From Ken Burns's MasterClass

Sourcing Archival Materials

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.

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

Play

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.

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

Ken Burns

Teaches Documentary Filmmaking

Learn More

Preview

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...

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.

Reviews

4.7
Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

That was the best class I ever went through about documentary and filmmaking in general. Mr. Burns is an incredible human being and the class is well designed and gives in-depth perspectives of the different realities surrounding his life and his job. Wonderful

Enjoying his honesty and straightforwardness about making films.

It has given me the confidence and tools to take on producing my first multi-episode documentary series for PBS. Thank you Ken!

Ein Dokumentarfilm ist mehr als die Summe seiner Fotos, Videos und Invterviews. Ken Burns unterhält mit seiner sympathischen Art und vermittelt dabei jede Menge Filmtheorie.

Comments

EK T.

These are wonderful lessons. It is a treat when the instructor is as articulate and as inspiring as he or she is knowledgeable.

Tony C.

Watched the series on Vietnam and came to the conclusion that it was possibly the best documentary I have ever seen. Never knew Ken Burns but the more I watch this masterclass series the more I am impressed with him. Passionate, tenacious, an eloquent speaker who shares so much and extremely clever. Ken you have raised the bar.

MA

Lesson 5 has an error in the CC text. Should be more careful considering this is a professional presentation.

Sunny N.

I now have a greater appreciation for images, especially images of what we tend to disregard as ordinary.

Alex T.

Very excited to start our research our documentary. I feel completely charged and ready!

Karen

The research never stops, you commit to a continual search for the best image or images to serve the story. And, maple syrup. All the repeated trips to historical archives, or repeated interviews; hearing Burns describe his process gives me confidence in my own process.

A fellow student

Another useful message: nothing should ever ‘stop’ lest an opportunity for betterment be overlooked or lost.

Meg N.

I love this lesson - I have the insatiable curiosity, and the persistence, and the negotiating urge.. there's a lot that I can't do, there's a lot that may keep me from getting my project done, but lack of curiosity and persistence and negotiation isn't going to be the problem. (Time, money, the ability to connect with what I need to connect to/with, those will probably be the problems). I take this lesson as encouragement, and thank Ken for it.

J.C. S.

Has this ever happened to any of you. I was researching the Jimmy Hoffa Story and hitting the archives hard. For over two years I labored and toiled and ended up with about sixteen hours of footage and photographs. I come into my office one day, and the boxes of research were all gone. I subsequently learned they were stolen and the cops told me that in all likelihood, they had been buried somewhere in the NJ Meadowlands, along with Jimmy Hoffa's body. I told my mother about it three months later and then she went missing. She's probably buried somewhere out there, too. About six months ago I had a nervous breakdown. When I was rehabbing with my psychiatrist, I told her about the Hoffa research and my mother, and then she went missing. They found her boots off Route 3, in the Parking Lot of the Tick Tock Diner. I'll never do another Documentary Film, I swear.

Jack D.

It's apparently much the same with high-end photography assignments such as at National Geographic, where a photographer may spend weeks, months or even years on assignment making many dozens or many hundreds of photographs for a few images that make it to print in a given article. It's difficult to know in advance what will fit. And then there's the ongoing search for those few really special frames.