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Arts & Entertainment

Finding Your Story Within The Subject

Ken Burns

Lesson time 13:26 min

You’ve selected your topic, but what’s the story you’re telling? Ken teaches you how to use research to seek out different perspectives, discover your story, and anchor it in facts.

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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There's a huge difference between the subject and the story. And I think at the end of the day, that's probably the most important distinction that we both forget and remember and re-remember when we forget again. The subject is the subject. It is what it is. And in the kind of documentaries that I make, historical documentaries, it's true. It's the monolith of fact. It's the temple that you go to again and again. You leave because the story is itself a fabrication and a manipulation of aspects of that subject that you are trying to stitch together into a story. And this is a huge evolutionary process in which you can't possibly conceive what it looks like at the end at the beginning. And so what you're trying to do is make sure that the lines of communication are continually opened, or at least reopened when they're broken, between the story you're developing and the facts of the subject that you are committed to try to bring back in some new way. The art is in that selection, in that manipulation of the stuff. But so are all the treacherous swamps and quicksand of it-- the times in which the entertainment outweighs the facts, the times in which you make decisions of omission that actually are detrimental to important truths of the subject that should be surviving. And so what you have is-- say, in the case of a multi-year project-- a continual centering of what you're trying to do all the time in relationship with the facts. And the second you get away from the subject matter, then what happens is I think that the art and the entertainment and the storytelling can overwhelm and sometimes capsize the truths and the complicated truths of what the real subject is telling you. [MUSIC PLAYING] We want to cast at the beginning as wide a possible net as possible in every area of doing it. So we're buying lots of books, reading lots of books, giving the writer lots of books, adjusting the goalposts of the episodes that we've decided are there. Where do we get to? What do we need to do? And then we're learning. So the writer's beginning to shape a narrative. Meanwhile, we're out in another area, casting a net really far and wide, interviewing people, trying to figure out who we should talk to, what they have to say, and get as much as we can from them. We want our writer to be free to write the battle of Ia Drang Valley without worrying about whether there's a-- or the Battle of Shiloh-- without worrying about whether there's a photograph of that. We want to be able to go into an archive and bring back all the images that we're drawn to compositionally because they're good photographs-- but also because of what they're showing-- and not worry about whether we're trying to fit it in. Now, does that create huge problems in editing? Yes, it does, because sometimes you end up with writing for which there's no images. And then you have to figure something out. And sometimes you got a lot of images for which there's no writ...

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.

Every coment Ken makes, inspire me to do it with my best. I'm so grateful!

these are brilliant, the processes in which each one of these incredible artists reveal has and is incredibly helpful, the ways of seeing so new so refreshing. I am a beginner poet, I can't put my pen down, scrolled across pages, words , sketches of the doors that have opened through this series, I have just begun thank you so very much, this is gold

I absolutely loved Ken Burns. I am going to watch this all over again. He is so inspiring.

This got me thinking of tangible ways to start filmmaking. Along the course I had story ideas come, and learned such valuable techniques for telling that story—through Ken's own experiences, which are invaluable. More so, I am a writer, not a documentary filmmaker, and found his tips just as helpful for written narrative.


A fellow student

Psychologically Mr. Burns has been very helpful to me. His thoughts concerning "other" and his thoughts about separating stories and subjects are particularly interesting to my idea for a documentary film.

Neil T.

Truths that have not been included. This complicates things making it hard to tell the story. But when you tell it, then you have a story that is "possible."...Excellent!

A fellow student

My new favorite quote: "Release ourselves from the tyranny of our own set of experiences and finding the 'other' the universality. We can find in the 'other' a mirror of who we are and we can help to perfect ourselves." So inspiring.


I wish the title of this Masterclass was updated to 'Teaches HISTORICAL Documentary Filmmaking'. I think documentary is a wider genre than purely bringing history to life. When I think of Chef's Table I think of it as a Documentary, but there isn't so much of an emphasis on getting the facts right, because it tells a more autobiographical account of a person and I'm not sure the same 'historical' research and precision applies.

anthony R.

I liked his overall message and life experiences. great class. calming storyteller voice.

Casey S.

I like the idea of perspective. Letting all sides take the story by hand and letting the contradictions have a voice. I like that a lot. That opens up so much depth to the story. And I like that the contradiction can bring clarity to the story as well as confusion. It brings human nature into the story. My wheels are turning!!! Thank you!!

Michael P.

So the Gettysburg Address is what he considers to be the greatest speech in American History? Okay so we are just oing to sweep under the rug thatLincoln, during his famous debates with Sen. Stephen Douglas, explained to the crowd: “I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races … I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races from living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be a position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.” Lincoln was no different than most white males, North and South, at the time. He was a white supremacist. The "I have a dream" speech is arguably the greatest speech in American history.

A fellow student

“If you’re courage-able until the end, then you have the possibility for serendipity and surprise.”

Stephen H.

Absolutely amazing and so thoughtfully put together capturing all the emotions and actions that matter in such a descriptive manner. Thank you for your insights Sir, thank you!


I think it shows a great level of humility and emotional intelligence to realize the biases we all have when making a film. It is really hard for me to let go of what I am sure I already know about a subject, and let the facts drive the formation of the story.