Chapter 21 of 26 from Ken Burns

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

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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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. 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.

Ken teaches his unique creative process through case studies of his films, original treatments, voice over scripts, archival documents, and more.

A downloadable workbook accompanies the class with lesson recaps, assignments, and supplemental materials.

Upload videos to get feedback from the class. Ken will also critique select student work.


Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

Very informative class from a master documentarian!

I love all the wonderful new ideas Ken has added to my way of thinking and view of writing a documentary. Also how I now and will in the future view a documentary. I truly enjoyed your class Thank you Ken!!

Extraordinary experience from a master. Ken's segments not only break down the art and process of documentary filmmaking, but are unintended insights into the dynamics of a life well-lived. Articulate. Profound. Inspiring. Ken, I wish I knew you.

This is by far and away the VERY BEST MasterClass I have ever taken. That's all I can say.



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?


Unbelievable. Watching the final version now, after listening to the process... all I can say is, thank you.

Franz H.

Thank you Mr. Burns, that you share your experience. Clear, well structured and enormously helpful.

Andrew Kyle B.

This is maybe the best MasterClass lesson I've seen so far. Very insightful stuff.


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...