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Arts & Entertainment

Editing: Process

Ken Burns

Lesson time 10:34 min

After editing Civil War, Baseball, and Jazz, Ken created a new process to efficiently hone raw footage into the final cut. Learn his method for tackling vast amounts of material during the editing process.

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 central to what we do. It's the most important part of the process, and in a way, of course it is, because it's the synthesis of all the stuff that you've gathered. But this has to be seen in the context of an entire process, in which we never stop researching, and we never stop writing. So editing is something that is beginning. And while it is ongoing, we are still engaged in many, many other aspects, all feeding in to the editing, and all with the idea that we are somehow making this developing script, this developing cut, better and better and better. [MUSIC PLAYING] I have never really, since college, been my own editor, where I've cut the film and marked it. I've done all that. I've cut A and B rolls. I've done the old, arcane stuff, worked even with upright moviolas and steambacks and flatbed moviolas and Cam machines, and all sort of stuff. But since I began my professional life post-college, I've had someone physically editing the film. And the single best thing you can do is get good people. And they don't have to be good necessarily artistically. They're just good people. Because you can learn all of this stuff. And so I've converted housewives to producers and kids that were interns into unbelievable editors. And the biggest thing you have to do is to trust them. And so what I don't want to do is hang over them every single moment. I try to limit my contact to those screenings, where I can focus all my attention and benefit from a bunch of other eyeballs looking at it. But a lot of it is trust. And that's true with cinematography. It's true with other people that you're engaged in who work on the project with you. It's a wonderful thing when you can love the people you work with and begin to trust them. So it's not a singular exercise, is the first law of filmmaking. Nobody, no matter how great the auteur, not Orson Welles, not anybody does it alone. [MUSIC PLAYING] After our experiences with "Civil War", "Baseball", and "Jazz", in which our editors were spending an inordinate amount of time adding picture to the first assembly, we created what we call a blind assembly, in which we have worked on the script through several iterations. I, as the scratch narrator had recorded that material. We've dumped in whatever talking heads, however cut up they might be, into places where we think they might work. And then we listen to it, look at it, as a blind assembly. Whenever there's the narration, you're seeing nothing. Whenever there's a first-person voice, you're seeing nothing. There's no music. It's just to sort of hear it, almost as if you had heard a radio play. We would do that to help us understand the larger shape of the narrative and what was extraneous and what we needed to do. And that permitted us in the next pass to go and begin to add picture. In some of the longer series, we now have two, sometimes three, blind assemblies, because we are really wrestling with complex structures, Russi...

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.

Ken Burns provides awesome Insights into Visual and Audio documentary form and what to draw from. This class seriously informs and motivates.

After these lessons I can tell that Ken Burns is very similar to our best documentary director Ermanno Olmi. Both have a strong esteem and trust in the human being. The two professionals have a great knowledge of the matter. I am happy because Burns was not in my acquaintance and I must say thanks a lot to you the manager and to all the editors. Greetings from Italy.

There is no blueprint for doco making. Ken lays this out beautifully and sensitively whilst also providing some useful insights and encouragement.

blown away by listening to this very intelligent human being.


Phil N.

Ken Burns' Blind Assembly is a wonderful technique for building the storyline with narration and sound before adding the visual content. Paradoxically, before the blind assembly, I use my visual content to help create the narration and storyline. My photo archive reminds me of all of the places and people I visited. A picture is worth 1000 words so I just scroll through hundreds of them and write or narrate-and-record the stories they spark in my memory. Viewing my collection of images for the slideshow or film, I may even "see the music" that should accompany them. Thus, I suggest to filmmakers, try a Visual Story Conversion prior to the Blind Assembly.


The first documentary I put together was based on the life of someone I admire. I wrote an article first and expanded it into my film. I realized as I was putting it together that I had a lot of repetition, which I had to edit out. But I listened to the narration over and over without images. Once I added the images, I still had to spend months rearranging. Now I know the name of that process is blind assembly.

A fellow student

I´d be interested in how you blind assemble if you have no narrator or VO and also have some parts that are only driven by the images.

Michael T.

The blind assemble is an interesting concept. I tend to always start with a radio cut but would leave the interview subjects on screen. However in retrospect I tend to not look at the screen when previewing the radio cut because it's distracting. So I guess I am doing a manual "Blind Assembly" by physically looking away. May times I will actually turn around in my chair so that even my peripheral vision is blind. Cool concept, and I am going to flat out steal the nomenclature.


'Assembly the base camp of Everest.' The challenges are still ahead! 'Quick and dirty, let's not do that.' So true, nice to be able to have the time to do it right. Good lessons here.

Sunny N.

My takeaway is: Documentary filmmaking is no place for the quick and dirty.

PoojithaReddy G.

All my good works went awry in the editing room. Thank you Mr. Ken Burns for the fundamentals any director has to cautiously practice during the editing time.

Kym S.

I think you're a wonderful teacher. I love the way you explain the whole filmmaking process using such descriptive & inspirational phrases.

Tina K.

I see the value completely for having a dedicated specialist at every level of production. I have had the pleasure of working with several crews like this, but a majority of the pay the bill's projects have had the crew doing two and three jobs. Then again a lean crew is agile and simpler to communicate and coordinate with. I'm struggling to assemble an entire team.

Betsy B.

Loved the 'blind assembly' and the opportunity to lay down the material in stages, so it does not have to be perfect at the first script or edit. Screenings....discussions.... but most important is taking the time! I've been working on my film for many years, in-between surviving....but is hard to hear people say ''just get it done! You have enough interviews, enough research''.....when only I know my subject material. Ken Burns has given me the green light to stay focused on the process and do it right! Thank you Ken!