Chapter 10 of 26 from Ken Burns

Case Study: The Vietnam War Episode Boards


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

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

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

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

Ken Burns

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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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. 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.

Ken teaches his unique creative process through case studies of his films, original treatments, voice over scripts, archival documents, and more.

A downloadable workbook accompanies the class with lesson recaps, assignments, and supplemental materials.

Upload videos to get feedback from the class. Ken will also critique select student work.


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

Ken Bruns personality inspires me depply. I love his mindset to use storytelling to show relevant issues, invite into a conversation and building real connection. I got a good understanding of his workflow and can take parts to apply them in my work.

This was one of the best classes on making film documentaries I've taken. Ken's approach is detailed and, in terms of sound and story, contrary. But it's highly functional. His willingness to share insights on one-on-one interviewing techniques were priceless.

Ken Burns is not only a master documentary filmmaker - he strikes me as a man of wisdom, humility and humour and I have born truly inspired.

Ken, I loved it!!! Very inspirational and was very much in line with my philosophy. You dropped some very valuable knowledge! Thank You!


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?

Betsy B.

The arc....the a feature animator & dancer I think in terms of storyboard....this is so helpful! Incredible.

David B.

This reminds me of a socio-linguistic essay I wrote on 400 years of Acadian history, from the early settlers through to modern times and how they kept a French dialect distinct and with its own unique vocabulary. I hounded some professors and writers while I was on the road playing gigs in the Canadian Atlantic Provinces where the Acadian story began. I got so much into it that I ended up with recipe cards -- all the same colour -- stuck around the four walls of a rather large room. I moved these cards around until they formed into episodes rather accidentally. The writing process was a real adventure. I think that colour coding would have helped me immensely. Anyway, just commenting here on a flashback to that event 28 years ago. I've never made a film although I've done some formal film studies. I wonder if there is a film treatment in that old paper. . . . Really enjoying the comments here, especially Richard Crowell's "mosaic" observation. dcb


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...