Arts & Entertainment

Visual Storytelling: Cinematic Techniques

Ken Burns

Lesson time 14:37 min

Ken teaches you how to use the cinematic tools of dramatic filmmaking to infuse emotion and meaning into the stills and live action of your documentary.

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Topics include: The Cinematic Power of the Still Image • Create Meaning Through Juxtaposition • Activate Your Audience’s Imagination • Create Meaning Through Duration and Motion • Search for Imaginative Equivalence • The Conversation Between Word and Image (1+1 = 3)


till photographs are the DNA of everything I do, even when the subject is in a contemporary or relatively contemporary period, where you've got a great deal of footage, perhaps more footage than stills. Stills themselves remain this-- the building block, the essential element of how I construct a narrative. And so you'll see, in the opening of the Vietnam film, there's a great deal of footage and disconnected action. But when we stop to say, this is what it's about, it's in still photographs. So what is film itself, but the persistence of vision? It is the physiological limitation of the human brain to be able to read the fact that we're looking at 24 images at a forty-eighth of a second filled in with black. And persistence of vision gives us the sense of apparent motion. So it is the still photograph, which is the building block. Now, I've got a personal connection too. It-- it kind of fits in to who I am. And so much of what I do is issued from who I am. My very first memory, when I was two years old, is my father building a dark room. He was an anthropologist, but an amateur still photographer. And so it's not too much later that I end up at Hampshire College in 1971 thinking, I'm gonna be a Hollywood film director. That's what I've wanted to be since I was 12 years old. But all the teachers there are social documentaries, still photographers that remind me quite correctly that there is as much drama in what is and what was as in anything the human imagination dreams up. And so they sort of rearranged my molecules and permitted me to become a filmmaker, documentary filmmaker, still feeling this sense that the still photograph, the presentation of an image, was important. So what I did is I took that still photograph and said, that's my master shot that I would have as a feature film maker that has a long shot in it, a medium shot in it, a close shot, an extreme close up, a tilt, a pan, a reveal, inserts of details. We normally sort of wish we had footage all the time. And we hold that still photograph at arm's length until we can get the-- I don't believe in that at all. I revel in the fact-- and you can see even, in something as sort of jangly and contemporary and disassociated as Vietnam, the still photograph becomes an anchor and-- and serves part of that same creation of that same mood. So to me, that's the DNA. [MUSIC PLAYING] The second you put two images together, which is of course editing, which is of course what we do in filmmaking, and of course, a film will have, you know, hundreds and sometimes thousands of edits in it, you've changed something. And you have to understand that there is a reality to shot number one. Shot number one is, in some ways, the easiest. It's also the hardest, because this is your first attempt at a good impression and-- and if you blow it, you've already set things a kilter. But you put the second shot up there and, all of a sudden, you're in conversation with each other. Y...

About the Instructor

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.

Featured Masterclass Instructor

Ken Burns

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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