Chapter 22 of 26 from Ken Burns

Recording and Using Voice Over

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

Topics include: The Narrator Should Inhabit the Word • Use First Person Voices to Unlock Your Audience’s Imagination • Working With Voice-Over Actors • Tracking a Voice-Over Session • Never Record to Picture

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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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. 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