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Arts & Entertainment

Ken Burns Shares 7 Tips for Becoming a Documentarian

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Aug 25, 2020 • 7 min read

With a balanced blend of facts, editing, B-roll, and a little poetic license, world-class documentarian Ken Burns compels audiences with his descriptive storytelling and archival footage, giving viewers a look at history while also presenting it in a creative, and interesting way. Ken knows that nonfiction filmmaking can open up your world of understanding, and illuminate new perspectives and present a point of view beyond your expectations.

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Ken Burns Teaches Documentary FilmmakingKen Burns Teaches Documentary Filmmaking

The 5-time Emmy Award winner teaches how he navigates research and uses audio and visual storytelling methods to bring history to life.

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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.

What Is a Documentarian?

A documentarian is someone who attempts to capture past or present real-life in a truthful and compelling way. Documentarians can be filmmakers, TV show writers, photographers, or any other kind of artist who takes the historical record and turns it into a visual medium.

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What Does a Documentarian Do?

Documentarians create nonfiction films that attempt to present a truthful storyline in cinematic form, using a variety of techniques to draw audiences in and make them care about the subject matter on camera. Once you understand the technical aspects of the documentary filmmaking process, you can start to select the information you’ll include for your documentary project. The types of documentaries you’re trying to make can affect the stories you want to tell.

Ken Burns’s 7 Tips for Becoming a Documentarian

You don’t need to go to film school to become a documentary filmmaker or make a feature film. You need to have something to say and the ability to persevere through the ups and downs of the filmmaking process. If you want to become a documentary filmmaker, check out these essential tips from world-class documentarian Ken Burns:

  1. Your first film is your greatest teacher. As a first-time documentarian, it’s important not to allow a lack of experience to stop you from making your first film. The lessons you learn from the experience will be innumerable, as was the case for Ken and his first film Brooklyn Bridge (1981). He admits he didn’t know what he was doing. At the time, nobody was making historical documentaries that were longer than five minutes, so Ken wound up simultaneously inventing and reinventing the wheel with the film. He had to deal with the debilitating anxiety of stepping off into a territory he did not know. However, he was governed by the idea that the still photograph could be willed alive, that the soundtrack could also be interrupted with first-person voices, and that the story could happen in these unexpected places. Ken began to understand the extent to which biography was the constituent building block of all the stories we were telling. What got him through was perseverance—and the lesson is that you have to have faith in yourself.
  2. Know your creative goals. The documentary film industry isn’t part of the big-budget Hollywood film industry. Documentary filmmaking is often a low-budget endeavor, so if you want to make your own films, you need to be sure of two things: The first is, knowing you have something to say. The second is, being willing to persevere. For independent film production, nobody's going to bestow the budget on you and say, "Make this film. Take as long as you want,” Ken says. You're just going to have to make it happen, and persevere. Once you’ve decided you’re going to persevere, you have to decide how you’re going to start, and how you can make the best documentary possible. You can survive and feed your family making money in the industry, or you can survive and maybe make less money but always have creative control.
  3. Expect problems and transcend them. Filmmaking is an industrial manufacturing of anxiety. It is in every aspect. “Do I have enough money?” “Are we gonna run over budget?” “Is this person performing their task?” There are literally hundreds of things that can go wrong and will go wrong in the course of it, and that is human. Everybody makes mistakes. The biggest thing you can do in your own project is to figure out how to anticipate and then welcome the unanticipated problems that will inevitably occur. We have to take out the reaction and figure out a way to transform the seemingly initially negative energy. All the other stuff will come through. It's that patience of process, and the process inevitably entails friction.
  4. Be a jack of all trades. It is our obligation not to become too trapped in specialism, but to educate all of our parts. Making documentary films requires you to do lots of different things, to wear lots of different hats: to be a fundraiser, a showman, a director, writer, editor, cinematographer, sound designer—all of those things are necessary. You don't end up being stunted in any one area. We're hoping to be whole people, Ken says. We're hoping that we can develop ourselves physically and intellectually and emotionally and spiritually. Finding a professional life that permits that growth to occur is precisely what all of us need.
  5. Your life will feed your art. We draw on our lives to feed our art, and vice versa. We borrow, and we steal. Be influenced by who you are. You bring that to the moment, the baggage you carry, the pain, the broken places in you. You carry the experience of how others have negotiated those pains and those broken places. Then something comes out of it that may help somebody else who is negotiating those same things.
  6. You can’t do it alone. There's something hugely terrifying about making a film, and there is sometimes this incredible feeling of aloneness, particularly if you're the director, and it will all come down to you. However, filmmaking is gloriously collaborative. We’re in a visual medium, and cinematography is important. Somewhere in your back pocket, you should have a great cinematographer: It's the person who's gonna set the frame around the archive and set the frame around an interview that you're doing. Find a good writer. Or be one. Then finally, it's editing. Whatever film project you have in mind, it cannot be a one-person band. “You have to do this with other people, and it may be in that connection, in that relationship with other people, that fears are overcome, that ideas are crystallized, that action and a plan of action is possible,” Ken says.
  7. Get in the deep end. All the people who are making documentaries have arrived at it through a set of negotiating personal and artistic circumstances that defined how successful they were or where their art came from. There’s no right or wrong way. For this career option, you have to make your own path, and that's terrifying and liberating at the same time. If you need to have a salary or a comfortable lifestyle, this is not the business for you. What are you willing to do for your art? Are you prepared to sacrifice what it takes? That fire to do it will figure out the budgetary limitations that you don't know. It will put you in contact with people who will share your vision or know how to execute your vision or will know how to teach you as they teach themselves how to do that up until the final cut. Just get in the deep end, but only if you have that confidence in yourself, Ken says.

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