Ken Burns’ MasterClass on Documentary Filmmaking


My first words after watching the last of the lessons were, “Wow. Just, wow.” I was completely and utterly hooked from the first lesson.

I cursed every hiccup in my bandwidth, had to breathe deep every time my daughter called my name and I needed to stop watching the class. I was so drawn in by Ken Burns’ ability to tell a story while giving instruction, I found myself covering my earbuds, straining to hear him, to hear every word of what he had to say. I did not want to pause to take notes.

This is my takeaway, my gift from Mr. Burns.


“You have to have faith in yourself.”

As with any endeavor that we take on that has real meaning, we must believe in our ability to complete the task that has been laid before us. Ideas are fraught with maybes, successes are replete with I will’s.

You have to be able to say to yourself: “This is what I want to do.”

Sometimes we are not cognizant of the gift of choice, but it is always there. If you do not choose to do a thing, to subsequently take that first step, you will never succeed at it. Period.

You have to believe that: “I will persevere.”

Then comes the second step. And the next, and the next. This is not to say that there will not be huge steps backward, nor sideways slips through the mud, nor graceless leaps on the diagonal. Your course is likely to resemble a path through a set designed by M.C. Escher. But survival, perseverance, is a goal that you must never lose sight of, no matter what jumps up to bar your way.

“…figure out how to anticipate and then welcome the unanticipated problems that will inevitably occur and permit that to be an exercise in transcendence and you know, not the sometimes tragedy that we make of these things.”

These are not trite clichés, but truths that apply to every single one of us going through the human experience, and this absolutely applies to filmmaking.

“What are you willing to do for your art?”

Mr. Burns tells of his decision to move out of NYC and to Vermont in order to be able to afford to live, while he pursued his passion for filmmaking. He makes the point, however, that what you are willing to do for your art is completely up to you

And you need to remember to budget enough for yourself to live on while you are making a film. Often people, especially when they are first starting out, completely overlook this point. Instead, they ask, ‘Should I work a regular job? Will I starve for my art? Or… should I get out there and fundraise?” Do what works best for you, make the choices you can live with.  

Speaking of fundraising… how do you land investors anyway?’

“You have to take an ignorant but potentially curious person, make them curious, and make them no longer want to be ignorant.”

How do we do this? With research. Hours upon hours, months and months, you dig and you pursue your subject with dogged persistence and relentless gluttony for details.

“You collect as much as you can, and see what’s talking to you.”

Mr. Burns tells of digging through boxes of photos from archives for the Civil War documentary, and why it is is so important to be thorough.  He discovers a photograph, possibly the only one in existence, of Robert E. Lee displaying an emotion. He credits his determination to gather all the information he can, his insistence on leaving no cardboard-box-flap-unlifted to the discovery.

“If you are corrigible to the end, then you have the possibility for serendipity and surprise, and that’s what life is about, too.”

Mr. Burns frequently mentions the amazing coincidences that he has experienced over the course of more than 40 years in filmmaking and conveys such awe and reverence, it is both inspiring and contemplative. Upon reflection, it is easier to see that this too is true and that I would not be where I am, with my amazing family, without such moments of serendipity having occurred in my own life.

“Keeping that investigative curiosity going delivers you stuff you never thought you’d get.”

While at some point you have to say, ‘enough is enough,’ Mr. Burns does make the argument that the majority of the work you put into a film, those shots that you think are perfect and will definitely be in the end product, a vast percentage of what you find will end up on the cutting room floor, so to speak.

So you talk to person after person, gather fact after fact. Great interviews inject the first-person narrative into your story, making it more personal and drawing your viewer in. And what kind of equipment do you need for a great interview?

“You need a camera kit, a sound kit, and a lighting kit. That’s it.”

There are facts and footage what simply do not fit anywhere in the structure you have built, that do not contribute to the smooth line of the arc of your segments or story. But a good interview can bridge the span between past and present, and add continuity to a segment where there was none before.

“Chronology is the king.”

This does not mean that flashbacks cannot occur! It simply means to that when you have a solid beginning and a strong conclusion bookending your documentary, the timeline of your story must make sense. Sometimes the end of one segment fits better as the beginning of another, but always, always, keep your facts in order.

“How far can you go with art before you begin to mess with the truth?”

“It’s complicated.”

“If you don’t have a strong structure based on fact, then, then you’re lost.”

The area that lies between the realms of artistic license and a factual recounting of an event is often hazy and is where every documentary filmmaker needs to work. Mr. Burns refers often to the scaffolding around your story, which is maintained with a critical eye, and a great crew.

Essentials for every documentary: “…you need a good cinematographer, a good writer (or be one), and finally, it’s editing.”

“It’s not a singular exercise; it’s the first law of filmmaking. Nobody, no matter how great the auteur, not Orson Welles, not anybody does it alone.”

Without a great crew, even the greatest story can turn out mediocre. Surrounding yourself with yes-men helps no one. You want opposing views, you want people that challenge your perspective.

“Storytelling is about conflict, it’s about not knowing how something is going to turn out.”

That’s why we all have a stake in stories. Whether it is a book or film, a story around a campfire or a movie in 3D on the big screen, when seen and heard for the first time, we all want to be transported from the here and now to some other time, some other place, even if only for a moment, and be surprised and delighted by the new.

“How do I transit your from your incredibly busy and compelling life … and bring you to this moment?”

And that is the goal of all great storytellers. This is what you want to ask yourself when you stumble across moments of uncertainty and wonder which direction to take.

“Everybody knows what quick and dirty means. Let’s not do that.”

Take the time you need to do the work! If you think you have uncovered everything you think you know about a subject, think again. Take a look at the other side. Has it been represented? What does it have to offer? How has your narrator covered the opposition? Is your narrator neutral or biased?

“The narrator [God’s stenographer] is one of the most important forces in the film and, and you hope one of the most invisible. That person has to be really good, and so confident that they’ve earned your trust early on and so they’re just guiding you through. They’re the ones that allow you to put on your blinders and they’re going to make sure that you don’t trip and fall.”

Your narrator can be no one or a celebrity, but their talent should be such that after a sentence or two, you don’t think about who they are anymore.

“It’s gotta be perfect. They have to be perfect. They have to inhabit the words and they also have to say it in a way in which they find the right voice so they’re not advertising it.”

Mr. Burns states, in many different ways, that your ultimate goal should not be about your fiscal ROI. Save your advertising — evangelizing, as he says it — for the end, for when after the project is done. Focus on the details first, every little detail you can put in that transforms a recording of a story into a great film.

“You want to use everything at your disposal to ask people to let go of the compelling narrative that is their life and to submit to the narrative we think will add to their life. And among the many tools in the toolbox to do that is to have sounds so realistic that it can be startling.”

Don’t have the right sound? Can’t afford to buy it? Go out and make it. Just make sure that regardless of what is going on in your scene, you keep the balance between sight and sound.

“And if you in some way set up oppositions where you’re kind of forcing the viewer to choose listening over watching or choose watching over listening, you’ve failed.”

As long as that balance is maintained, you can say everything you need to say, without limitations.

“The great gift of cinema is its ability to cross geographical, to cross linguistic, and to, more importantly, cross political boundaries.”

A great story will resonate with anyone who hears it. Even if they think they know the story, even if it is diametrically opposed to their political viewpoint, it should be told in such a way that the viewer is changed by the experience. Retaining objectivity is not necessary, nor essential to the filmmaking process, Mr.Burns explains.

“You can’t not be influenced by who you are, you bring that to the moment, the baggage you carry, the pain, the broken places in you, and you carry the experience of how others have negotiated those pains and broken places.”

I wept at this. If this is true for you as well, how much do you bring with you, and how much do you leave behind in your film?

What are you, as a filmmaker, ultimately responsible for?

“I believe it is the artist’s responsibility to lead people into Hell, but I also believe it’s important to lead the way out.”

And that, my friends, is the beginning of what you need to know about making a documentary film. But don’t take my word for it — take the class, and let Ken Burns change and inspire you, as he has changed and inspired me.


Ken Burns’ MasterClass on Documentary Filmmaking is comprised of 26 lessons that span over 6.5 hours. The perks and extras that come with the class include being able to download the transcript to “read along” with the class, and workbooks you can download.

Ken Burns is a veteran director with over 35 years of experience in creating documentaries. His credits include Huey Long, The Civil War, The West, Jazz, Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, The War, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, Jackie Robinson, and The Vietnam War.