Chapter 1 of 26 from Ken Burns



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

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.


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

Five Stars are not enough for this Masterclass. Relearning a skill and unpacking a dream of completing my Documentary are now possible.TY

Such a privilege to have this time with Ken. I've been a director in television for many years and now, at my age, I'm making a switch to a type of docu-drama. This class has helped crystallize the process for me. Thank you.

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.

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!!


César Z.

I love the work of Ken Burns. I have seen most of his work and I am quite excited about his creative process.

Phil A.

If you're just starting this class, be patient. After this intro and What it Takes (next lesson) you will be inspired. But the next several lessons can be very heady, and you may feel like you're in a PhD graduate lecture, because you sort of are, but stick with it. Ken will get to the nuts and bolts later on, and in incredible detail. Also, don't forget to download the workbook. It's the most thorough of every Masterclass workbook I've come across and Ken shares everything, every secret he has it seems.

Brad W.

Great intro, four mins in and I'm hooked. I'm excited and looking forward to watch the rest of the Masterclass.


I was at the library earlier this week, looking for books on documentary film making. I didn't check anything out. I guess its time to dive into the deep end.

Frederic G.

Very touched by this. Having peeked at the intro out of curiosity a few weeks back...Ken's down to earth demeanor and relatable passion grabbed me. I began having this nagging feeling that I too, might be able to do this. Why not?? What do I have to loose by trying?? Watching Lesson #1 really drove that point and inspired me that I'm NOT crazy for wanting to try. Telling a story and working at it as a labor of love. Thank you Ken!!!! Away we go - reset button activated ;)

Shade A.

"January 72, i have never bought another film book, no guide, no anything", "All of those things happened in the field", This introduction refreshes the way i think of documentary.

Kevin B.

'Forget everything' 'Press reset' 'When you're free of that, there are a lot of new things that are possible' I love his mindset. I'm addicted to documentaries, and I really want to make one. This class has arrived (for me) at the right time.

Jozua J.

Thank you. I had script writing class with John Truby and he said film has the power to change peoples ​lives, it is that big. I will never forgot​ that. I love what Ken said that story bestows immortality. I will never forget that.


This is awesome. I am going to work on a Documentary about an experience I lived and still live as the first Hacker in Uruguay that served time in prision. Experience where the wow-factor is produced on 100% of the people I talk to, and somebody described as incredible, fascinating, and inspiring.

A fellow student

Theres a lot of wisdom here, had to watch it twice to absorb some of the quotes.


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...