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Arts & Entertainment

Editing: Principles

Ken Burns

Lesson time 10:24 min

Ken teaches you the guiding principles he’s developed over the course of four decades in the edit bay.

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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Editing is at its essential core the distillation of the material you've collected into a coherent story. So you can go back to human life. How is your day, someone ask you? And you immediately begin to edit that into a coherent narrative of what took place. You do not spend 24 hours telling that person what your day was like. But you want to-- you hopefully have collected 24 hours worth of material in order to be able to answer the question, how is your day. That's all that editing is. It's taking the seemingly random chaos of events and ordering it into a story. You can look at our cutting room floor. The proverbial cutting room floor isn't filled with bad stuff. It's filled with great stuff that you would look and go, wow, you're an idiot. Why isn't that in the final film? But if I could put it back into the final film, I'd show you the way that wonderful scene de-stabilized the arc of something better. Part of what I am is in some ways a traffic cop, ultimately deciding what's going to get into the film and what's not going to get into the film. And that makes it an incredible burden. Nothing in the hunter gathering portion compares to what takes place in the triage, in the merciless triage that everyone who wants to be a filmmaker will come to have to face, that you will have to kill, as they say in journalism, all your little darlings. All those sentences that you think are perfectly read, all that shot that you think as you're taking it, oh, it's going to be in the final film. And be willing to sacrifice them in the service of something else that has gone places that you couldn't even imagine. And I think it's in some ways having a kind of courage to make sure that you permit yourself to let it go in a direction that you didn't think it was going to go. There is a huge amount of humility at the end of the day that you begin to realize this whole thing is about. It isn't about imposing what you know. It's about acknowledging what you don't know and asking of the material what it might need. It doesn't mean that you don't impose yourself. You do. But you've got to have an equal ingredient of humility that permits that material to speak to you and tell us what it needs to make it better. We use all the time in the editing room musical analogies. Hold that a beat longer. Hold that sentence go beat beat. We have adopted without really know what we're talking about musical ideas. Because if you think about it, Wynton Marsalis says that music is the art of the invisible. You can hear one note and then a second note, and something more has happened. And that happens with words. It happens with images. Music is the fastest way to your heart. And so I think, as we begin to edit, I find it helpful-- I think you would find it helpful-- to think about what these things represent in kind of almost musical notations. I don't know anything about music in that way. But I know enough-- and you know enough-- to be able to employ t...

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.

watched all Ken Burn's documentaries, now got a better understanding of how it get made.

Amazing course. I'm really not much of a film maker as I would like to be but a big fan of Ken's work so I thought I'd watch it. He makes me want to make documentaries and he touched on things I can carry over into my photography and other processes. It's a wonderful course.

I am African American I want to thank him for his work. I appreciate his detail to his work and he explains things so excellent. I going to watch and watch until I gain all his knowledge.

Very detailed info for those who are trying to get to the next level of the craft.


JD Mayo

I don't like it either that I can't use my favorite shot in the film even if we shot it three times. It is the exact same one each time.

Phil N.

Ken burns says to Unify picture and audio...don't accentuate the tension to a point where the viewer has to pay attention to one or the other. Just recently I learned of the creative concept of "tension." It was about interior design using old scratched natural wood-plank floors with clean modern black and white metal decorative furniture. Then I heard it again from a hotel-restaurant owner speaking about local businesspeople in the sleepy small town who didn't like the arrival of their upscale urban hipster-style hotel moving in. He said the tension was positive. Now I hear that audio and visual elements of the documentary create tension. With Ken Burns' musical analogy in mind, I suppose this is like dissonance of tones in a composer's score where the various instruments are playing sharps and flats but still maintain a harmony. Tension for creative people is used to grab the attention of the viewer. The war footage of the Tet Offensive needs no music to create tension, and grab attention. I am thinking about what tension I have in my documentary about climate change, energy and environment.

Kelly H.

Superb information. I watched and listened with bated breath to every word that Mr. Burns uttered. I found the lessons to be inspiring and rejuvenating. I found myself agreeing with Mr. Burns on several instances that I am facing as I put together my project. I received confirmation in a good way that I am on the right track. All of the many facets associated with film making that are necessary I accepted with enthusiasm. Mr. Burns touched on so many developmental parts of film making that I now feel I've got the power to keep plowing ahead to finish my project.

Tony C.

What I really like about this lesson is that it gives one a greater understanding of what it takes to produce really great pieces of work. When Ken describes the huge task ahead of him when they do the first cut I got a sense of feeling overwhelmed and I kept on thinking that it is the feeling of being overwhelmed that most probably stops most of us from achieving the greatness we hope to achieve. The lesson is simply find what you love and don't give up. It is hard work for even the greatest among us.

Launa B.

Knowing what to leave out, is just as important to knowing what to leave in. Music is the subconscious emotional drive that moves your film, and should never compete with the spoken word, always compliment. I frequently see younger filmmakers who don't know how to mix the narrative with music correctly, making the music so loud that it is difficult to hear what is being said. Dialogue and music is like a dance, and only one can lead.


So much diligence to get it just right. Awareness of the Pea!!! I love that so much

Christopher D.

This is really great information. I have been inspired to include still images into my films.

Michael O.

Princess and the Pea...I know there's a frame missing and I want it back. Hilarious! And that's why Ken is a master.

Sree K.

I love this episode. I thought the struggles I undergo is unique to me. Ken's sensitive articulation of minute things is an art in itself.


The editor is the most important person on a film. 'Fix it in post' never a truer word spoken! My favorite movie line of all time.