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

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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Class Info


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. 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.


Ken Burns

Ken Burns Teaches Documentary Filmmaking