Film & TV

Telling A True Story

Ken Burns

Lesson time 09:38 min

Learn how Ken sculpts stories to honor opposing viewpoints and portray a larger narrative picture.

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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The drama of truth is the single greatest terror of the process. And that is in the need to take raw events and shape them into a story, how far can you go with art before you begin to mess with truth? And that is-- and there's no answer to that. It's a question that you sound and then spend the rest of your life if you're honorable asking it. Have I put the thumb on the scale here? Have I changed something? What have I done in the service of cinema that has also simultaneously betrayed the truth? The truth that I'm after involves sometimes making a decision about a greater truth rather than the facts of it. I'm interested in what our founders called higher emotions. We live in a rational world, and it's safe there because you're not dealing with stuff. But what we want in life is the bigger stuff, the stuff that comes from our faith, that comes from our literature, that comes from our loves and our relationships and comes from our art I hope, however ecstatically, however emotionally, however physically, however intellectually the pursuit of that might take place. [GENTLE PIANO MUSIC] Facts are things that happened. We know, for example, that it would be a bankrupt film if you made a film on the Civil War and the Battle of Gettysburg happened on some other time other than July 1, 2, and 3 of 1863. That's a fact. You need to dig deep to find some other ones, but you can find them. And then it becomes interpretation, manipulation, inclusion, and its partner exclusion of the various facts and other elements of this that go in. When you have talking heads telling personal experiences, we ask of our veterans that we have access to their military records. We want to make sure that they were actually at the place they said they were on that day and date. And then afterwards, we don't know whether they're telling the truth about actually what happened in that firefight. But we know a little bit about who they are and their character, and we can begin to do that, just as we drive down the highway and expect that the person that's oncoming will not crash into us. There's a kind of human act of faith that has to take place and bridge the gap between the objective truth, which is impossible for us to get and access, and the kind of facts that amount to a larger truth that we may be able to get in the way we approach our art. [SOFT MUSIC] There's no such thing as objectivity in any film making and also documentary where we sometimes hide behind the cloak of the truth. Storytelling is a complex process of memory and its selection, and we know that people's description of the same event at the same moment varies widely. That's why we have Akira Kurosawa's excellent "Rashomon." I could describe today totally different from the crew that is facing me because they're seeing one reality. I'm seeing another-- whatever background there is, whatever equipment is or isn't in the frame. So my reality is true. Their reality is true. A...

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 done a 2.5 year documentary on the Khomani San Bushmen in the Kalahari, South Africa, and I have taken so much from research, to script to photos to audio from this. I have always been a fan of Ken Burn, now I am a true believer!

Ken Burns is so clearly resonating at the exact frequency that he was created for that he is sincerely inspiring. I'm a long way from actually creating a first documentary, but I am deeply inspired and encouraged about all the steps it will take to get there.

Thank you Ken Burns. I learnt most about emotionally-engaging story-telling. That one plus one can equal three.

The principles of this class can be applied to many things other than filmaking: art, photography, writing. Mr. Burns emphasizes the quality and character of the filmmaker against demands of time and money. I'm glad that he stayed very pragmatic. I'm sure I'll reference the materials time and time again in my project.


Jonathan B.

Another lesson from the great master. One thing that I can relate to is that currently., I have been working on my first 40 minute documentary ever. I am the only one who is working on it as a film editor. It is long at time frustrating because of trying to support the different ideas on the timeline and as Ken mentioned it is complicated. I find the process very creative, has to make sense and somehow work deepening the truth as much as possible about it!


Ken's Master Class is remarkably insightful so far. Excellent overall. I would like to discuss, however, the idea of no objectivity and the idea of manipulation. First, no objectivity. I get what Ken is saying and agree to a point. However, there is objective truth. Just because we cannot agree on it does not mean it is absent or non-existent. Sure, we are all different and we all have our own life experiences. We see things from different angles and so forth. But we are also the same in many ways. Without objective truth, we would not relate to what anyone else is saying or feeling. If there was no objective truth whatsoever, we would all be islands to ourselves and film making, among other things, would be irrelevant. So I think we must accept and embrace objectivity alongside the reality of subjectivity and use objectivity to our advantage in film making, education, etc. I think objectivity is a key to meaning making and is unifying to families, organizations, societies, and ultimately, the world. Next, manipulation. Here again, I see what Ken is saying and definitely agree to a point. Yet, much depends on what he means by manipulation. In other words, semantics play a critical role in his use of the word "manipulation." We see in Merriam-Webster Online that manipulation holds differing meanings. One is "to treat or operate with or as if with the hands or by mechanical means especially in a skillful manner." Another is, "to manage or utilize skillfully." A third is, "to control or play upon by artful, unfair, or insidious means especially to one's own advantage." While Ken may have meant a little of all of these definitions with his use of the word "manipulation," I believe he meant the first two for the most part. To manipulate in that sense is to make good, deliberate choices in a knowledgeable way. But to manipulate unfairly or insidiously is not what good film making is about. Yet, sadly, this often occurs. I don't think Ken meant it in this way. I think the best filmmakers have skill to use a subject and tell a story to manipulate ("manage skillfully") the subject and story in a way that leads people to objective truth and thus greater meaning for themselves and those around them. Does anyone really want a story about Jackie Robinson that does not get at what really happened, that does not break down the subjective bubbles we often live in, thinking they are objective, and do more to reveal the true nature of the phenomenon or story? I think this is what Ken is after.

Phil N.

Our instructor gave us a firm statement that manipulation is good. I spend my life preaching to still photographers that manipulation is bad; stop over-sharpening and over-saturating colors, stop trying to make the world look better than it is. Don't use polarizing filters that eliminate the glare that give bluer skies and puffier clouds. "Makes you think all the world's a sunny day, oh yeah." That being said, even with all of my true-to-life, supposedly non-manipulated images, I go on to create a Powerpoint slide show, placing them in a sequence that yields a particular impact on the audience. My greatest reward is making them cry. I may insert background music that builds to a crescendo just as an image shows light bursting through a dark sky, or a song about "I wish I could fly" shows a gleeful child in a wheelchair racing down a hill. This is a kind of artistic story-telling manipulation. I believe it requires both sides of the brain to maintain the integrity of the outward truth along with the creative vision to expose an inward truth.


I have been thinking a lot about this subject of poetic licence. One of the subjects of our project is a talented individual, with all the right stuff that would probably make him a big star under certain circumstances. Although I cannot be sure those elements keep him off the A list, I think I have an idea. I wonder if I explore those elements in the film, (or even write them in the script), if we would still be friends afterward.

Maram J.

I like the emphasis on our responsibility as documentary filmmakers to tell the truth. Sure, manipulation is important (as he says it is life - and to me, in other words, it means change) but a balance is important. Great lesson!

Lorenzo V.

Burns raises a very important point with the balance between truth and entertainment when crafting the story for a documentary film. One of the biggest challenges I face as I'm working on a biographical story and thinking about transforming it into a script for a documentary film is the process of exclusion. What details of the persons life are simply not important enough to include? Which of the many transformative moments they experienced in their life that led them to become who they are and make the decisions they made should I leave out? If we keep the story but leave out certain key details, then have I been truthful to the subject? I have accepted that everything I write will contain a fair amount of artistic license; after all the story I'm hearing from the subject is itself often full of artistic embellishment.


"Poetic License" sounds a lot like lying for a higher good. If we can't tell what is true but draw an inference and claim it as truth, we at least have the obligation to reveal the ambiguity and explain why we draw the inference. Nothing is worse for a documentarian than being caught in a lie. This discussion will now make me look on all of Ken's work with a suspicious eye.

David C.

I love the sections about objective truth and manipulation ... and just about everything in this Chapter. Thanks, Ken.

Mia S.

"We always want to make sure that we have the bandwidth to be able to tolerate that contradiction, and we like that. It attenuates our process, it makes it a little bit longer; but in the end, the freedom to be able to adapt - to make something more complicated, to understand that all still waters have some sort of undertow to them. That's great - that every hero is flawed with feats of play, every villain has humanizing aspects. And then you don't get into cartoonish dialectics, where everything is one thing or the other. You try to see more than that. Is documentary objective? Nothing is objective, except God, and she's not telling. Right? And the other thing is - does cinema make people do anything? I love that idea, that cinema would motivate people, not just preach to the converted and get people who shared like things to do that. So to me, there's nothing objective. It's all manipulation. But you just can't see manipulation as pejorative; manipulation's good. You manipulate your child as you're rearing them. You manipulate the food that you're making for dinner. You negotiate the road - that's a manipulation, to get here. Manipulation is life, right? We have this book called 'The Prince' by Machiavelli; now 'Machiavellian' is a pejorative adjective, but it's not. Machiavelli is just saying, 'How do you get along getting things done in this thing called 'other people' in society, in groups, in the politics - the small p politics - of other people? It's good to know how to do that and negotiate it. Manipulation raises money, manipulation gets the shooting done; manipulation, most important, gets the editing done. And then manipulation gets the selling of it done, and then you go onto your next sets of manipulation. I'm fully manipulative, yeah. Anybody who tries to play the violins and call it something else is deceiving themselves first and everyone else second."

Mia S.

"Good example from our Huey Long film: we were making our film, we were late in the film and there is a scene in which Huey is becoming increasingly dictatorial and autocratic, and increasingly he's being surrounded by a group of armed bodyguards. We had one photograph of him with the bodyguards and it looked like him with a bunch of businessmen in a lobby of a hotel; we had another shot of him surrounded by jackbooted state troopers, and that was super effective. And we put it in our film. There was this awkward moment where the thing that we were using in the film wasn't quite the truth, and yet it was accurate to one moment. At some point, you have to say, 'We're going to find a visual equivalency, and it'll work.' But it is an anguished conversation we have all the time - all the time - in the editing room. And I can't proscribe anything for anybody; I can prescribe a certain kind of attitude and say, 'I think that you need to err on the side of the conservative, just so that you feel comfortable with yourself, you can sleep at night, if you're engaging in a kind of poetic license. And that's what this is, a form of poetic license that inevitably you have to take. And what is poetic license? It is the pass, the get-out-of-jail-free card that permits you to cross one of these lines because the truth that you get out is bigger than the individual truth that you might be violating in the case of it. So that moral compass will have to, in the end, be your own. You have to be able to tolerate contradiction. All of us, in the laws of storytelling, want it to be simple - when a good scene is working, you don't want to mess with it. But I always find in documentary that the more we dig, historically, the more we understand how complicated it is - how often these things that we want to fit into the nice boxes that we may call scenes or episodes or moments or series, it doesn't work, and it's complicated. In fact, I have a neon sign that's coming into the editing room that says exactly that: 'It's complicated.'"