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Arts & Entertainment

Recording and Using Voice Over

Ken Burns

Lesson time 09:30 min

Using pages from The Vietnam War and The Roosevelts, Ken walks you through the process of tracking a VO session and directing talent.

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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On the afternoon of May 21st, a local photographer named Frances Craver noticed a dust cloud appearing over the Doric Theatre in downtown Elkhart, Kansas. [SHUTTER CLICK] He grabbed his camera and chronicled the storm's descent, which caused the high school to cancel commencement ceremonies planned for that evening. [SHUTTER CLICK] - The narrator is one of the most important forces in the film, and, you hope, one of the most invisible. That person has to be really good, and so confident that they've earned your trust early on. And so they're just guiding you through. They're the ones that allow you to put on your blinders. And they're going to make sure that you don't trip and fall. And that's what happens. And I've worked with some great, great narrators. But I think the best has been Peter Coyote. I've never met a person who can come to words cold and create separation between every single word, which means that the word-- and therefore its meaning-- is isolated, and to do so in just a handful of takes. For the most part, you can hand Peter a block of narration, as we call it. It could be one line. It could be several paragraphs. It could be a page and a half. And he'll read it. And more often than not-- with the exception of the intro-- we're taking take one or take two or take three. And more often than not, we're dividing it up. I'm taking "we hold these truths to be self evident" from take one, "that all men are created equal" from take seven, "that they are endowed by their creator" from take 10, "with certain unalienable rights" from back to take one, "that are life, liberty." And I've divided each one of those words-- four, five, and six, or four, 11, and 13-- "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." I mean, that's the kind of stuff we want to get. It's got to be perfect. It has to be perfect. They have to inhabit the words. And they also have to say it in a way in which they find the right voice, so they're not advertising it. It is not-- as John Chancellor first started to read in "Baseball"-- in 1909, a man named Charles Hercules Ebbets began secretly buying up adjacent parcels of land in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. He goes-- in 1909, a man named Charles Hercules Ebbets began secretly buying up adjacent parcels of land in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. Then you have a story. Then you lean in. And he understood it. He said to me, when I had broken the back of the broadcasters habits, he said, oh, you want me to be God's stenographer, which is the best thing I can say, besides inhabiting the words. JOHN CHANCELLOR: In 1909, a man named Charles Hercules Ebbets began secretly buying up adjacent parcels of land in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, including the site of a garbage dump called Pigtown, because of the pigs that once ate their fill there and the stench that still filled the air. [MUSIC PLAYING] - One of the things I did from the very beginning is I tempered the ...

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.

I have learned that there is much to do before beginning my first documentary film.

An amazing guide for people that like me, are trying to organize the ideas that permit us to made real our film, has given me a lot of ideas to make my documentary film the right way.

Ken Bruns personality inspires me depply. I love his mindset to use storytelling to show relevant issues, invite into a conversation and building real connection. I got a good understanding of his workflow and can take parts to apply them in my work.

Always admired Ken's work and now have a stronger desire to pursue my own filmmaking dreams. Thank you so much Ken AND the Masterclass community!!!


Douglas V.

I noticed in the previous lesson, on the scratch track Ken's voice and cadence sound somewhat similar to Peter Coyote's voice. Did Ken do that intentionally (which would make sense if he had already decided to use Peter as the narrator and that would make the editing and timing easier)? Or was Peter chosen as a narrator for this and other previous films for his similarity to Ken's voice and narration style?

Phil N.

This lesson reaffirms that Ken Burns is first and foremost a writer and he makes films that could work on radio. The imagery is just the icing, albeit equally as thick as the cake. The films are telling the story to the brain and to the heart with narrated word and music and ambient sound. His audio track rules; it holds the power. The visual content for the eyes must, therefore, enhance without interrupting what is flowing to the ears. If Ken Burns had to choose his favorite child, it would be the microphone, not the camera.

RJane @.

I thought narration is simple. I didn’t know that it’s complex. Now I understand that narration has to match the flow and emotions of the story. Thanks for the tips, Ken.

RJane @.

I like that Ken Burns does some narrations in his films. It shows Ken is passionate about his films.


I would never have guess that was Peter Coyote's voice and I have seen him in many films. My favorite actor to do voice over is Donald Sutherland and actress Mia Christo, who does the "Whole Food Market" voice overs.

Michael O.

I seldom screen any film with blinders on. I watch to wake up, investigate, question, discover, become conscious of the human, earth, flora/fauna condition(s). I want to open up, not blindfold myself to be steered about in a sleep walk. Dude, this is third time you have insulted me (and I imagine others) in this series of lectures. The whole point of a documentary is to awaken the viewer from sleep walking. There is valuable teaching going on here, very. But ... Did I hear you right? You do 3, 4, 5 ... 64 takes. Nothing to criticize in that. That's cool, but then you cherry pick the words from different takes, and edit on a time line as one take? Where is the creative breathing room for the actor? For yourself?


WOW! I only ever recorded to picture and it is a very stressful thing when you see the end coming. I will try Ken Burns way and see. It must be so freeing. Ken Burns is such a passionate man, it makes me want to work with him. Thank you.

Charles B.

please notice that this interface allows you to speed up or slow down the playback. I understand the reasoning for having this, you might be in a hurry. This changes the message. It creates a new form out of it the Director, Ken Burns, didn't build into it. The Director of Lotus Racing cars has a video on the net where he is talking about their new corporate office building. He was part of the design and insisted on a particular kind of marble tile. Beautiful building. Beautiful tiles. Beautiful cars. Someone dropped something that cracked one of the tiles. In his interview he complains that they hadn't ordered replacement tiles from the same batch that the originals came from. This floor is sizable, like a football field. He hates that floor now because as he walks across it he is reminded of that one mistake over and over. I recently submitted a short documentary video about a story that took place when I was young. My Dad sold the glass that went into the space ships for NASA. I submitted the story to a contest, and chosen pieces have been entered into the NASA archive. As I recorded the audio narrative I got up and left the recording and came back later. Big mistake. I had been working in a call center and so my voice had become sensitive to change. I made another attempt to record what I had scripted. My voice had changed and I couldn't get the same intonation and inflection I wanted. I kept the earlier take. No one noticed that listened to it. Partly because they aren't educated to notice. I am. You are. Some in the audience might be, but not this particular mistake, because it was my voice and there really wasn't anything wrong with it. My subjective belief is, it wasn't quite right because my inflection didn't sound right to my ear. The people who saw it loved it. And it made it into the archive. When I worked in radio I used to do upwards of 90 retakes of simple :30 second commercials to get the right voicing. I now realize the requirement for 90 takes isn't necessarily there, it was my mental belief it wasn't quite right. There are Directors, like Hitchcock and others, that believe 150 takes are necessary because they have a vision, and they want to get that part of the film to that vision. Is it right? Will the film make more money for having done so? Or will they have merely burnt out the actor/actress for having done and cause that actor/actress to never do another piece of work again. I don't admire the intense violence Clint Eastwood put in his films. At the time I watched them I didn't realize the negative mental effect they would have in my life over time. But I have to admire his method. He does a lot of upfront preparation like a painter does and then shoots the film in around three weeks. He also doesn't do a lot of repeat voice overs. This is efficient. Where is the plus side to be drawn out of the Burns method and the Eastwood method? And so maximize the results. And reduce the negative effect.

Sunny N.

Narrating a documentary film is more than simply reading some words on a piece of paper? Much more. So much more.

Betsy B.

Coming from feature animation where all the dialogue & music is recorded first, then timed beat by beat.....Ken's process is a revelation in editing music & sound effects around the narration. I am astounded how meticulous Mr. Burns process is, but it certainly shows in the final product!