Film & TV

Case Study: The Vietnam War Episode Boards

Ken Burns

Lesson time 08:08 min

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

Ken Burns
Teaches Documentary Filmmaking
The 15-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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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...

The drama of truth

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.


Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

I found the real focus of my prison documentary in this course.

I have realised that some of the videos I produced were really documentary films but more current and addressing specific issues. From Ken, I have learned a lot from initial research to final product and this will from now on change the way I have been doing things. It was a great experience.

unexpectedly the best class. Ken's humilty and sense of "humanitas" is the big lesson for all of us.

Probably the best Masterclass I've taken yet, and I've taken pretty much all of them having to do with filmmaking. The editing portion of this class was fascinating. This class not only taught me many things, but also instilled me with a go-out-and-do-it attitude and reinforced a lot of the practices I already had in place. Thank you so much Ken!!



He said it isn't a story board, but is basically serves the same purpose, which is great for someone like me, who has always been a visual learner.

Maram J.

I love his board; I never thought of doing something like that, so this was very helpful! Will definitely implement this method.

Joe S.

Well, someone asked about changing the venue from the chair... Just curious...Ken mentioned that each episode narrows down the time frame to where in the 5th episode we are with the soldiers and their war experience. How does he "bring us home" to finish the arc? Love this series.

Jyrki M.

Abosolutely great stuff from Ken. Once again this part gave a fantasticly clear steps and board thing was definately something I'm going to use myself.

Bob S.

The use of the story board with color coded cards is a brilliant way to organize the documentary project. I am doing a project on rain forest preservation and will use this system. very good lesson!

Nathan W.

Wondering how boards like this work on a single short film? I'm planning on making a documentary that will probably only be 10 - 15 minutes long.

Shawna B.

Love the boards. Great way to save in editing time and money to "play around" with scene ideas first. But, I'm curious how Ken balances the board system with SEEING how they flow visually. It's almost like he's using the boards as A-roll. Very cool for organizing and more importantly keeping your team all on the same page.

Mark M.

Too much material to use - what a wonderful problem to have - shows the value of the backbreaking research and prep that he puts into his films - saw the digital versions of this linked to in the downloads section but sadly they are just not the same as physical cards on a board. Also not free. Subscriptions and monthly costs for these tools make them less attractive but thanks for providing the links - a really well put together MasterClass.

Sunny N.

In this lesson, I found the board to be extremely beneficial. The optics of the multicolored presentation lets me see the variety of arcs being presented, while respecting the arc of the whole story. The colors show the variety of arcs very effectively and help to easily organize and reorganize scenes. Sticky notes have a brand new filmmaking function! They can easily be switched to more appropriate positions on the board without a lot of effort.

mark L.

Is it my imagination or has he taken the idea of actually teaching - as opposed to just story-telling - much more seriously than almost every other instructor?