Arts & Entertainment

Editing Case Study: The Vietnam War Introduction

Ken Burns

Lesson time 18:41 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.

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Topics include: Draft 4.5, July 2013 • Draft 5, September 2013 • Draft 12, November 2015 • Draft 13, January 2016 • Final Cut, October 2017


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...

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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