Chapter 19 of 26 from Ken Burns

Editing: Process


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.

Topics include: Trust Your Editors and Give Them Space • Use a Blind Assembly to Find the Shape of Your Story • Navigating the Horror of the First Assembly • Cultivate a Fresh Eye • Screen Your Work • Give Yourself the Gift of Time

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.

Topics include: Trust Your Editors and Give Them Space • Use a Blind Assembly to Find the Shape of Your Story • Navigating the Horror of the First Assembly • Cultivate a Fresh Eye • Screen Your Work • Give Yourself the Gift of Time

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.

I don't aspire to be a film maker, but Ken Burns himself is extremely inspirational. His heart and goodness shines through all his words. I loved his ending message which was to just get started with whatever is in you to do. I'll be thinking about the message and the man.

Always admired Ken's work and now have a stronger desire to pursue my own filmmaking dreams. Thank you so much Ken AND the Masterclass community!!!

Thank you, Ken, from the bottom of my heart, assuring me that I can.

The knowledge that there is the same underlying principle to filmmaking whether documentary or feature films, its the principle of storytelling. This is reflected through all forms of art.


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!

Michael B.

I knew I was going to like the editing chapters, and although I have been forced to edit myself, having a "good person" as an editor is the best you can do for your film. I especially liked the part about the "blind assembly". Most of my work has to do with music, sometimes music and dance. When I edit, I can sometimes feel the pea under the mattresses, but I can't figure out where it is. I have often watched my full-length music and dance edits with the sound turned off, and you'd be surprised at your work if you do that. It can be a nightmare, but a useful one. Equally, I have listened to the edited soundtrack without the picture. In both cases, these painful exercises have showed me exactly where that pea was.

Heinrich Eugen V.

On the low budget you usually do everything from the development to the final cut. This can be good and bad. Good because you can entirely control everything. Bad, because from the screen writing you set yourself inside the box and then your entire production leads by your bias. Something I need to put a production on a long time aside to jump outside of my box.


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...