2014 at 8:26AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM



January 3, 2014 at 3:25PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

Pierre Samuel Rioux

Season 3, episode 14 of Community. Perhaps not as weighty as other examples but as pop culture, it carries its own weight in validating the style.

January 3, 2014 at 10:39PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM


January 6, 2014 at 2:59PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM


I came across this tool that lets you extract frames from videos. Can't stop playing with it. Saved all my favorite movie frames from Indiana Jones and Back to the Future. It's called Anyframe.

March 29, 2016 at 11:36AM, Edited March 29, 11:36AM


Thanks for this topic. Just found it AFTER I completed a film made almost entirely of still images

I'm starting another and have a problem. Most of the images for this were taken by the photographer Kieth Morris who took a lot of portraits. So how can I use these to make a watchable film in a landscape aspect?

Any suggestions?

December 31, 2016 at 2:27PM, Edited December 31, 2:27PM