Film & TV

Choosing Your Story

Ken Burns

Lesson time 10:21 min

Using examples from his own project files, Ken teaches you how to identify powerful, universal themes that will resonate with audiences.

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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Personally, I'm engaged in doing films that are about American history. And the word "history" is mostly made up of the word "story" plus "hi," which I've discovered tremendously late in my life for someone who likes wordplay. And so I'm interested in a good story. And that's it. The inspiration comes from stories, which are collisions of happenings and humans. And that's it, sort of basically. I'm not interested in telling you what I already know. That's homework, the last time I checked. I'm, rather, interested in sharing with you a process of discovery that I've made by investigating something that I didn't know, or only had relatively superficial information or knowledge about, and-- but understood that the dynamics, the contours, the interiors of the story had something that was drawing me. If all of my films are asking the same deceptively simple question-- who are we as Americans-- ultimately, that comes to who am I? I mean, that's-- "who are we" is a convenient way to hold it off. "Who am I" is the artist's question. So what you're looking for is a story which is sort of firing on all cylinders, is an engine that's attractive in its ability to contain a lot of power. And at the same time, you realize that the engagement of that, all-- bringing all your faculties, will also in some ways hold up a mirror to you. [MUSIC PLAYING] I don't choose the projects. They choose me. Having said that, there's lots of ideas. There's 50 or 60 ideas that I have going around in my head-- just ideas, thoughts. And I write them down and will collect some notes on it. It's only when an idea leaves being an idea and goes down to the heart, when it's accepted, that I say yes to something. And I think that should be what the decision is for you, as well. Like, you don't want to make a decision based on marketing. You don't want to make a decision based on, wow, I could make a lot of money off this. This will sell really well. I mean, at least I can't. They drop down in your heart and you say yes. And it's a whole-hearted yes. And sometimes it's a yes for 10 years-- 10 and a half years. Sometimes it's a yes-- I don't know anything that's been shorter than 2 and 1/2, three years to make a film. And that's a big commitment. And it's sort of the way our friends are in our lives, you know. You know a lot of people by face. And you know a lot of names, a little bit shorter set. And many of them are acquaintances, and lots are within friends. And then a few are people you're going to know all your life. And the ones I say yes to are the ones I want to know all my life. And so when you choose and say yes to something, it's-- it's for real. [MUSIC PLAYING] OK, so I have here some folders of projects that are-- got off the list and got at least a folder of its own. You know, I have never-- I've never shared these before. I've never shared these before with folks, of things that I got invested enough that it left the list of 25, 30, ...

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.

Best masterclass for me so far. Technicall, human and straight to the point - and delivered with such humility. Big fan!

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.

Inspiring. I feel hopeful, engaged, energized. So glad I signed in. Grateful!

Even if you don't want to make a documentary, you will learn so much valuable information from Ken Burns about the process, how it's done, what to include/exclude etc. The best masterclass that I have done out of the almost 20 that I have completed.


Jonathan B.

I feel often times not knowing where to write down to be more organized with my ideas jotting those things down. I feel like that for short immediate reminders and ideas I'll put those on my calendar but for links, sites and other resources I'll save it on my phone. I have a lot of ideas in my mind and I think that the key take away from this lesson is what could be doable, what could be something interesting to produce, direct and edit narrowing down ideas and getting them friends on board to produce a story that would be compelling enough for people to view.

David K.

Well, at least you have everything in folders. That's a big step. I have lots of those scraps of paper and lots of notes written in the margins of books as well as collections of paragraphs and short essays on my topic as Word documents. The challenge then becomes harvesting all those pieces, putting them in an order that will lead to a script or screenplay. I finally put a digital asset management system in place earlier this year that is basically an easily searchable index to all my documents, video clips, photographs, graphics, audio clips, etc. -- but these things in turn impact the structure of workflow. Maybe there will be tips on managing all these pieces of a documentary later in this class.

Mary H.

"The black-white rift stands at the very center of American history. It is the great challenge to which all our deepest aspirations to freedom must rise. If we forget that - if we forget the great stain of slavery that stands at the heart of our country, our history, our experiment - we forget who we are, and we make the great rift deeper and wider." - Ken Burns, as quoted in James Loewen's Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong p. 137

Phil N.

Everything Ken Burns utters resonates with me. He shares his thinking process which, we know, holds the formula for success. Yet the process is not directed at success in terms of TV ratings and revenue. The ideas arise from the passion for sharing truth beyond facts, changing the hearts and opening the minds of the viewers. Sharing his personal folders of story ideas for the first time publicly is like handing us the key to a secret chamber! Feels like a very personal exchange. Makes me believe, I can do this.


I have those folders too. I also have a voice recorder that I keep within reach. I don't think I had looked through the folders or listened to the recordings in a while. When I finally decided to review the materials, I was surprised how many times I wrote the same ideas more than once.

Shayne O.

Really lovely teaching, telling and sharing of the subject. My story is definitely outside my boundaries but within the boundaries, I've now chosen to live and immerse myself in. So love this.

Chuck O.

"Collect all of your ideas and keep collecting the new ones. Make a place to collect your ideas. After collecting, ask yourself, is this idea a reflection of myself? Is this an idea I want to keep in my life? Is this an idea I want to have as a partner and friend for years?" This is what I took out of todays lesson. I have so many ideas, but knowing which one to choose has always been difficult. I now know I must find myself in these stories. Also, the process of discovery and sharing that strung a chord with me. Thank you Ken for giving me direction.

Julia M.

Very good way to start the session. Passion is the key - wanting to get started. Thanks Ken

Raquel S.

Thank you for sharing. I'd like to suggest one change that everyone, all Americans especially, need to correct. Jackie Robinson was not the grandson of a "slave". He was the grandson of an African man forced into slavery. By continuously calling our ancestors "slaves" instead of referring to them as men, women, children, etc. who had an entire life in countries within a continent that included an African king, Mansa Musa, who was worth $400 billion in today's economy, we dehumanize those Africans who were forced into slavery and support the narrative that they were less than, worthless and deserving of their treatment.

Jozua J.

Very interesting chapter. Found in someway I am doing these thinsg and founding that my instincs ​as a stroyteller​ was not off is empowetin​g.