Features and Columns · Movies

6 Filmmaking Tips from Ken Burns

There are more Ken Burns effects than photograph panning. We round up the filmmaking knowledge shared over the years by this legendary documentarian.
Ken Burns Pbs Baseball Documentary
PBS/ Photo by Justin Altman
By  · Published on July 25th, 2017

Welcome to Filmmaking Tips, a long-running column in which we gather up the shared knowledge of a particular filmmaker and assemble it all into the internet’s favorite thing: a list. This one is about the filmmaking of Ken Burns.

There aren’t many documentary filmmakers who are household names, but Ken Burns is one of them. He’s arguably the most famous documentarian, in fact, in part because of the phenomenal success of his 1990 miniseries The Civil War and also because his name is affixed to a photo-panning technique he’s known for (in a more complex manner), which is officially part of Apple video production software.

Burns is also one of the few nonfiction film directors whose multiple projects are set up and revealed many years in advance as if he was working for a studio plotting out mega-franchise tentpoles. He’s currently booked at least through 2021, with a new miniseries out this fall, The Vietnam War, and future series on country music, Ernest Hemingway, Muhammad Ali, and a sort of sequel to The Civil War on the Reconstruction era, each at some level of development.

Filmmakers of all stripes have a lot to learn from Burns, who earned his first Oscar nomination 35 years ago with his first film and who has become an icon for a certain style yet has never been committed to such conventional limitations. Whether you want to make docs or sci-fi epics that borrow from docs (like Insterstellar‘s use of Burns’s The Dust Bowl footage) or something else entirely, you should find the six tips below to be inspiring and helpful.

The filmmaking lessons we can learn from Ken Burns

1. Storytelling is Storytelling

When Burns recently broke from his wheelhouse to make the Verite documentary Address, he shared some storytelling tips with Fast Company as a way of showing that the film wasn’t that different to direct than anything else he’s done. Here’s part of the advice on finding a story that “moves you”:

“The elements of storytelling are always the same. You’re just drawn to a good story, whether a small one or a big one…This is not my style, but I’m not completely unfamiliar with it — I experimented with it in school 40 years ago. It was a very steep learning curve, but the elements of a good story are there in whatever form they arrive in.”

Last year, he offered a handful of tips to students at Rowan University, including one on how storytelling is universal. As quoted by NJ.com, he said:

“I’m friends with Steven Spielberg. The laws of storytelling are the same for both of us. But I often say to him, ‘You can make stuff up. I can’t.’ There’s as much drama in what is, and what was, as there is in anything the human imagination can come up with.”

2. 1 + 1 = 3

As for the key to good storytelling, Burns subscribes to the mathematical equation of “1 + 1 = 3” rather than the simple “1 + 1 = 2.” It has to do with the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. See him explain the formula, as well as how all film stories are the manipulative sum of 24 lies per second, plus more, in this video interview produced for The Atlantic in 2012:

Of course, storytelling is also about subtraction. He tells Fast Company in another tip-filled interview from 2014 focused on “massive” creative projects:

“When somebody tells me what I left out of Jazz or Baseball, well, the reason is I’m not an encyclopedia. I do not wish for this to be a list of every World Series, every secondary jazz session players. Telling a story is editing. When your significant other says, ‘Honey, how was your day?’ You don’t say, ‘I backed slowly down the driveway, avoiding the garbage can at the curb . . .’ You cut to the chase, you tell stories, you edit. That’s what human beings do.”

3. Do Something Lasting

In Katie Couric’s 2011 book “The Best Advice I Ever Got: Lessons from Extraordinary Lives,” Burns has a chapter where he tells the story of meeting Arthur Miller and interviewing the playwright for his first film, Brooklyn Bridge. Miller said something during the brief, somewhat poorly planned encounter that stuck with Burns, and it’s now something he passes on to others. Here’s the end of the chapter summing it up:

“‘Maybe you, too, could add something that would last and be beautiful.’ Those words became the final words of my very first film and, in a way, they became — like the declaration of principles the young and still idealistic Charles Foster Kane tacks to the wall in Orson Welles’s great masterpiece Citizen Kane — my guiding principle as well.”

Interestingly enough, Burns is humble about the legacy of his documentaries and instead implies that it’s his children who are the beautiful lasting things he’s added to the world. Of course, one of those children, his daughter Sarah, is now following in his footsteps and working with him on documentary projects, so there is a link between the two parts of his life. Here he is mentioning his focus on being a father in an excerpt from a very long, sort of masterclass video interview for Big Think in 2009:

4. Plans Will Change

Although Burns heavily plans and plots out his films and miniseries long in advance, he can never predict how they’ll come together or not come together compared to his initial treatment during the course of their research and production. As a result, he recommends being prepared for things to change all the way through the making of your movie. In that second Fast Company interview, he says:

“The dynamics of any scene, of any one act within an episode, are in constant flux all the time. That’s what good storytelling is; it’s about the sort of calibration of that. We had originally planned six episodes [for The Roosevelts] and at one point through the richness of materials we’d collected, we had to change the goalpost of the last episode and make it into two. So we then had to look for the ‘out’ of episode six, and the ‘in’ of this newly created episode seven….It’s happened many times before. Baseball was going to be nine one-hours and each episode called an inning. And it still has that nine episode, nine inning structure but those are eighteen and a half hours long, not nine hours. So it’s not uncommon for us to have to make adjustments upon finding valuable information.” 

5. There Is No Single Career Path

In the Big Think video, Burns shares a lot of wisdom and lessons for filmmakers. He also specifically answers, in two parts, a request for advice for new filmmakers. The first part is directed at people who might not be right for this job. The other, directed at those who do need to be filmmakers, is about perseverance and how this trait is needed to get over the specific obstacles you have in your own path to success.

“You have to persevere, particularly in documentary film. If you wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer or a feature film director, I could tell you the steps to take to do that, but every working documentary filmmaker I know has gotten there through their own unique path. There is no career path. That’s the good news and the terrifying bad news. There is no career path and you’re alone and you just sort of have to bring something to it, and what I think it is among many other qualities is a kind of perseverance. It’s keeping and collecting those hundreds of hundreds of rejections for your first film as a reminder that you know you may not be the most talented person. You may not have the best ideas, but you’re going to see this through, and I’m sure there are lots of great filmmakers or people that would have been great filmmakers had they been able to follow through that had ideas much more interesting than mine, but didn’t and therefore aren’t filmmakers and we don’t know what they are because they didn’t have that ability to persevere against the inevitable problems, the inevitable friction that attends any effort to create something new.”

He also told the Rowan University students that they have to make their own break:

“When I graduated, I naively started my own film company…My first big break was one that I made. I thought being a documentary filmmaker was strike one, strike two was history, and strike three was PBS. I thought it meant taking a vow of poverty and anonymity…It’s about perseverance. There are hundreds of good filmmakers out there, and you’ve only heard of a few of them.”

Here’s Burns on his first big break, via Mediabistro:

6. Never Stop Learning

Burns has been making movies for almost 40 years, and he still doesn’t consider himself an expert. He’s constantly studying and learning new things, and he recommends others do the same. At Rowan University, he told students he still “practices” making films every day and maintains his creative problem-solving skills.

“If you see a problem as a pejorative, you’re trapped. You have to overcome a lot of friction and resistance. When I hit something that’s just not working, I have to know what to do next…When I started the Brooklyn Bridge film, I was practicing. When I worked on a script this morning, I was practicing. Be a perpetual student.”

And in the Big Think video he says, “I don’t consider myself that great a storyteller. I’m learning. I’m learning. I’m learning.”

Researching is a form of learning, of course, and Burns also stresses in the second Fast Company interview that you should never stop researching until you’re completely finished with a project.

“Most film companies have a set research period and then out of that is produced a script, which is written in stone. Our scripts are continually evolving; we never stop researching. And sometimes the last day before picture is locked, we’ve discovered something new.”

What we’ve learned about filmmaking

Only a smidgen, if we go by that last tip of Burns’s we highlight. And that is the truth given that he has many more tips, advice, and lessons out there to explore (I recommend looking through the entirety of the Fast Company and Rowan University compilations and watching all of the Big Think video). Mostly, we learned that his type of film is not achieved any differently than any other kind of movie or creative storytelling project. As long as you are passionate and patient and persistent and have a story to tell, that’s all you need.

The rest of the tips are extra, but if you want to be a significant filmmaker then you’ll want your work to have substance and lasting quality, and you’ll want to be flexible and unique and studious. Also, Burns would never recommend using the “Ken Burns effect” for anything but a wedding or bar mitzvah video, so if you actually want to make films like his, learn the real process, which he didn’t invent, of “kinestasis.”

Related Topics: , ,

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.