Film & TV

How Ken Burns Edited The Vietnam War Documentary

Written by MasterClass

Jul 25, 2019 • 3 min read

When it comes to documentary films, Ken Burns has demonstrated that good documentary storytelling will always require time and experimentation in the editing suite. His process on The Vietnam War—which took more than 10 years total to make—is a testament to that fact.


What Is Ken Burns’ The Vietnam War?

The Vietnam War is an acclaimed 10-part documentary series that premiered in 2017. Directed by Burns and frequent collaborator Lynn Novick, it aims to provide a new perspective on the United States’ involvement in Vietnam by centering the stories combatants, protesters and other witnesses, while sidelining the voices of politicians and personalities who dominated the news at the time.

How Ken Burns Edited The Vietnam War in 7 Steps

Viewers who have seen the first episode of The Vietnam War will know it starts with an eight-minute opening scene that sets up the series. That scene began life four-and-a-half years earlier as a 28-minute blind assembly—essentially, an audio-only “radio play” of potential narration. Here, Burns shares the steps he went through to evolve that scene in the editing suite from the blind assembly to its taut final cut.

  1. In their first blind assembly, Burns’ voice reads the scratch narration, which is intended to be temporary and used only to experiment with phrasing and timing for rough edits.
  2. Following this narration, Burns tries a technique that has worked well for previous series—that of a dramatis personae, or an introduction to the cast of characters. They include choice quotes about the war from over a dozen people, beginning with veteran John Musgrave’s confession that “I’m scared of the dark, still.”
  3. A few blind assemblies later, all but two of the talking heads have been cut out of the opening. Burns realized that their familiar dramatis personae technique isn’t really working for this series, and they begin to experiment with an entirely new idea. They cut a visual sequence that involves iconic footage from the Vietnam War being played in reverse, with backwards motion, creating a disorienting experience for the viewer that reflects the troubling memories being replayed in the minds of soldiers who survived the conflict.
  4. Still not quite satisfied, Burns searches for a way to also anchor the series in the American experience, and to set up that there were conflicting truths at play for the people involved.
  5. By draft 12, many visual elements are in place, including archival footage that is still watermarked, or digitally stamped with time code and newsreel logos—meaning that the material had not been licensed and paid for yet. But something key has been omitted: the “scared of the dark” quote no longer opens the film. Musgrave’s story required viewers to know more about the larger geopolitical context than they could be expected to know at the start of the episode. A new select by Karl Marlantes that speaks of how divisive and traumatic the war was for everyone involved and ends with the rhetorical question “what happened?” serves to better reflect the starting point for the majority of viewers first embarking upon the TV series.
  6. By the time Burns makes a rough cut of the film, he will have found the narrative form, rhythm, and pacing for the opening. He is happy with the order of the script, and the imagery in this version is for the most part what will survive to the finished film. What remains is refining, perfecting, and polishing—an iterative process that may still require many drafts and weeks of work.
  7. The final version of The Vietnam War opening contains clean, licensed footage, a title card and graphic, composed music and sound effects, and professional narration by none other than Peter Coyote. Some 80% of the initial blind assembly is gone, including the quote by John Musgrave that originally seemed essential. But what remains is masterful.

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