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

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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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.

Reviews

4.7
Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

Extraordinary experience from a master. Ken's segments not only break down the art and process of documentary filmmaking, but are unintended insights into the dynamics of a life well-lived. Articulate. Profound. Inspiring. Ken, I wish I knew you.

This class verified for me, notions I have had, that I am on the right path. It has given me an example of a filmmaking process from which I can create and judge my own. And lastly, I want to thank Mr. Burns for opening up his world to aspiring filmmakers like myself so we can "jump the chasm" and just go for it.

This has been the most useful Master Class that I have taken through your service.

I am more aware and a bit better a person , Thank You

Comments

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.

Frederick

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

Erin B.

LOVE this. Don't go into filming / research thinking you know everything. Go beyond conventional and superficial wisdom.

Content G.

I love the idea of breaking away from conventional wisdom. I believe it allows one question life objectively, and that for me is at the core of creating a documentary.

PJ

Very enjoyable class. Deep artist...very deep. Only director I've ever believed what he says!

Mia S.

"On numerous occasions, I've had my entire point of view rearranged by being willing to go beyond the conventional wisdom and learn new facts. And new facts are harder for conventional wisdom to absorb, because conventional wisdom just says, 'Hey, you don't have to know about it except these little A, B, C...' even though X, Y, Z is equally important. In Vietnam, we went and explored what the north Vietnamese perspective was. Nobody had done that. We explored what their citizens felt. Nobody had done that. We heard what the Viet Cong guerrillas had done, what the South Vietnamese - our allies, our erstwhile allies - felt as civilians and protesters of their government as well as their soldiers - their brave soldiers, who were often denigrated because we didn't like to blame ourselves for this situation. And so we included all of those perspectives. All of those people provide a variety of truths of things which we are desperately, as filmmakers (here's the big subject) trying to distill into the story - tend to want to make the simplest thing, so that we end up with conventional wisdom, or the superficial knowledge that we're just bumping along from generation to generation. We just said, 'No, time out.' That helps complicate it, makes it super hard to tell the story, but when you tell it, then all of a sudden you've got a story that's possibly truer."

Mia S.

"When you are doing history, you just necessarily have to get a lot of different perspectives. And you can extend that and realize that an opposite point of view of the same event can actually be true. The guy who spoke for two hours before the Lincoln Gettysburg Address, one of the great orators in the world - two hours, Edward Everett said, 'Mr. President, I should flatter myself to think that I came in two hours as close to the heart of the subject as you did in two minutes. But The Chicago Times in Lincoln's own state of Illinois said, 'The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat, dish-watery utterances of the man who turns out to be - to intelligent foreigners - the President of the United States. So this is the Gettysburg Address, which is not even arguably- just is the greatest speech in the American language, and you've got the guy who spoke for two hours before him saying, 'I couldn't touch that,' and a newspaper saying, 'It sucks.' That's what you need to be able to contain. And those perspectives, more precisely help to define even how great that speech is. To finally liberate your story, you have to escape the specific gravity - the dark matter, the black hole of conventional wisdom - which says, 'It's just like this, this, and this. It's very simple.' I find that I come in - the first thing I have to do is understand what my baggage is, and then check it. And so with Vietnam, I lost my baggage like the first day, didn't show up at the carousel, and 10 years later it's still not there. And you know, 'Hallelujah, that's really grea't; but it's funny, the extent I went in rather arrogantly thinking I knew a lot about it - because I'd lived through it, I'd been in Ann Arbor, Michigan, a hotbed of rebellion; we think the first teach-in took place at UM in March of 1965. 'Hallelujah, I know everything.' I knew nothing, it was a daily humiliation for 10 years. I did not know anything and I had to in some ways just reset to zero and say, 'Forget everything, and start with the basic assumptions, most of which were wrong."

Mia S.

"What was interesting is that many of us in our comments about Vietnam, nothing migrated after the fall of Saigon; we had our opinions and nothing changed over the next 42 years. Well, the scholarship has changed, and we took advantage of that and were able to say, 'No, what you think is exactly the opposite. You think this happened, it's actually the opposite and here we can prove it, with cables, testimony, with tape. And if we're going to say that this president lied, we have to be damn sure we can prove that he lied. The only preparation you need is to be open, to listen, to read, investigate, explore, discover, to not be too sure you're right, and that's a hugely important thing. And then when you've put yourself in harm's way, because it is of course fraught, all of this things - it's understanding that it will be difficult, there will be assumptions that you make in the beginning that will disappear. Some things you're certain will change that stay the same. And it's just flabbergasting. I'll give you one example that is across many films: If I say 'the 1920s' to you, you might think of something. You might think of a jazz band, a gangster, a prohibition agent or a flapper dancing on a table. That's OK, that's what the conventional wisdom says. That's in my mind, too. I've been through the '20s in about 10 or 12 of my films, it's never the same '20s, each time I do it - it's totally different. So if something like that, which we think we have a handle on, is constantly changing, what is that story that you think you know something about? Baseball, Civil War, Vietnam War - big. Or something specific - the Brooklyn Bridge, the Shakers, the Statue of Liberty - these are all subjects we've done, biographies that we've done on people. You sort of engage yourself with the idea that, 'I'm going to have, in each production, my molecules completely rearranged.' That's a good thing."

Mia S.

"Hundreds and hundreds of sources go into making a film, and just the archival sources for 'The Civil War' was 163. I think they were all in the United States. Now for 'Vietnam,' we've traveled around the world, we got stuff from archives in Vietnam and China and Russia, in Europe. It's just too numerous. So we have home movies from people; I gave a speech once in Missouri and somebody came up to me and said, 'My brother kept reel-to-reel tapes that he would send to us, and we'd send to him,' so we made him a character in the film - those tapes are unbelievable. He lived in a tiny little Ozark village in Southwestern Missouri and he would send tapes back to this little town, and the whole community would gather to hear the tapes and make their own. 'Hello Michael, this is your mother, I like your mustache'; somebody's saying so-and-so broke up with Darlene.' It's like a picture of America and who actually goes to war. And meanwhile he's over there saying, 'They light these villages on fire.' And then he's killed. So - this is what you never knew starting, and if you're corrigible to the end, then you have the possibility for serendipity and surprise, and that's what life is about, too. The greatest challenge, I think, for a documentary filmmaker, producer, director - all you want to say is to make sure there's not too much daylight between the subject, the thing you're interested in, and the story of that subject you're trying to construct and tell. If there's too much daylight, then the entertainment has won - and the first casualty is the truth. You have to hold yourself to the standards, so we are constantly double-checking and making sure we've got a citation for where that thing came from and what source it was, it's usually reputable historians, and even then you know that stuff changes, so we're always anxious to hear more scholarship about something."

Mia S.

"We want to cast - at the beginning - as wide a 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 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 La 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. Then you have to figure something out. And sometimes you got a lot of images for which there's no writing, and then you are creating a new scene. That's great though - then you're not just illustrating. Every time you say Lincoln, or every time you say this, you're showing this, or showing Lincoln; you begin to have a freedom to range around. And if you never stop researching and you never stop writing - your process flows into one another, it's organic. So you collect as much as you can and see what is talking to you, because as soon as you put some stuff in collision, it will begin to talk to you."

Transcript

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...