Arts & Entertainment

Case Study: The Vietnam War Episode Boards

Ken Burns

Lesson time 08:07 min

Using the episode board from his docuseries The Vietnam War, Ken teaches you his strategies for visualizing the structure of your film.

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Topics include: Visualize Your Structure • Tease Characters and Themes in Act One • Build Structure Around Characters • Balance Larger Themes With Individual Stories • Face the Brutal Triage of Choice


So I think the first thing is to say these are not storyboards. Because storyboards are essentially graphic representations that you lay out first that then decide what editing. This is what we call the episode board, which tells you-- running North, South, North, South, North, South-- what's in that episode once we've done it. This is essentially the table of contents of the script. And we bring this out for the people that have come into the editing room to look-- the scholars, the veterans, and most important, the warm bodies. So they can look and say, oh, I fell out here. Or I didn't understand this. We've done this for every film since "The Civil War." And they're color coded to an extent. This sort of salmon is the two times we have a title. This is-- if it's yellow, it's Americans in Vietnam or talking about Vietnam experiences. The green are in South Vietnam or Vietnam. The red is North Vietnam once it separated. And I look. And I see a wonderful balance. This inhalation, this exhalation, this respiration of different modes, different locations. And that, to me, says that this episode is doing what it should be doing. [MUSIC PLAYING] Key to creating a kind of Russian novel of a story, with all these plots and subplots and different levels of characters, is how you introduce them and how you introduce the themes. It's very interesting in Episode 1 that most of the exposition is sort of general. It's not specific. They're people you're going to learn about. And the audience got that immediately. That I was being forced ahead to meet somebody that I'm going to want to know much more about. So in fact, a good deal of Episode 1 was resisting the temptation to stop and fully set something up. What is set up is the geopolitical recipe for a disaster. And what the presidents-- mostly Truman and Eisenhower-- have done to either help or turn a blind eye to a developing quagmire that they could have easily put an end to. But I realized what we lacked was what our film was going to be about, which was the intimacy of the American experience in Vietnam. Because there were all these moments when something happened-- what we have in here, in here, in here, in here-- you begin to be invested with a set of Americans who are-- all these stories are going to be told again, or some variation of their story again. Some will be hugely significant characters in almost every episode. Some will be important characters all the way through but not necessarily every episode. And it was a really effective device to say to mainly an American audience, we've got skin in this game, even in this early setting. [MUSIC PLAYING] So Episode 2 is a pretty interesting episode. This was our problem child from the very, very beginning to the very, very end. It defied our ability to figure out how to make it work. And then all of a sudden, you know, six months, seven months before locking, it suddenly came together. And we figured it ou...

About the Instructor

Since its 2017 debut, Ken Burns’s The Vietnam War has enthralled over 39 million viewers by painting an intimate and revealing portrait of history. In this online film class, learn how Ken captivates audiences with his ability to distill vast research and complex truths into compelling narratives. From first treatment to final edit, Ken teaches his documentary filmmaking techniques that “wake the dead” to bring their stories to life.

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Ken Burns

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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