Arts & Entertainment

Sourcing Archival Materials

Ken Burns

Lesson time 12:38 min

Archival materials are some of the richest storytelling resources available. But how do you navigate the huge volume of possibilities? Ken teaches you his time-tested methods for unearthing rare audio and visual materials.

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Topics include: Look Beyond the Great Men • Be Insatiably Curious • Be Tenacious and Pursue a Variety of Sources • Think of Research Like Making Maple Syrup • Think About Aesthetics as Well as Narrative • Good Detective Work Takes Time • Pivot With Your Discoveries


The purpose of archival material in my films first and foremost is proof-- this happened. And then, at the same time, if you wish to remove the arrogance we in the present impose on the past, the photograph gives you not just proof but a way to extend to that past its fullness. And then, after that, you've got all the artistic possibilities of how are you going to do it. I find as much dramatic possibility in mining these archives as anything. [MUSIC PLAYING] I think it's really important that history not be sort of distilled to sort of the great men theory, you know, where it's just presidents and generals and famous people, that the best history is the place, whatever that is, where so-called ordinary people lives, the bottom up, meets that top down. And in that moment, lots of stuff happens. It's true stuff. All of those people that are famous don't do the fighting and the dying. It's the so-called ordinary people. And so we look all the time in all our stories, not just in the writing of them but in the research of the images, for the particular, the so-called ordinary, the home movie, the tape sent home from Vietnam, the diary of, say, Mary Chesnut, who was a diarist during-- a southern diarist during the Civil War, and not just the famous address of the President of the United States. And all the time you're performing not just a structural dramatic narrative balancing act, but you're doing a visual one as well. And that's hugely important. All of these things have value and weight, and the calibration of that becomes an essential part of the success of what you're going to do. NARRATOR: God forgive us, but ours is a monstrous system. Like the patriarchs of old, our men live all in one house with their wives and their concubines, and the mulattoes one sees in every family exactly resemble the white children. All the time they seem to think themselves patterns, models of husbands and fathers. [MUSIC PLAYING] - The archival vault is kind of endless in a way, but it's basically stuff that you can figure out that you need to draw on and that can help you. It's archival photographs-- still photograph that you have. It's footage. It's newspapers. It's internet articles. It's paintings. It's etchings. It's sketches. It's letters. It's journals. It's diaries. Some subjects have more, some subjects have less. And part of what we do in every aspect of our game, from early research to writing to archival pursuits, is a kind of detective piece, finding the material, finding the person that you're going to talk to and following leads. It's all about following leads. My favorite moment in the archival still photography business was working on "The Civil War." And I had been to 163 archives over the course of the production. I was at the Museum of the Confederacy, and I had gone through all of their folders. And I'd filmed all the ones I wanted. And as I always do, I asked the curator, you know, do you have other st...

About the Instructor

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.

Featured Masterclass Instructor

Ken Burns

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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