Film & TV

Nonfiction Cinematography

Ken Burns

Lesson time 17:09 min

You don’t need a huge crew to make a great film. Ken teaches you how to approach interview and field shoots using a lean production team.

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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I treat my archives, principally the still black and white photographs, as if they're motion picture. And I treat the live cinematography as if they're painting. That is to say, I wish them to have a kind of composed form, that I'm rarely moving on them. I'm just presenting them. Each historical period has different amounts of access to archives that you may have. There's no footage before 1900. There's no photographs before 1839. That requires live modern cinematography. And so this becomes hugely important if you're making a film on Lewis and Clark, which is nearly all live modern cinematography, and very little archival. When I had to do a little bit of re-creation, we were able to film at various junctures, people who made a life or a hobby of recreating parts of the Lewis and Clark journey. It might be portaging canals over the Great Falls in north central Montana. It might be in Missouri, with a big keelboat that was going up the Missouri and pushed by poles. That was impressionistic, silhouetted against a sky, or early at dawn in the morning, where there's no features that you can distinguish. And so, you're permitted, I hope, to make a transition back to the past. But if you're covering the national parks, if you're covering the Civil War, it's not impressionistic. You're getting the shot. Sometimes you're making the decision to shoot at the magic hour, just after dawn and just before sunset, which is going to be giving you a certain quality and warmth of light, which I particularly like. Other people, though, would prefer the honesty of the high sun and the kind of blue sky, and sometimes the burned out image. So it's whatever is working for you. I'm willing to get up before dawn and shoot. And I have done it many, many times and gotten many great shots myself. [MUSIC PLAYING] We were working on the Civil War. And we went to Andersonville, which is the terrible-- the Park Service site at Andersonville, which was the worst Southern prison, like it was the fifth largest city in the Confederacy. The Union men came out completely starved and emaciated. Walt Whitman himself said, can these be men, which gave the name to our chapter. But we went there. And we met with the Park Service guy, who was disagreeable in the extreme. And he said, look-- we've been to all the parks of the Civil War battlefields and things like that. And we'll becoming a half an hour before sunrise. He goes, no, you're not. I open up at 7 o'clock. I said, well, you know, this is summer. This is going to be long gone. He goes, sorry. So we went. We climbed the wall. We got the best, best shots of these gravestones. Because so many men died, they're all together. And the sun came up. And it's just some of the most beautiful footage that we've ever gotten. Climbed back over the wall. At 7 o'clock, the guy pulls up. He lets us in. We go shoot the modest collection of archives they have, and say, thanks so very much, and left. It's sor...

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 was hard to look away. Great information on Ken Burns' process and many ideas to consider in improving my own. Time well spent. Thank you!

Being that this is an intro class, I think it covered the basics of what it takes to be a documentary filmmaking, and the list of grants is beneficial. I would like to see it paired with a class that is a little more technical. What are the tools you will need to produce a film? Go deeper into the process of making a film.

I will do it " en français" ;) Merci beaucoup Ken Burns. Vous êtes un cinéaste remarquable, votre Masterclass était un vrai bonheur à écouter. Vous m'avez éclairée, inspirée et même émue. C'était un grand privilège de côtoyer, pendant quelques heures, une personne si profondément humaine. Thank you.

Great course and lot of inspiration. I'm sure this will move me in the right direction towards my dream of documentary filmmaking.



“I’ve done an interview by myself ... like what the hell is all of this?” Quick pan to an enormous crew... “Him, I get ... She, I get.” Pointing out the only two crew members he thinks that are really necessary to be there. Cut to the awkward smiles of those two crew members. “This is the fourth camera I think. I don’t even know where this camera came from. That’s amazing.” Some faint laughter from the offscreen crew members... This is so funny like some sitcom there. LOL.

Ian M.

Love how he turned the camera on the Masterclass crew. These classes look amazing and its fun to see how many people it takes to make that happen. But to Ken's point, you don't need much! :-)

Maram J.

I agree completely with the idea of having minimal crew and equipment. Most of my interviews are done that way and they work best.

Phil A.

Absolutely brilliant! The last segment of this lesson is just golden (sorry Ken, but that word was never more true here!). Best lesson, best segment in all of Masterclass right there. 40 years of sage wisdom there friends from the true master. As the old saying goes, it's the carpenter, not the tools.

Garrett W.

I'm a noob at all of this...have 12 interviews under my belt... We use 2 cams, a Zoom and boom, and 2 led lights. Seems to be working. I interview from just to the side of my close up cam so they aren't looking into the camera.

Stuart T.

When I am filming There is my Director L, who is the best, me on camera and a audio person. Or some times it is just L and me. One camera, 3 lights and one Zoom.

Nathan W.

I love cinematography. It's my favourite aspect of filmmaking. On my project that I plan to make this year, I will do my own camerawork (as well as direct, edit, etc.). It's great to here how Ken started out similarly to the way I will, doing some of his own cinematography. It's also helpful to see how he changed his style and improved each film he made.


I agree on minimal equipment and crew, always worked lightweight and minimalist myself, even in 35mm days. Amazing what can be done with a single camera, a few lights and a few good crew.


I keep on thinking the headlight on the steam locomotive at the beginning is a Lowell DP.

Meg N.

Very, very good; the notes on lighting were good and in the comments was a very good description of one solution for the lighting of photographs... someone mentioned "just scanning" and it would be good to get feedback on that.. I must say the pdf was better than usual, thank you for the diagrams. 3-D diagrams might also help, but 2-D is far better than none..