Chapter 17 of 26 from Ken Burns

Nonfiction Cinematography

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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.

Topics include: Derive Style From the Demands of Your Story • Steal the Shot • Don’t Be Limited by Gear • Case Study: POV in the Battle of Antietam • Lighting an Interview • Shoot Interviews With a Lean Crew

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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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. 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.

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Ken Burns

Ken Burns Teaches Documentary Filmmaking