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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.

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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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.


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

I enjoyed diving into the nuts and bolts of story in his Master Class. Ken, your time-tested workflow and decades of trial/error are appreciated!

I watched and listen thought out my process with my own film in production and feel Ken opened my eyes and ears to many things I had not thought of or imagined, I wholly believe my film and my new endeavours will be far more enriched for listening to this course. If I can think or pull one item I cant and it was probably his overall enthusiasm for what he does and how he does it.

method, technical, perspective, research - you name it ken burns said it! I know see the work in a whole new light, thank you.

Ken is so well spoken and confident in his observances, lack of rules needed, and advice for us to seek our own path, unfettered by convention.


Phil N.

From 1996-2002 I was on the selling side of photographic archives, in charge of a million black and white prints, color negatives and some digitized image files at The Montreal Gazette daily newspaper, including the Montreal Star, The Herald and The Standard. My clients were magazines, film makers and other print and electronic media around the world. Formula 1 racing, Jackie Robinson, Nadia Comaneci, Expo 67 worlds fair, Seagrams whiskey, Bombardier company and great moments in Canadian history were all part of our collection. And, as Ken Burns says, some of our most precious images were of ordinary citizens and every day life scenes. I charged a research fee for a basic request whether I found any related images or not, which was deducted from any purchase of copyright usage or, when an image was in the public domain, an archiving and scanning fee. Generally the rate would be $200 for a national publication or Canada-wide rights for a video or television broadcast. More if it went global, less if it was local or the client purchased more than 4 images. As Ken Burns said, it was a negotiation that happened, often dependent upon whether it was a corporate client or charitable organization. I loved looking at our collection and we self-published 2 books of our own archival pictures for the millennium 2000.

Phil N.

You have to download the Lesson PDF to get the full value of this session. The links to online archival resources are extremely valuable. In a brief period I was able to locate a 1900 bird's eye painting and a 1939 aerial photograph of my small hometown of Mars, Pennsylvania for my father's local history web page:

Jonathan B.

Another great class with good notes taking as for archives. I find that the couple of documentaries and other films I always need to conduct research and find good media sources to support for B'roll. That's the hard part but what I have learned is to improvise.


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.


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!


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.