To submit requests for assistance, or provide feedback regarding accessibility, please contact

Arts & Entertainment

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


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.

these are brilliant, the processes in which each one of these incredible artists reveal has and is incredibly helpful, the ways of seeing so new so refreshing. I am a beginner poet, I can't put my pen down, scrolled across pages, words , sketches of the doors that have opened through this series, I have just begun thank you so very much, this is gold

What I think puts this learning format ahead of all others I have tried, is that I felt like I was having a private conversation with the instructor. I wasnt bogged down in outlines or rules or things to technical info but rather it was like I was in a ski lodge and ran into Ken Burns and sat there for the afternoon discussing his craft. Quite Impressive.

I absolutely loved Ken Burns. I am going to watch this all over again. He is so inspiring.

This master class actually made sense. A beginning, a middle and an end, all put together to tell a compelling story of how Ken Burns does what he does.


Saleena S.

I found this lesson extremely useful. I chose Tokyo story to do the assignment and found very interesting story structure's that I had not noticed before. The significance of location to the story and the themes represented by the characters came to more light. The slow change from a tranquil rural environment where the parents lived, to the cities and suburbs of the lives of the children as the parents visit them, they carry us through their journey of change. We see the modern lifestyles through the children's families, changes of financial of independence of women as represented in Noriko. I then tried to use the same methods for my documentary and realised how lacking in structure my ideas were. I played around with the cards and will ask for input from others, but I feel it is moving in the right direction , being a documentary I am limited to how much I can plan but it certainly feels that I have a more flow to the ideas I want to cover. Thanks!

Phil N.

I like the format of having a somewhat informal, frank chat with Ken Burns in his home, but I would like to see more visuals and audio from his films. Tension is something all creative people talk about from writing to interior design. Is it just a popular buzzword like "narrative" or can we apply it to our own documentaries? My work on has tension between industry/economy and planet/environment, urban liberal and rural conservative, in religion, politics, and within families. I have one scene of an oilman fracker screaming at me. It makes a good story. Like the song says, "It ain't always pretty but it's real."


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.