Chapter 12 of 26 from Ken Burns

Visual Storytelling: Cinematic Techniques

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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.

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)

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.

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)

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

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.

Reviews

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

Ein Dokumentarfilm ist mehr als die Summe seiner Fotos, Videos und Invterviews. Ken Burns unterhält mit seiner sympathischen Art und vermittelt dabei jede Menge Filmtheorie.

Ken Burns is exceptional in every way. His intelligence and humanity are beautiful. Informative and interesting!

Ken Burns is an exceptional human being who knows how to share his passion for his craft. I highly recommend this class whether you're a documentary film-maker or a regular film-maker, it is full of excellence and simplicity.

This has been by far the best Masterclass that I have taken. The course was so well thought out and was very revealing. It was pitched at a more advanced level than most the other film courses. Ken was incredibly generous in sharing knowledge and insights. He shared treatmentsand techingues, things that are often guarded as secrets by other filmmakers.

Comments

Jeroen H.

Ken explains it very easy for me. I can transfer his knowledge directly to your my projects. If you can make that happen, in my opnion, than you are a great Master. Thank you Ken!

Laura

I think this is my favorite so far. My dad is 94 and has so many still photographs from his life and so many stories. I am inspired to make a first documentary about him and the telling of his life. Does anyone have a suggestion for best ways to capture these photographs for the purposes of using them in a film. Is there special equipment? of just a matter of close up shots of stills. I imagine the rest is done in the editing using the 'Ken Burns Effect' to zoom in, etc. I love the slow nature of this kind of film, the trusting of the viewer. Feeling excited! as I watch more of this Master Class

Mia S.

"You've got to understand that you can liberate yourself from the tyranny of mere illustration. That is to say, there's something worrisome - I notice - among colleagues and others about approaching the idea of doing a historical documentary, and 'Whew, cannot wait to get till there's news reels, and sync sound, and talking heads.' That's not the way to do it - that's just mere illustration. But if you can get into equivalencies - new ways of having the word and the picture both relate, but also talk to each other and have a conversation, and allowing things to be dichotomous, that you can see that there's contradiction, that the image may be counterintuitive. In 'The Civil War,' in the first episode, you've got this beautiful dawn shot of going up a river in Georgia. And the sun is just beginning to peek over the horizon, everything is dark, dark - with a beautiful light. And what you're hearing is this beautiful quote, from Morgan Freeman reading the words of Frederick Douglass, who's saying something about the beauty of America. But it's checked by this. And so you're still forced to understand the beauty of the country, but in all those dark places, bad stuff is happening. We've taken you back into a moment on the eve of the Civil War, where the crux of the issue of slavery is being brought by an African American who has been a slave, stolen himself to freedom, and now is trying to describe the failed promise of America. The image in all of its benign beauty then aids what's going on, but they're totally contradictory. And that's an important way to use archives. All of that has a wonderful kind of counterintuitive effectiveness, because you aren't merely safely illustrating. If you just do equals, that's illustration. But if you're looking for a moment where one and one, the beautiful shot, but the terrifying quote by Frederick Douglass that ends with, 'I am filled with unutterable loathing' about the United States - then you've got something going on, and that one-and-one - in this case, the picture and the word - equal three, something else entirely. And that's what I think you're looking for. And that's what art is, is just something else. That's what we look for in our faith - something else. That's what we look for in our love. So it's to me, 'Throw away your crutches, throw away the simple things, the obvious illustration, and try to achieve something that's a little bit more difficult and disonant, you might find new meaning in that - and I would urge that all the time."

Mia S.

"We live in a media culture in which we have begun to exploit the possibilities of quick-cutting. People would say to me, 'Oh nobody will ever watch your films because they're too long, and we're in an MTV thing where we have these fast-paced music videos. There's a huge difference between the physiological reception of an image - if I do 1/48th of a second and show you a house, you'll say, 'Oh, I can see a house.' That's fine. But the reception of meaning is a different thing. So I stay with the photograph, it's read, and then I stay longer. And sometimes I go to the animation house and say, 'I need a 30-second zoom.' They go, '30-seconds zoom on a picture of somebody's head?' I go, 'Yeah.' And early on they just couldn't deal with the fact that you could bring meaning, and by staying with something, bring more meaning and more meaning. So these things move in lots of different ways - there's not a kinesthetic movement to speak of in the still photograph, but by moving on it, you can give apparent motion - but more importantly, you can bring movement in in terms of emotions, by what you reveal. You can take a photograph in the Civil War, and it may be a tilt-up, and what you're seeing are two revolvers in the waistband of someone. And as you tilt up, it reveals an agenlic, baby-face kid. That's telling an unbelievable story, just in the simplest of pans up from these two threatening revolvers, up to a baby, a baby in this. And then you could do it - you could tilt down, look at that baby, that child, 14 or 15-year-old kid, and tilt down and see the revolvers, and you now have a different form of the sinister threat or the implied violence in that. That's all with the still photograph. And this would be completely familiar dynamic to Sergei Eisenstein or Martin Scorsese. They would understand that, by following the rules of sort of documentary, political advocacy, and that sort of stuff - I'm following the rules of a feature film, it's just I've got different kinds of essential building blocks. It's hugely important to realize that because we are using the limited available resource, you're still not going to be able to have the footage or the photograph of everything you're talking about. You're looking for equivalence in another way, too - you can find a symbolic moment. In the Jack Johnson film, for example, we don't have the car crash that would kill him at the end of his - I'm happy to say, long - life. We found a photograhp of a North Carolina road with a telephone pole, and we know that we could have you imagine what's going on offstage is sometimes better than actually showing you what happened. So those - you always have to be aware that you're never at any moment limited, except by your own imagination. And that you can figure out a way to do it, and feature films do this all the time; it is sometimes more horrific in a scary film to hear off-camera what's happening, than to see the actual thing happening. And all we've done is just say, 'Why make the documentary a kind of second child, a sort of poor cousin, to the feature film, if it obeys the same laws of that, just use the same laws. You can do what you need to do to tell those stories.' Now, I could have easily done the Vietnam War 99% footage. I didn't want to. I felt the still photographs would do something else, to be able to linger on them, to be able to isolate a detail, was to do what we did in Jack Johnson's death, is to just focus on a telephone pole and realize that the drama was taking place off-camera and that was perfectly fine."

Mia S.

"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 hundreds and sometimes thousands of edits in it; you've changed something, and you have to understand 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 if you blow it, you've already set things akilter. But you put the second shot up there, and all of a sudden, you're in conversation with each other. You're in juxtaposition - whether the image is complementary or in fact a juxtaposition. So you've got the memory of the first image, you have the new image coming in - it's got a different dynamic, compositional range. By the time you've hit shot two, you're deep into it - either deep in trouble or on your way to something else. What is it that you'll do? That, to me, is what we're doing in filmmaking. And you have to actually be the master of that. In radio, it's a wonderfully active medium. Television's rather passive. And even movies are, to an extent; you let it wash over you. At least you get up and you go to the theater and you share this beautiful communion with strangers in dark rooms, but television is a little bit more passive. Radio, you get to be your own cinematographer. You get to be your own editor. You get to be your own casting director. You get to be everything. And it's a wonderful thing, and it's very active, and so what I've tried to do in our documentary is to trust the audience to be a little bit more engaged. And then, what you're doing, is you're saying to your audience, 'I'm unafraid of these limitations, I am going to invest those limitations with all the possibilities I want, and activate your imagination.' We're not interested in the 'Ken Burns Effect' as just this, 'zoom in, zoom out, pan.' That, the 'Ken Burns Effect,' such as it is, is an attempt to will a still photograph to life in the service of complex dramatic narrative exposition. You know, is the cannon firing? Are the troops tramping? Is the bat cracking? Is the crowd cheering? The ice cubes on the glass on the bar in the jazz club tinkling? So it becomes not just a visual but an aural experience in willing them to life, or waking that dead moment and saying, 'It is alive,' and anybody can do that. It's not limited to one person. If you don't activate your audience's imagination, you've just said, 'I didn't really know what to do, here's my slideshow - boom, boom, boom, boom.' And we're not interested in a little slideshow."

Mia S.

"Still 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 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 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 48th 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 kind of fits into 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. It's not too much later that I end up at Hampshire College in 1971, thinking I'm going to 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 documentary 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. 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 was I took that still photograph and said, 'That's my master shot, that I would have as a feature filmmaker. 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 serves part of that same creation of that same mood. So, to me, that's the DNA."

Jyrki M.

This is really great. Gave a lof of ideas for future documentaries I'm going to do. One of them includes story of war veteran who was our family friend. There's no much of material in hand but with these techniques can bring the person "alive" again on film. Wonderful Ken!

Stuart T.

Thank you Ken, I also love the 1 + 1 = 3 concept. This will help me immensely on my next project where I have limited stock footage , but pile of photographs. Thanks again.

Shawna B.

Great lesson! Ken offers viewpoints that are so liberating and limitless. Thank you Ken!

Carol G.

I love the idea of using stills in a cinematic way..reveals, pans, slow zooms in.. to illustrate for example dichotomies..such as the man with the baby face and the gun.. from watching this lesson I have realized the sheer potential of still images.. which I had always thought of as a poor cousin to footage.. i will definitely be using them more in my films from now on.. also loved the last example of the beautiful image juxtaposed with the terrifying quote.. 1+1+3..fantastic.. the '3' is art..

Transcript

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...