Chapter 5 of 26 from Ken Burns

Telling A True Story

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

Topics include: Respect the Drama of Truth • Marry Fact and Faith • Honor the Collective, Not the Objective Truth • Be Prepared to Take Poetic License to Portray a Larger Truth • Tolerate Contradiction • Be Manipulative

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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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. 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