Chapter 4 of 26 from Ken Burns

Finding Your Story Within The Subject

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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.

Topics include: Your Story Is Not the Same as Your Subject • Start With Research, and Research Everywhere • Find Sources That Deepen Your Story • Anchor Your Story in Facts • Good Research Should Change Your Mind • Seek Out Different Perspectives • Escape the Black Hole of Conventional Wisdom

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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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. 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.

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Ken Burns

Ken Burns Teaches Documentary Filmmaking