Film & TV

What It Takes

Ken Burns

Lesson time 15:14 min

Your life experiences, personal goals, and early films are all fodder for your career as filmmaker. Learn the highs and lows of Ken’s first film and his advice for navigating the filmmaking process.

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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We are in a renaissance and have been for 30 or 40 years, 30 years at least, of documentary. Maybe from the mid-'80s, I think things really began to take off. And they're just getting better and better. And I think people are realizing that many of the plots in Hollywood are kind of tired and worn out. I love the fact that there is so many good documentaries, but so many different kinds of documentaries. Nobody's proclaiming any kind of orthodoxy. There's enough bandwidth to support a robust documentary community that can produce, that can lure Werner Herzog out of a feature film career into this hybrid. It can transform Errol Morris into this kind of philosopher king of stylized things. It can have Michael Moore and others promoting political stuff. You could have Al Gore suddenly getting into the filmmaking business, aided by Davis Guggenheim and others, to make the films. You can still continue plodding along with historical documentaries that we're doing. You can have all sorts of things that are taking place in all sorts of platforms and media. And that only bodes well. [LIVELY STRING MUSIC] My first film was on the Brooklyn Bridge. And I was a kid. I didn't know what I was doing. I was really reinventing a wheel. And I was also inventing the wheel, because nobody was doing that kind of historical documentary over more than five minutes. And I had to learn everything. I had to give up everything. I had to give up comfort. I lived on nothing. $0.02 an hour, I'm sure, would be a generous accounting of what it was that I got while I was making that film. And I had just debilitating anxiety that I was just stepping off into a territory that I did not know. But I was governed by the idea that the still photograph could be willed alive. I was governed by the idea that the soundtrack could also be interrupted with first-person voices. I was governed by the idea that story need not be the bigger top-down things, that it could happen in these unexpected places. I was beginning to understand the extent to which biography was the constituent building block of all the stories we were telling. So it wasn't just about a bridge. It was about Washington Roebling, the chief engineer. It was about his wife Emily. It was about the corrupt politicians and about the contractors, the dubious contractors. And I said that I was disinterested in excavating the dry dates and facts of the past. I was interested in an emotional archeology that would be the kind of glue that would connect those seemingly dry dates together. And I remember the kind of epiphany-- yes, emotional archaeologists, and not sentimentality and nostalgia. It was just a wonderful, wonderful experience, tempered by unbelievable daily anxiety. Every single day, I just thought, I cannot do this. I'm going to have a nervous breakdown the way Washington Roebling had a nervous breakdown trying to build the Brooklyn Bridge. And it just-- so all that I am kind of issues fro...

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.

Such a privilege to have this time with Ken. I've been a director in television for many years and now, at my age, I'm making a switch to a type of docu-drama. This class has helped crystallize the process for me. Thank you.

I think Ken Burns was great! I think he did a great job of breaking down all aspects of non-fiction narrative filmmaking.

Great class - but I really dislike the nagging BEFORE YOU GO ON screens begging for reviews. Really ANNOYS me. Masterclass is a premium paid product and the marketing dept steps in breaking my enjoyment. I am paying to not get nagged. HATE THE NAGGING!!!!

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.


Phillip S.

I love Ken Burns' honesty: "Film making is the industrial manufacturing of anxiety!" I so appreciate the fact he doesn't sugar-coat what you'll encounter when attempting to create/produce a documentary. Yet his words are wonderfully inspirational especially when he speaks of transcending the tragedy; there's a life lesson that can be applied outside film-making.

A fellow student

KB: "no one's ever come in and said 'make this film shorter...' " you don't say...

Charles B.

Like David Kantor's comment from earlier, this assignment may be the toughest nut to crack. In later chapters, Ken talks about his collaborators, many of whom have been there for decades, as trusted allies, people with skills he trusts and partners who share his vision of storytelling. It seems easier to trust and let go once this is reached. I see the magic of being able to step back and look from a distance without becoming mired in the details of Avid or Premier or whatever. I wonder if he had such an easy time letting go in the early days? Trust but verify works with interviews, I think he shares, but it also goes with collaborators. So do you build partnerships or employee-employer relationships? I have partnerships with talent, most of whom share a passion of artistic vision, and can be trusted to do the work. Technical expertise is a different story. I'm just now beginning to know people who have the expertise, and they're passionate about their technical work, but all seem more interested in commercial survival rather than any artistic vision -- buying into a passionate artistic expression is way down the priority list. That seems to color the relationship and slow down the trust-building. So this seems an on-going challenge to deal with, searching, learning, building trust, and then letting go. In the mean time, my sense is that we do what we need to do, find people who can become trustworthy to handle the most technical disciplines, and slowly build the team. Hence, funding, because I think those are the most expensive disciplines to pay.

Charles B.

Having watched-thru and returned to several key chapters, I find several things stand out. First, there are three main arcs that run through the whole series. There are the What To Do chapters and the How to Do it chapters, and those are going to be very useful, if for no other reason than the long-view perspective into those things we must do. BUT the greatest arc is the Why To Do It, which is a common theme. Why would one step into this world? What drives one to take on the responsibility and inevitable unplanned problems, especially for a project that could last years of one's life? That's the WHY, the reason, the passionate drive to express one's ideas. It's the art in the artist. I loved, as others have expressed, Ken's way of drawing out this aspect, both in the beginning, and again in the later chapters. It shows a sense of using his enormous megaphone to both educate, but, even more, lift the spirits of audiences with his stories. The idea of leading into and out of Hell is huge. It shows a great trust in humanity, one that comes through in every story and example Ken shares. Thanks for the inspiration.

Nina T.

Get in the Deep - There’s no right or wrong way - Execute your Vision. Ken Burns. I love his style of teaching, his honesty and wisdom. Just on what I’ve listened to so far, he inspires his students to go for it! Give it your all. Excellent class!

Jonathan B.

Another great episode with good insights about the path of becoming a documentary filmmaker.

Jonathan B.

I often times feel that "you have to go to school" stigma doesn't really implies what to expect in real life. It is a card to which if a job is necessary, than of course it is something to always good to have a degree. But, it is really about self teaching, self exploring and going into the deeper waters. I am now finishing to work on a documentary which is like 38 minutes long.

David K.

Very helpful and reassuring. I'm still working out the collaboration thing and insist on viewing my collaborators as folks working *for* me under my direction; I'm open to suggestions and appreciate other viewpoints but in the end still fear having my initial vision derailed and hence some significant resistance. One of the dangers I've found are collaborators who really are wanting me to make *their* film. Yes, I still haven't come to peace with this collaboration issue.

Kevin A.

Inspirational to say the least. I feel incredibly grateful that even though I have a day job, it is one that I love that involves producing short documentaries. But this class is already challenging me to think bigger. I know that I have stories to tell... Stories that need to be told. I am doing that already with a series of short documentaries I produce about living with the rare disease PKU and the need for newborn screening. And by professional training I'm already a jack of all trades vs a specialist... That's one thing I took away from my career as a TV news videographer. I can shoot, write, and edit. That's not a problem for me. My greatest challenge is taking an idea and fleshing it out from a decent idea for a short doc and develop it into a full film. This lesson challenged me to think about how I can take my experience and focus it, challenging myself to be a better artist.

Phil N.

Thanks for the reassurance that suffering is part of the job. I recently heard a US military general state that he doesn't eat breakfast or lunch in order to stay hungry and uncomfortable which keeps his mind sharper. I learned early that living on the edge makes better stories, unhampered by luxury accommodations that shelter you from the real world. On a cross-country bicycle-camping trip, the best memories resulted from a flat tire, running out of drinking water or when I had to knock on a farmhouse door during a thunderstorm and ask to sleep in their barn. Those usually led to invitations for supper and a bed and an inside look into another lifestyle. A National Geographic staff writer with a nearly-unlimited expense account told me that his former editor thought they should all sleep in their cars and eat peanut butter sandwiches on assignment. Well, that's pretty much how I roll...and that's why I'm out there with my camera when the northern lights decide to put on a show or a bull moose is grazing beside me when I wake up. I might be freezing and cramped but I get the photo!