From Ken Burns's MasterClass

Editing Case Study: The Vietnam War Introduction

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.

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


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.

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

Ken Burns

Teaches Documentary Filmmaking

Learn More


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.

Thank you, Ken, from the bottom of my heart, assuring me that I can.

Comment on my class with Ken Burns??!! who am I tell or comment on someone who has a 40 years journey as a documentary filmmaker. I'll keep his words and advice in my mind and keep moving forward. May be someday soon I'll make my artistic mark.

I just started my first full length doc yesterday so all this info was something I can't say enough about. There are so many things that would take to long to list but the way that Ken did it and the content that he covered was a 10/10 thats all I gotta say. It was simply amazing!

I don't aspire to be a film maker, but Ken Burns himself is extremely inspirational. His heart and goodness shines through all his words. I loved his ending message which was to just get started with whatever is in you to do. I'll be thinking about the message and the man.


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.

Sunny N.

I have learned how I should begin my process. I can actually see it now. I have my roadmap and I know that I cannot take every turn on the map. I can only take crucial turns if I am to tell a compelling story. This lesson is also an amazing method to approach editing the places I have allowed my roadmap to take me, Here, I begin to learn what editing really means. Dump all the possibilities onto the timeline, and then discriminatory dump off 80% of them. Remembering, these were possibilities, most of which I realized from the beginning of my process would have to go, based on the requirements of the story I am telling. Most importantly, I learned, I cannot be afraid to edit because not editing, I sacrifice my story and lose my audience.

Hero U.

Wow... Speechless. You could see that Mr. Burns had a clear vision from version 4.5 but to see it develop to the final state was incredible. An excellent example of staying true to the overarching story vs getting hung up on a powerful moment(Nightlight clip) that doesn't propel your story forward in the desired way.

Alex T.

When beginning on this journey does the script in the beginning match the final edit? Does it matter if the story that unfolds is better than the original idea?

Andrew K.

how do I watch the video of Ken critiquing my classmates' work? I didn't see the link for that? For office hours, how can I see the questions that students posed and Ken answered? all I see here are his lectures and the workbook.

Vic S.

Great lesson. I have a question for Ken, but anyone can chime in. Do you ever ask a subject to say a phrase that you think helps tell your story or are all of the interviews raw and their own words?