Chapter 20 of 26 from Ken Burns

Editing: Principles


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

Topics include: Kill the Little Darlings to Sjgjnerve the Story Arc • Feel the Edit Musically • Unify Picture and Audio to Create a Singular Sensory Experience • Find the Right Pace for the Scene • Every Addition or Subtraction of a Frame Counts • Let This Imperfect Thing Go

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

Topics include: Kill the Little Darlings to Sjgjnerve the Story Arc • Feel the Edit Musically • Unify Picture and Audio to Create a Singular Sensory Experience • Find the Right Pace for the Scene • Every Addition or Subtraction of a Frame Counts • Let This Imperfect Thing Go

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.

This Masterclass was outstanding. Mr. Burns is a great and soulful filmmaker who has given so much in these lessons. His methods and techniques were generously revealed. Many thanks!

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

This man truly loves what he does. It's infectious!

The Ken Burns Master Class has given me a lot of insight on documentary film making like being comfortable with the feelings that arise during problems and troubleshooting. Ken has mad me aware of the many creative options like voice narration, sound, and the importance of dramatic storytelling in a documentary that is trying to be informative.


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.

Mark M.

"You never finish a work of art - you abandon it "- love it, I know exactly what he means - I have made over 20 films for the 48 hour film project [see photo] and each of them, I wish I could have had more time on. But do I go back and fix them? No. I charge on to the next project. Not cause they were perfect [by far] but mostly I am tired of looking at them - How he can spend years making his films and still keep his enthusiasm amazes me.

Tina K.

I sat down and watched a couple of episodes of the Civil War series and it was interesting to look at the canon shot forward and backward from how he described when to include moving video into his archived photos. Also, I adore how he lingers on all of his shots so you can focus more on the narrator. It's the same with using the same music over and over. You've heard it, your brain recognizes it, so now you can focus on the words being said, genius and clever Mr. Burns!


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...