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Arts & Entertainment


Ken Burns

Lesson time 04:45 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.

It's mostly served to help me "just the chasm"! :-)

I am not a filmmaker, but I am a storyteller. It was a pleasure to see how much work Mr. Burns puts into his craft, to hear his passion, and to take his heartfelt advice.

This is probably the most detailed Masterclass in the entire curriculum. But at the same time, it has me motivated. It was so inspiring to hear Ken emphasis to not limit myself, find what I want to say, and get out there and start.

One of the best class. It's clear, interesting, with examples


A fellow student

So I know Ken Burns. Good work, a lot on PBS. There is a lot of documentary in an election. Preferably we can be making a documentary about me defeating Tina Smith on August 11. But as I understand Ken without looking at the lessons yet, a lot of this is about framing issues in historical terms. What happened that was really important? What was the big picture? What was this big election actually all about? What was the election in Minnesota about? What about Washington, the Congress and Donald Trump (or, shudder, Joe Biden). And so it begins...

Gabriela W.

This was such a sincere, powerful and inspiring introduction, and I look forward to all of the lessons ahead!

Suzanne W.

I am looking forward to hearing all the details that go into making a good documentary, especially the sound design and music. Ken Burns is the master.

Victor P.

The opening was perfect to ensure that we are heading towards the truth. Documentary filmmaking is the way that I help elevate the frame of disability and widen the frame of the human condition. Happy to be part of this community and learn with all of you. You can learn about our documentary films at . . .

Neil T.

In 2005, I was studying medical anthropology at CalState Los Angeles and taking independent courses at USC. I became interested in visual anthropology. I found Ken Burns and wanted so badly to study with him. However, my department head would not accept his course into my curriculum and told me that I would have to pay for the course myself and have it transferred back to CalState. Of course, I was a grad student with hardly any money and certainly very little time. So, I had to pass on Ken's course. Sometime later, I began studying documentary filmmaking on my own. Over the past decade, I have produced, filmed and edited four documentary films. But always, it seemed that my documentaries were missing some key elements. For me, it always begins with writing and I am a good writer and storyteller (I have been writing since I was 12 years old) but I just could not get the hang of documentary filmmaking on my own in spite of all the people and books I have studied. So for the past 15 years, I have wanted to study with Ken Burns and finally with the help of Internet technology and Ken's willingness to provide a venue such as this, I am able to do something I have wanted to do for a very long time. Thanks, Ken for making this possible...tchau.

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!