When we watch documentaries and films, we see the final project. 

We often don’t consider the amount of time, energy and money that’s gone into it. Today, we’re celebrating the career of Ken Burns, and want to share with you an insight into his life. It’s likely you’ve come across his creations at some point, so let’s take a brief look into what makes him so notorious.

Who Is Ken Burns?

Ken Burns is an American filmmaker and documentarian who has created infamous treasure troves. His skills have made him a household name, and there’s no other filmmaker that can do what he does. Through footage, period music, photographs and interviews with ‘normal people’ he tells a story through series.

For more than 30 years, he has created well-known documentaries and movies. This includes: ‘Baseball: The Tenth Inning’, ‘Prohibition’, ‘The Dust Bowl’ and ‘The National Parks’.  While we've seen the completed projects, let's dig a little deeper into the man behind it all.

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Credit: Flickr, Wilson Center

Ken Burns’ Childhood 

Burns was born in Brooklyn, New York, to mother Lyla Smith (Nee Tupper) Burns and father, Robert Kyle Burns. His family constantly moved, and places included Delaware, Ann Arbor, New York and France. His family were supportive of his film career, as were his friends, Melanie Nolan and Josh Faulkner who supported him throughout his entire career.

His mother had breast cancer, and she eventually passed away. This was a driving force to continue his career and she was the motivation in times of desperation. He spent most of his youth in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where his father was a professor at the University of Michigan. He used a gifted camera to create a documentary about a factory in Ann Arbor.

During his studies at Hampshire College, he financed his education by working in a record store.

Ken Burns’ Personality

Burns is deeply concerned about the state of the world, and that shows in many of his documentaries – one in particular being The Civil War. He will sacrifice money, time and energy to help make the world a better place for people to live in. Throughout all of his works, he uses great compassion and idealism as he has dedicated his life to these values.

He won’t allow people to prejudice others, and carries a clear social impact on everything he creates and says. He's often disappointed by the world and the sad reality of life. As a result, he strives for greater accomplishments and doesn’t want anyone to feel like they are worthless.

His romantic personality isn't always highlighted on camera. His focus lies heavily on his dreams, particularly his work, and when not being focused and driven, he was become uncertain and put the blame for his troubles on the world.

The Launch of Ken Burns’ Career

Burns developed an interest in film making early on in his life. His father took him to the Cinema Guild and allowed him to stay up late and watch movies until 2am. He was adamant and driven on becoming the next John Ford.

He graduated from Pioneer High School in 1971, and then went to Hampshire College to earn a bachelor’s degree four years later. After graduating, he launched his own production company, called Florentine Films.

His first documentary which received amicable attention was 1981’s Brooklyn Bridge, which earned him an Academy Award nomination. This was the film which inspired his style for continuous films. Several years later, he worked on a new project called The Statue of Liberty which brought him another Academy Award nomination.

When Ken Burns Shot Into The Limelight

It was during his moment ambitious project, The Civil War, when he was propelled into the spotlight. It covered honest, raw and traumatic events, and took him five and a half years to pursue. At the beginning of this project, historians and other filmmakers told him he was taking on too much, but that never stopped him.

He wanted to find out more about the Civil War, and wanted to cover the conflict from both sides. Eventually, the film became an 11-hour documentary and it was produced for $3.5 million with grants.

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Credit: Wikimedia Commons

When it aired on PBS over five consecutive nights in 1990, it was the highest-rated series ever presented on the channel. 14 million views tuned in each night, and approximately 39 million people saw at least one episode. He was able to make it appealing to even modern viewers, and employed photographs and quotes from historic books and actual journeys from the Civil War.

Through the duration of the film, Burns took 16,000 old photographs and only used 3,000 of them in the final version. He also edited 150 hours of film and 500 hours of sound. His goal was to make viewers find an emotional connection with America’s past. 


The Work of Ken Burns

Clearly, Burns is an accomplished filmmaker. While we've discussed the man behind the camera, let's delve a bit deeper into his work.

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Credit: Flickr, Luca Malagò

What is Ken Burns’ Inspiration?

Burns doesn’t just create films of all genres. It’s important to recognize that his inspiration is exclusively about American history. His projects explore the US from 1860 to 1990, in particular the Civil War and Vietnam War.

He does not refer to himself as a historian, and uses these projects as a strategy to learn about American history. He openly said “I knew history. I was curious about stories. I played Civil War; I played World War II. I knew the presidents. But it wasn’t anything that I thought of as something I was going to do. I was going to be an anthropologist like my dad, I was going to be a writer, and then I was going to be a filmmaker..."

It's clear that he took this to heart. He adds, "...By the time I was 12, I wanted to be a filmmaker. I thought that would be a feature filmmaker, and it was only in college, at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, that I had a chance to see the possibility of documentaries and the first film I worked on was history, and then it’s been history ever since. I’m not trained in history. The last time I took a history course was in college — but that was Russian history, and all of my films are on American history”.

Who Is Behind The Scenes?

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Credit: Wikimedia Commons

It’s important to recognize that a Ken Burns creation isn’t just by Ken Burns. He works with collaborators, researchers and filmmakers to expand on his work and make his dreams a reality. As he has become more prolific, his collaborations have become to understand more about his visions. Burns’s daughter, Sarah Burns, and her husband, David McMahon, have also worked on some of his recent projects, including Jackie Robinson and Central Park Five.

‘The Vietnam War’ Reviews and Critiques

Burns relentlessly created a 10-part 18-hour documentary series titled The Vietnam War which aired in September 2017. Burns wrote it and produced it for $30 million. Burns openly said that the objective of this documentary was to tell the story from all possible angles, and to not take a side.

During the filming process, Burns said it was the most challenging film he’s ever tacked, with complex, complicated stories. It was a learning curve for himself, and watchers to gain an insight into what really happened during The Vietnam War. When watchers reviewed it, it touched a raw nerve and received positive and negative feedback. It bothered Veterans at the element of ignorance to their side of the story. With Burns’s honest personality, he fought back by saying that you cannot cover every aspect in the story – even if it were 180 hours long.

How To Spot a Ken Burns Documentary

Burns’ style in movies and documentaries has become that notorious, that it’s referred to as the Ken Burns effect. This name derives from the extensive use of the technique of panning and zooming still imagery during video production. This feature enables still photographs to be used in motion pictures. The images remained untouched for the final project.

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Credit: Flickr, LBJ Library

During film editing, he uses a rostrum camera to achieve this technique. It is usually simply referred to as pan and zoom. There are now numerous softwares which have this feature built in. The Mac platform uses Adobe Premiere, Final Cut Express and more to achieve this effect. Apple now uses this effect as screensavers, and it can also be found on several phones and Sony’s PlayStation during stationary time.


The Future:

Whether you love or hate Ken Burns, you cannot deny the influential footprint he has made on the film industry. He's made a name for himself, whilst making a difference to our opinions on worldwide situations and wars.

We hope you enjoyed this brief chapter into this professional career, though we’re happy to learn from you too. What do you know about Ken Burns that most people don’t? Or perhaps, you have a favourite of his creations. Share your knowledge in the comments.

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