Film & TV

Filmmaker Ken Burns’s Top Tips for Documentary Cinematography

Written by MasterClass

Jul 25, 2019 • 4 min read

Among the storytelling elements at your disposal, the one most integrally linked to filmmaking is cinematography. Since documentarian John Grierson coined the term “documentary” in 1926, documentary cinematographers have been using the movie camera to tell compelling, authentic stories. However, unlike a narrative Hollywood film, the responsibilities and filmmaking techniques required of a non-fiction cinematographer often vary from moment to moment.


What Is Cinematography?

Cinematography is the art of photography and visual storytelling in a motion picture or television show. Cinematography comprises all on-screen visual elements, including lighting, framing, composition, camera motion, camera angles, film selection, lens choices, depth of field, zoom, focus, color, exposure, and filtration.

6 Different Types of Documentaries

Not all documentaries are the same, and different types of documentaries will require different documentary techniques from the cinematographer. There are six main types of documentary genres. Though these sub-genres are not mutually exclusive, identifying your dominant documentary style will help clarify the expectations and requirements of the cinematographer:

  1. Poetic documentary: A poetic documentary eschews linear continuity in favor of mood, tone, or the juxtaposition of imagery. Since poetic documentaries often have little or no narrative content, the director of photography is often asked to capture highly composed, visually striking images that can tell a story without additional verbal context.
  2. Expository documentary. Expository documentaries set up a specific point of view or argument about a subject and often feature “voice of god” style voice-over. The historical documentaries of Ken Burns are examples of an expository documentary. For expository documentaries, the cinematographer is responsible for collecting footage that supports and strengthens the spoken argument of the film, including stock footage, archival footage, b-roll, or re-enactments of historical events.
  3. Observational documentary. A style of documentary embraced by the cinema verité movement, observational documentaries attempt to discover the ultimate truth of their subject by acting as a fly-on-the-wall—in other words, observing the subject’s real life without interrupting. Cinematographers on observational documentaries will often be asked to be as unobtrusive as possible in order to capture their subjects in a raw, unguarded state.
  4. Participatory documentary. Participatory documentaries are defined by the interaction between the documentary filmmakers and their subject. Therefore, a cinematographer is equally responsible for capturing the interviewer as he is the interviewee.
  5. Reflexive documentary. Reflexive documentary is a sub-genre that focuses on the relationship between the filmmaker and the audience. Since the subject matter is often the process of documentary filmmaking itself, a cinematographer will shoot behind-the-scenes style footage of the entire film production process, including editing, interviewing, and post-production.
  6. Performative documentary. Performative documentary focuses on the filmmakers’ involvement with his subject, using his or her personal experience or relationship with the subject as a jumping off point for exploring larger, subjective truths about politics, history, or groups of people. A cinematographer is often asked to capture the documentary production process, as well as intimate footage that illustrates the direct and often personal relationship between filmmaker and subject.

Ken Burns’s 5 Tips for Documentary Cinematography

Ken Burns, one of the most successful documentary filmmakers in the world, shares five tips for great documentary cinematography.

  1. Choose a visual style. You will need to choose a visual style for the cinematography in your film. Ken tends to favor impressionistic compositions in his films, treating them as if they’re paintings.
  2. Select shots that engage your audience. Ken also uses cinematography to focus the audience’s attention and engage them viscerally in a historical moment. He generally shies away re-enactments, preferring evocative imagery that suggests aspects of an event, without representing it literally. In The Civil War, Burns begins a battle sequence with a shot of cannons on the battlefield, silhouetted against a red sky. Next, a live footage flyover of yellow cornfields transitions to handheld footage from the point of view of a soldier marching through the fields. None of these images required actors to play a role or mimic an action. In fact, the only reenactment in the entire Civil War series is a close up of a horse hoof pounding through a puddle of water. Burns’s choice to use experiential, POV-style footage rather than a typical reenactment allows the audience to engage with the abstract, sensory experience of wartime anxiety.
  3. Use live cinematography when appropriate. Ken also relies on live cinematography—that is, footage shot by the filmmakers rather than archival footage—when crafting stories particularly if there are no visual artifacts from the time period. For instance, no footage exists before 1900, and photography wasn’t invented until 1839. When your story is older than the technology of film itself (or when there simply wasn’t any visual documentation of an event), then live cinematography becomes a primary storytelling tool.
  4. Travel light when possible. When filming outdoors, Ken generally relies on natural lighting, working with the effects of sun and shadow. He works with a lean crew—a cameraperson, an assistant, a sound person, and himself. For exterior location shoots they travel with a camera, tripod, and sound kit, but rarely with a lighting kit. Travelling light—with only essential crew and equipment—allows you to appear less obtrusive to your subject and helps you react quickly to unexpected filming opportunities.
  5. Light your sit-down interviews properly. For sit-down interviews with experts and witnesses, controlled lighting is important. You should place your main source of light, called a key light, off to one side of your interview subject so as to create a slight shadow on the opposite side of the person’s face. A back light, placed behind the subject, will help to define and highlight the subject’s features and outlines. Experiment to find the right balance for your interview, potentially adding a third fill light to soften any harsh shadows created by the other lights. The priority, for Ken, is to light the person you are interviewing in a way that makes them feel comfortable and at ease.

Become a better director with the MasterClass All-Access Pass. Gain access to exclusive video lessons taught by master filmmakers, including Ken Burns, Spike Lee, Mira Nair, and more.