Film & TV

Editing Case Study: The Vietnam War Introduction

Ken Burns

Lesson time 18:42 min

Using early, never-before-seen-cuts of The Vietnam War, Ken illustrates how to synthesize the components of a story and sculpt the film in the edit.

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.
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In order to help you understand a little bit of the tricks of the trade of editing, what I think is the most important aspect of what we do, I wanted to invite in one of my editors. Dan White, who's been working with me for 17 years, is a tremendous editor. We're going to do something that we've actually never done before, which is we're going to take you back and recreate, collapse four year-- and a half years-- of editing and sound editing and onlining into a few minutes of discussing how we got from the first blind assembly to the finish of the introduction. The first eight-plus minutes as it is in the final version was probably 28 minutes in our blind assembly of the opening of our film on the Vietnam War. We've never done this before, and we're happy to share. It was sort of lifting up our-- you know, showing our slip here. [MUSIC PLAYING] I want to sort of parachute into my own process. It doesn't necessarily have to be your process, but our process involves doing a blind assembly before we really start committing pictures. The simplest thing in a blind assembly, and particularly for the introduction, is you want to be able to enter your film right. It's a radio play, and you're essentially asking for what the dramatic structure is. We start off with a very, very complicated Marine named John Musgrave, telling his story of being out on an outpost, you know, terrified of the dark-- so much so that now, to this day, he has a nightlight. - And I'm scared of the dark still. I still got a night light. When my kids were growing up, that's the first time they really found out that Daddy'd been in a war. - He's relating it-- we just thought that was great, and it is great, but it had to be used once we'd established something. And so we're missing what it is, and we know we're missing what it is that's going to begin our film. We're going to keep him there for three or four more passes at least, maybe a couple of years that he's in there, but we're not all quite sure. He's-- he's got jump cuts in him, because we haven't cut it. And then we begin our narration. So it's all-- it's over black. America's involvement in Vietnam began in secrecy. It's my voice. Remember, I'm the scratch narrator, so it's not Peter Coyote yet. We're not going to bring him in until the very, very end. It was undertaken in good faith by decent people out of fateful misunderstandings. Then we go into the dramatis personae. We have a sequence of heads that we just piled in-- it's two and a half, three pages, of talking heads, of people we thought might work in this sequence. They do work in the context of introducing themselves and introducing important ideas that we hope the film will do, but they're not going to serve an introduction in the film. And so every single one of them but two went out of the film from that introduction. So we are experimenting with things we're familiar with-- the dramatis personae, which was very much a part of what wa...

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.

This class reinforced some of the experiences I have already had interviewing subjects, such as eliciting usable responses, and positioning the camera to establish a proper eyeline. It also taught me to not rush my documentary film, but to search for the best footage available. It also provided some useful sources of archive material that I have already started to access.

I am more aware and a bit better a person , Thank You

#Inspired. I'm not trained in filmmaking, but I'm compelled by something much greater...the desire to document injustice. At this point, I can conquer the world, one documentary at a time :) Thanks Mr. Burns

This has been a wonderful experience. I feel blessed to have had a chance to learn directly from Ken. I will be coming back again and again to this class. Thank you.


Phil N.

This lesson was extremely helpful to see the interplay between the typewritten script and the video timeline, from the blind edit to final cut, with much good content being omitted. It helps us consider all of the components involved in making a documentary film, the actual filming of new footage and interviews, gathering stock footage from network TV and amateur hometown movies, and how you distill out the key quotes and visual clips to tell your version of the Vietnam War story. You took a risk running the war footage backwards, iconic scenes could have had an impact running forward, but the effect is memorable and sets up a feeling that this story is different, this war was different, and we wish we could push the reset button. When we see the blank timeline at the start, some filmmakers could be discouraged. But I love the blank slate as there are endless directions the story could go from here. You took it in one direction but, using the same raw material, the film could have turned out completely different. It could have turned out fine, even good. But using more than the raw material and editing tricks of the trade, calling upon your knowledge of American history and your inspiration drawn from great Americans and your own life thinking, questioning, believing in something larger than just telling a good story, it turned out great.

A fellow student

I'm getting an error message trying to play this lesson: Could not download the video Error Code: PLAYER_ERR_TIMEOUT Session ID: 2019-07-29:8b03d2d6766b84cb8d798d3d Player Element ID:vjs_video_1

RJane @.

Bringing chaos or war to other countries also instill mental and physical illness or PSTD in American soldiers and the people affected by the war directly.

RJane @.

I don’t understand why U.S. goes to other countries and create chaos in the name of “safety or security for Americans” and “legacy of being a fierce super hero in the world”. Bringing chaos or war to the other countries just instill fear, hatred and anger in Americans and people around the world.

RJane @.

The class is about filmmaking. Lesson 21 is about the Vietnam War Introduction. Why is MasterClass or Ken Burns showing the photo of an African American boxer in the beginning of the lesson?

Tony C.

Fascinating how long it took to make this documentary. I guess they must have been funded by PBS for a few years before they completed this show and the money rolled in. Huge leap of faith but PBS backed a winner in Burns.


So much more powerful with the voices and the images. Mr. Burn also speaks with so much more passion in these clips.

stasia P.

Outstanding. I find myself lost in the sound of Mr. Burns process and voice. He has me in a trance when he uses such eloquent words and descriptions that I now see make up his minds eye and voice. He articulates the thought so well. He is a great teacher. He sees it a different way… genius... and I love learning from him. I watched this lesson 3 times.


Question: Why is it formatted in 1920x1080i 29.97? Was it down rezed from 4K, or shot originally in HD 1080i and if so why such a low resolution. Would like to know?

Charles B.

He talks about removing 80%. At the time he put those blurbs on there he thought they were important. He became a gate keeper and decided those weren't salient thoughts after all, or he became bored with seeing them over and over. And removed them out of boredom. I can't fault his success. On a video we created for a law firm, we placed a number from 1 to 10 on the importance of the clip. Then depending on its importance we either kept it or removed it. This process builds in bias that you learn about in Journalism classes. We were paid well for our production. If that 80% were returned to the end product, how much more would we be educated about what we really needed to know? Budgets don't allow for that. When uranium is mined and placed into nuclear energy facilities, or bombs, and now that nuclear facilities are no longer being permitted, what kind of money is it going to take to pulverize that ore and remix it with dirt and put it back into the Earth where it came from so it will no longer be of a destructive nature. We don't think like that.