Film & TV

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 15-time Emmy Award winner teaches how he navigates research and uses audio and visual storytelling methods to bring history to life.
Get All-Access


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.

This is the beginning, the first step ... step 1, thanks

If you finish a lesson, you have to reload the page to watch it again... not cool

Ken Burns is exceptional in every way. His intelligence and humanity are beautiful. Informative and interesting!

This was one of the best classes on making film documentaries I've taken. Ken's approach is detailed and, in terms of sound and story, contrary. But it's highly functional. His willingness to share insights on one-on-one interviewing techniques were priceless.


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.


Editing is the key to many movies, ad the rhythm. Over the years I have learned the difference with that one frame difference. Thank you for this great lesson.

Sunny N.

I can take the film editing lesson I learned here and apply the lesson to books, articles and music I am writing, and exhibitions I am creating. Anything! The lesson applies to them all. This is editing, such an intimate process, an integral part of the finished composition. Feeling what to leave in and feeling what to take out, based on the tempo, tone and rhythm I, as the composer, set.