Film & TV

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 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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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.

I learned a bit about the style of Mr. Burns.

Amazing Masterclass from a true master of his art and someone so good at teaching others and inspiring others. I cannot rate this Masterclass highly enough. Thank you, Ken Burns, from the bottom of my heart. You have definitely given me speed and lift to cross the chasm and I intend to continue to do what 'inly' rejoices.

This has got to be the best Masterclass yet. I've seen so many already and Ken Burns is by far the best instructor. He is clear and precise, yet humane in the way he speaks about his work and the art of Documentary Filmmaking. I will too go find what makes me feel good inly. Thank you Masterclass and thank you Ken Burns.

Really far more interesting and inspiring than I expected. There is a passion for his craft that is truly inspiring.


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.

Obaji A.

Hi, is anyone experiencing this error message too while trying to download resources on these lectures: This XML file does not appear to have any style information associated with it. The document tree is shown below. <Error> <Code>AccessDenied</Code> <Message>Request has expired</Message> <X-Amz-Expires>3600</X-Amz-Expires> <Expires>2019-05-22T12:48:07Z</Expires> <ServerTime>2019-05-22T14:25:27Z</ServerTime> <RequestId>9966F69FC86E4CCF</RequestId> <HostId> HMMOn+p26aieFdGqQ1oQD3XIU/mBj7il3qTFwo1Qr95ukNKGqdXUEvL/2PpntrvFIwHZycuje2U= </HostId> </Error>

Obaji A.

Wow, Ken just gave me a trek home like it was all fun without heck. I am now even more confident than ever, better equipped to continue telling African stories giving them a wide scale glamour.

A fellow student

The question I have is, I'm trying to tell the story of my mom's immigration story from Vietnam to the United State. I want to tell the story because for me it allows me access to my own history as a second generation US citizen, and how the events of the war completely shifted lives of my family and I. We essentially had to denounce our old home and completely adapt to a new one in the United States. How do we seek different perspectives when the story is about one person?

Phil N.

Ken Burns, as a true artist, can reference historic works of literature and philosophy like the poet William Blake whom I will now read more of his poetry, thanks for quoting: "To see a World in a Grain of Sand...And a Heaven in a Wild Flower" in relation to film-making and story-telling. I have concluded that hyper-local is the way to move into the future. I tell my photography students to do National Geographic caliber work in your own little local area. No need to have a press pass to the Olympics; you can get great action and emotion at your town's little league field. Get the life story and plight of one farm family you know, and you are telling the story of thousands of similar lives on America's family farms... and so on. I remember another version of Blake's philosophy, the title of a picture essay on macro-photography, close-ups of flowers and insects. "In the microcosm, I find the cosmos."

Denise G.

Great, great, great! Now I'll never throw away any scrap of paper that I have on my family genealogy & historical facts. I can see how my book with timelines in it can each be scenes/goalposts for my historical documentary that I plan to make. Could sure use someone like Ken Burns to critique it. I think that it's written well, with facts, docs, pictures, & resources, protaganist and antagonist, but, maybe too short (160 pgs). Wow. Sure sorry to hear that this young soldier died. Heartbreaking. Thankfully my brother made it home, barely. Racism there and back home.

Terishka F.

Subject is where my passion lives. I thought I wanted to write for television or film and found myself creating a documentary that I have been passionate about. The facts, the truths, something I need to say is not a television or film for contemporary entertainment. When sitting to do a writing workshop for script-writing I found myself with a creative block. But when I thought of a topic close to my heart and with experience I couldn't stop writing but the writing was not my usual story telling. When it came to me with a dream that this is a documentary format it started taking on shape and character on its own.


I'm already feeling like my entire process has been backwards. There are so many nuggets of wisdom in this teaching.