Arts & Entertainment

Choosing Your Story

Ken Burns

Lesson time 10:20 min

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

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Topics include: A Great Story Will Hold a Mirror Up to You • Choose Your Films Like You Choose Your Friends • Become an Idea Collector • Look for the World in a Grain of Sand • Tell Stories Beyond the Boundaries of Yourself


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, ...

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.

Featured Masterclass Instructor

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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