Chapter 6 of 26 from Ken Burns

Treatments, Pitching, and Funding

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Filmmaking requires passion, vision—and money. Using an example from The Civil War, Ken teaches you the purpose and process of writing a treatment and his tips for navigating the world of fundraising.

Topics include: Treatments: Formalize and Communicate Your Passion • Before Writing a Treatment, Gather the Whole Orchard • Fundraising: Avenues, Options, and Creative Control • Pursue and Prep for the Pitch • Pitch to Sources Who Care About Your Subject • Budget Enough for Yourself • Push Through

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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I think a treatment is, at least for me, it's essentially a fundraising tool that turns out in the discipline in order to write it, something that helps us sort of plant the flag creatively in what we're going to do. It's going to develop into an expanded treatment or the scripts or the blueprint for how we're going to go out and start shooting and actually making the thing. I learned as much about writing working on proposals and treatments as I've done writing in the films themselves. And while I really want to focus on the latter because that's the important and the glamorous stuff, in fact, the other stuff has been equally important. And we've learned stuff again about what we wanted to do by refining it. You have to be able to sort of tell it to distill the essence of what you're going to do into a page or a page and a half or two pages that is compelling to somebody who doesn't necessarily have the enthusiasm for the project that you do. Sometimes it's a really long essay. But it also has at the head a kind of abstract that says, this is what we think it's going to be. And we work really hard on what that is. And I wrote one with my brother Rick for the Civil War series, which, you know, maybe it would be good to read. You know? So here's the proposal. Big. Well, I can read this and we'll be done in a couple of days. Some of the granting sources for me required 25 pages. And some end up requiring-- or we end up having-- proposals that run more than 200 pages. This had a kind of opening abstract. "Somehow between 1861 and 1865, Americans made war on each other and killed each other in great numbers-- if only to become the kind of nation that could no longer quite conceive how that was possible." My brother wrote that sentence. It's so flippin' good that it's in the film. We added it to Jeff Ward's script because it's so good. "The Civil War made us what we are, a union. But to become united, we had to tear each other apart. And in so doing, we went far towards eliminating the differences that had made the war inevitable. And at the center of it all is the simple fact no less terrible for being obvious the Civil War was above all about men dying. And no talk of the glory of battle or what might otherwise have been can reduce the foolishness, the absurdity, the tragedy of that. We wish in our film to convey that tragedy, to particularize it in the words and deeds and lives of the men and women who experienced it." So interesting, we always in some ways come back to an essential part, or many essential parts, of a treatment in what we finally do, not out of some loyalty to it, but out of the fact that in order to communicate a passion and an enthusiasm for a particular subject, we had to understand how that subject needed to be told. And that means you get a double bang for it. You just say, well, I'm out there. I'm raising money. But it's helping me understand what it is. [MUSIC PLAYING] Before you write a treatment...

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