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Arts & Entertainment

How to Tell a True Story: 6 Tips from Ken Burns

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Aug 25, 2020 • 6 min read

A great documentary can help us learn where the truth lies in past or current events. Documentary filmmakers create nonfiction films that present truth in cinematic form, using various techniques to draw audiences in and make them care about the subject matter taking place in front of the camera. Depending on the type of documentary you’re trying to make can affect the story you want to tell.



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A Brief Introduction to Ken Burns

Ken Burns has been making documentary films for more than 40 years. Ken’s films have been honored with dozens of major awards, including 15 Emmy Awards, two Grammy Awards, and two Oscar nominations. In September of 2008, at the News & Documentary Emmy Awards, Ken was honored by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences with a Lifetime Achievement Award. A December 2002 poll conducted by Realscreen magazine listed The Civil War (1990) as second only to Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North as the “most influential documentary of all time,” and named Ken Burns and Robert Flaherty as the “most influential documentary makers” of all time. Since making his first documentary, the Academy Award-nominated Brooklyn Bridge in 1981, Ken has gone on to direct and produce some of the most acclaimed historical feature documentaries ever made, including The Statue of Liberty (1985), Huey Long (1985), Baseball (1994), Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery (1997), Jazz (2001), The War (2007), The Dust Bowl (2012), Jackie Robinson (2016), and The Vietnam War (2017). His latest documentary for PBS, The Gene: An Intimate History was released in April 2020.

Ken Burns Details the Importance of Embracing a Variety of Perspectives

Ken Burns’s 6 Tips for Telling a True Story

Legendary filmmaker Ken Burns knows how to tell a true story. With a balanced blend of facts, post-production editing, B-roll, and a little poetic license, Ken can draw audiences in with his descriptive storytelling and archival footage, giving you everything you need to understand the context of his feature-length documentary films. Before you start working on a new documentary, you need to understand the critical elements of making a groundbreaking story. These six tips from world-class documentarian Ken Burns will help you tell your story in the best way possible:

  1. Respect the drama of truth. The drama of truth is the single greatest terror of the process—you need to take raw events from real life and shape them into a story—and how far can you go with art before you begin to mess with truth? There's no answer to that. It's a question that you sound and then spend the rest of your life asking. Have I put the thumb on the scale here? Have I changed something? What have I done in the service of cinema that has also simultaneously betrayed the truth? The truth that I'm after involves sometimes making a decision about a greater truth rather than the facts of it. We live in a rational world. It's safe there because you're not dealing with stuff—but what we want in life is the bigger stuff, the stuff that comes from our faith, that comes from our literature, that comes from our loves and our relationships, and comes from our art.
  2. Marry fact and faith. Facts are things that happened. For example, we know that it wouldn’t make sense to make a film about the Civil War and the Battle of Gettysburg that occurred on some other time other than the first three days of July 1863. That's a fact. You need to do a lot of digging to find some other ones, but you can find them. Then, it becomes interpretation, manipulation, inclusion (and its partner exclusion) of the various facts and other elements of this that go in. When you have talking heads telling personal experiences, we ask of our veterans that we have access to their military records. We want to make sure that they were actually at the place they said they were on that day and date. Then afterward, we don't know whether they're telling the truth about actually what happened in that firefight, but we know a little bit about who they are and their character. There's a kind of human act of faith that has to take place and bridge the gap between the objective truth, which is impossible for us to get and access, and the kind of facts that amount to a larger truth that we may be able to get in the way we approach our art.
  3. Honor the collective, not the objective truth. There's no such thing as objectivity in any filmmaking—This includes documentary filmmaking where we sometimes hide behind the cloak of "the truth.” We do know that storytelling is a complex process of memory and its selection. We know that people's descriptions of the same event at the same moment can vary widely. So my reality is true. Their reality is true. And then you begin to kind of average those things out. It's so important to have a variety of perspectives because then you realize that there's no objective truth. There isn’t objectivity here, and that's okay. This is the human beings’ experience, and we see things from different perspectives. If you can kind of aggregate a series of human experiences, you have the possibility of more clearly and more precisely understanding that. When you understand that moment, then you set up at least the conditions for art. That's what you're looking for. The razor's edge is to make sure that that new truth in no way compromises something essential to the subject matter of your feature film.
  4. Be prepared to take poetic license. We have to be in pursuit of a larger truth that means something. We have lots of anxiety as we begin to approach some line in which it's a fact too good to check—or the story's working too well, we don't want to know that complicated thing. We have to know it. You have to engage in a bit of poetic license, which is the get out of jail free card that permits you to cross one of these lines because the truth that you get at is bigger than the individual truth that you might be violating in the case of it. So that moral compass will have to, in the end, be your own.
  5. Embrace manipulation. Is documentary filmmaking objective? Nothing is objective. The other thing is, does cinema make people do anything? Can cinema motivate people, not just preach to the converted and get people who share like-things to do that? It's all manipulation, but you just can't see manipulation as pejorative. Manipulations are good. You manipulate your child as you're rearing them. You manipulate the food that you're making for dinner. Manipulation is life. Manipulation raises money. Manipulation gets the shooting done. Manipulation, most importantly, gets the editing done, and then manipulation gets the selling of it done. Then you go on to your next sets of manipulation, fully manipulative.
  6. Tolerate contradiction. You have to be able to tolerate contradiction. All of us, in the laws of storytelling, want it to be simple. When a good scene is working, you don't want to mess with it. However, in documentary filmmaking, the more we dig, historically, the more we understand how complicated it is, how often these things that we want to fit into the nice boxes that we may call scenes or episodes or moments or series, it doesn't work. The real world is complicated. We always want to make sure that we have the bandwidth to be able to tolerate that contradiction. It attenuates our filmmaking process. It makes it a little bit longer. But in the end, the freedom to be able to adapt, to make something more complicated, to understand that all still waters have some sort of undertow to them—that every hero is flawed with feet of clay. Every villain has humanizing aspects, and then you don't get into cartoonish kind of dialectics, where everything is one thing or the other.


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