From Ken Burns's MasterClass


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.

Topics include: Introduction


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.

Topics include: Introduction

Ken Burns

Teaches Documentary Filmmaking

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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.

This class reinforced some of the experiences I have already had interviewing subjects, such as eliciting usable responses, and positioning the camera to establish a proper eyeline. It also taught me to not rush my documentary film, but to search for the best footage available. It also provided some useful sources of archive material that I have already started to access.

I have grown to understand better the relaionship between subject and story and how to composit all the elements of filmaking within them. This class has profoundly impacted my art beyond all the others that I've taken. I am truly grateful

I have realised that some of the videos I produced were really documentary films but more current and addressing specific issues. From Ken, I have learned a lot from initial research to final product and this will from now on change the way I have been doing things. It was a great experience.

Ken is so well spoken and confident in his observances, lack of rules needed, and advice for us to seek our own path, unfettered by convention.


Jonathan B.

Very exciting and fine words. Taking film course at UMD, I felt that there are so many ways to go with cinematography and not one way. Just hearing it from this great filmmaker, Ken Burns, emphasizes how open for interpretation film can be.

David K.

Loved it. I'm greatly looking forward to the rest of the lessons -- it looks like just what I need at this point in my work. Thank you Ken Burns for being willing to share your experience and insight.

Kevin A.

I'm really looking forward to this one. I've done a few classes that were just for fun (Hans Zimmer, Deamau5, and watched a few others here and there). But this one is for professional reasons. I started as a TV news videographer in 2001. I grew up enamored with feature films and originally wanted to be a director. But working in news, producing stories every day, and seeing things I will never forget... All those experiences grew into a love for documentary filmmaking, and that took me by surprise. These days I work in commercial production. But many of the projects I do each year are short documentary projects, especially a few side projects I work on to raise funds for and awareness of the rare metabolic disorder Phenylketonuria (PKU), which I actually have myself. It is so easy to get sidetracked with the technical aspects of production these days... It seems there are tutorials for everything. But many people never focus on the big picture... How to tell a compelling story. That's what I'm looking for out of this course... I've been producing documentary style content for awhile now, but I am incredibly excited to hear from Ken Burns on this subject and delve even further into something I fell in love with so long ago. If I can share anything from my experiences working out in the field or the edit suite, I'll chime in. I look forward to some interesting discussions! (And this gives me an excuse to watch a lot of Ken Burns documentaries this summer!)

A fellow student

This is amazing. Thank your Ken for teaching us you 46 years of experience knowledge.


I'm excited to take this course. I'm not in film, but I love Ken's storytelling. I know this course will help me in other areas of my writing.

Jamie-Lee S.

Something I didn't realize immediately - the PDF workbook included (156 pages) is an incredibly valuable tool that will help. A lot of complimentary ideas & extras parallel to Ken's speaking. The assignments look really helpful too! I'm starting them now. Gives you something to munch on, while away from your devices (I'm old fashioned, I printed mine so I can make notes and take along anywhere :) - game changer!! Enjoy :)

Shayne O.

Wow. I'm so excited to see that this class with Ken has been offered. I was looking to spend money I can't currently afford to lose at a Screen school in Sydney to progress with a project I have in mind. So great to afforded this opportunity to know if this is really a direction I want to move on, in connection to my project and writing.

Chuck O.

Excited to be taking this Masterclass with everyone. I'm currently in the Film Industry, working on many different reality TV shows, jumping positions from AC to Grip, to APOC, but it's my dream to become a show runner on a documentary/docu-series and produce my own documentaries. I'm looking forward to starting my journey into documentary film making with this class being the jumping off point. Thank you Ken Burns, thank you Masterclass, and thank you everyone here. Let's do our best!

Jacob S.

I like this lesson. I am a fan of documentary films, and I am a fan of Ken Burns' work. I think we all have the opportunity to learn from each other and add to the rich legacy of stories being told via film. Additionally, we are very fortunate that we are doing film in the age of the digital camera. Unlike our predecessors, this means that we have more of a certainty that we can truly start and finish our projects.

Maxwell O.

There are a lot of stories out here. We need proper direction. we will get there someday.