Film & TV


Ken Burns

Lesson time 4:36 min

Meet your new instructor: award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns. Ken shares why he’s teaching his MasterClass, what you’ll learn, and encourages you to break free from the rules of conventional filmmaking.

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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We tell stories to keep the wolf from the door, the wolf being the sheer panic of our inevitable mortality. But stories bestow immortality. And then, what happens? What happens? - I'm scared of the dark still. I've still got a night light. MAN: There is something in this world that is larger than you are. Race is like the thing in the story and the mythology that you have to do for the kingdom to be well. Can you confront it with honesty? Do you have the energy to sustain an attack on it? WOMAN: The greatest threat is the inner tension of people of this country. You have to attend to liberty. KEN BURNS: Filmmakers take the seemingly random chaos of life and superimpose a narrative frame on it. And those truths have to resonate with other people. Maybe you, too, could add something that would last and be beautiful. [MUSIC PLAYING] - I knew I was going to be a filmmaker from age 12. From age 12, I've been buying books about film and about cinema and about the movies, all three of those things. And they're different. And the day I started producing and working on a film, in January of 1972, I have never bought another film book. There is nothing-- no guide, no anythinG-- that has, in any way, told me what happens in this moment right now-- how to conduct an interview, how to be a good cinematographer, how to be a good writer. All of those things happen in the field. So to me, I think it's about jumping into the deep end. I think a lot of us are cautious enough-- let's get the whole budget, let's do this, let's have it all preplanned- and all of a sudden, you miss the key ingredient, that there is no guide to writing a screenplay that any great screenwriter has ever read-- I mean, that something has to happen on page seven. If it doesn't happen by page seven, you're in trouble. I can't even open those books. And I used to do books about the history of film, and I used to know everything about every director ever. And I still know a lot. My brain is-- but actually doing it is the greatest joy I've ever had. And I've been doing it now since-- I mean, I shot stuff in high school, but if you say from that moment in January of '72, I've been doing it for 46 years in some way, shape, or form. What I'm hoping is that you can get a glimpse into my experiences, and I might be just a little bit farther down the road so that as you find your own road, they'll be helpful. We are going to be delving deep into super important aspects about how one writes, about first-person voices, about archives, about footage, about music, about sound effects, about sound design, about all the things that will go into it. And then, I hope that without telling you how it should be, that you will understand that all of these things have to be working in interrelationship with each other in order to have a successful film. The best thing I can say as we go into this journey together is forget everything. We have to liberate ourselves from...

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.

Great suggestions, very professional and human lessons Worth itself the subscription.

Probably the best Masterclass I've taken yet, and I've taken pretty much all of them having to do with filmmaking. The editing portion of this class was fascinating. This class not only taught me many things, but also instilled me with a go-out-and-do-it attitude and reinforced a lot of the practices I already had in place. Thank you so much Ken!!

It has given me the confidence and tools to take on producing my first multi-episode documentary series for PBS. Thank you Ken!

Incredibly inspirational! Im right at step one, and from this Im inspired to get started


Don B.

I think it shows when products are made that show a great attention to detail. It is evident here.

A fellow student

So if Ken believes books are useless to learn how to make films, I guess his class is too right?

Mary S.

I am looking forward to this class. It is not that I am planning to make a film, but I want to hear Ken Burns' perspective on how he created such great documentaries. I have watched his documentaries many times over, and each time I learn something new from the subject matter. Sometimes I will have the documentaries on in the background while I am working on a jigsaw puzzle or something else. His film making style creates a sense of calmness and relaxation in me.

A fellow student

This was great. I look forward to hearing more specifics about what rules Ken thinks can be tossed aside versus time tested lessons that documentarians should at least consider.

Christoph K.

OK, Ken, I got lesson #1: create curiosity right at the beginning. With the first seconds of the intro you got me into it, thank you!

Saleena S.

Wonderful , looking forward to a truly engaging experience. He is a genuine artist and speaks of emotional archaeology, very inspiring.

Don G.

I have been a professional photographer for 44 years and doing video for the past 20 years. Having so many stories to share about my hometown of Washington, D.C. has challenged me in a way that actually froze my efforts. The Ken Burns Master Class lessons, have freed up my mind and convinced me that there is no right or wrong way to do your documentaries but a process that is necessary in order to make your ideas flow and bring the needed elements together for a successful effort. Thank you Ken Burns.

Kevin B.

"Freeing ourselves from the tyranny of convention." Wow, now that hits home. I've made a number of films over the past decade and have come along way in that period of time. I've now come to a point where I'm feeling especially compelled to watch and learn from a true master. I wasn't yet 1 when Ken made his first film in early '72.

Martin S.

Ken confirms me I can create my films as I feel it and even I am an 42 years old amateur he gives me hope to make my dream come true and do this as my work one day...Thank you, Ken!

Tiara W.

This is the most incredible course on MasterClass. I will be studying it for a long time. Repetition is the mother of skill. Ken Burns is truly a Master pedagogue and a generous artistic genius and a model human. With the info shared, there is no reason not to be able to make a great documentary. Thank you for this course. It is the best course i have ever taken and I have studied around the world. Ken’s empathic thoughtful approach, his mercurial research, his meticulous control over content and his material will give me a guide to creation of my story.