Ken Burns Masterclass Review

Published by: Julia

Making documentaries is a complex process. But, one that Ken Burns’ masterclass breaks down into easy to absorb and implement lessons. Regardless, of what type of documentary you want to make Ken’s advice will help.

Learn from Ken Burns an award-winning documentary maker

Ken Burns has been making documentaries for more than four decades. Over that time he has won numerous awards. He has covered many different subjects and shared all kinds of stories with the world.

His first big success came in 1981 when his documentary Brooklyn Bridge was nominated for an academy award. He went on to cover much of the history and culture of the USA. Ken’s documentary subjects include Baseball, The Civil War, National Parks and American icons like Mark Twain and Frank Lloyd Wright.

There is no doubt that if you want to use the medium of film to share something with the world you can learn a huge amount from Ken Burns’ masterclass. As you will see, he covers everything in a great deal of detail.

However, others can also learn a lot from Ken’s research and structuring approach. I am a writer, so I found the research and the best way to structure a story sections to be very informative. Students of virtually any subject could also learn a lot from Ken. I also think that anyone who enjoys watching documentaries or has an interest in history would also greatly enjoy Ken’s documentary-making course.

What it takes to be a documentary maker

Making a documentary is a big commitment. To succeed you need to be determined, resourceful and to some extent tough. Ken does not sugar coat things. He clearly explains what it takes to succeed and goes through some of the hurdles you will face.

I believe it is the artist’s responsibility to lead people into hell. But, I also believe that it is also important to lead the way out.

Ken Burns – Documentary Film-Making Masterclass.com

How to choose your subject

The first step is finding a story that needs telling. There are hundreds even thousands of possibilities that you have to narrow down. Ken explains how to do this, so you can avoid investing time and effort in a project you cannot complete or find an audience for.

What you’re looking for is a story which is firing on all cylinders.

Ken Burns – Documentary Filmmaking Masterclass

His advice is to do the following:

  • Identify the questions that your core audience wants to be answered
  • Identify the subjects your audience feels passionate about
  • Connect with your audience on a human level
  • Choose something that interests you too

Finding the story within your subject

Once you have narrowed things down to a subject, the next step is to decide how to cover it. That means finding a story within it to tell.

Interestingly, Ken’s advice is not to focus on the visuals, at least, not at this stage. Instead, you need to find a story to tell that demonstrates a specific aspect of your larger subject.

This means going outside of your preconceptions. Sadly, he does not really explain how to find these special stories. This left me wondering how on earth you could possibly hope to tackle a huge subject like the Vietnam War, as Ken did. Really, the only way you are going to be able to learn this skill set is to start making films and learn from the feedback you get.

But, he did share one great tip. Using the materials academics recommend students use to study a subject is certainly a good starting point.

Ken Burns’ assignments for documentary makers

Fortunately, the assignments in Ken’s workbook cover most of the frustrating gaps in the knowledge he shares in his videos. For example, he suggests the following to uncover something different when researching a subject:

  • Pick up on anything that surprises you
  • Make a note of opposing views – these reveal the controversial areas of a subject
  • Are there any witnesses or specialists you would like to interview?
  • Make a note of additional sources of information.

How to make sure that you tell the true story

Documentary filmmakers have an extra responsibility to their audience. They need to do their best to balance their art with the truth.

This is a tricky thing to do. The dry facts are not that hard to uncover. For example, the date of the event and who was involved.

But, after you pull together the dry facts, things get complicated. Eye-witness accounts of the same event are always different. In some cases, they completely contradict each other.

This is human nature and you as the director are going to be affected in the same way. It is inevitable. So, telling the true story is tricky. But, you can learn to be aware of your own emotional, historical and cultural baggage and learn how to work around all of this. Doing so will enable you to, with practice, to produce a balanced documentary.

However, there are occasions when you need not be 100% factually accurate. Ken provides a couple of examples of where he has mixed images and metaphors to take modern viewers through a story twist.

At this stage, you might want to skip ahead to video 21. There Ken Burns explains the responsibilities you have an artist.

Sourcing archival materials for your research

One of the reasons Ken is still making documentaries that turn heads is that he has not fallen into the trap of just regurgitating what is already in the public domain.

It drives me nuts when you watch 3 documentaries on a similar subject and realise that basically they are all the same. All they have done is gone online pulled half a dozen so-called facts about an event together and created a film about it.

Ken absolutely does not do this. Sure, he uses the internet for his initial research. Then well known academic sources.

But, importantly, he takes things a couple of steps further. He goes to the archives and pulls information directly from there.

There are plenty of archives to dig into. Many of which will allow you to use what you find free of charge.

Top of the list is libraries and museums. Followed by newspapers, institutions, charities and companies are other good sources.

Plus, you should never underestimate what private individuals have stowed away in their attic. Some of the most iconic footage from his Vietnam War documentary came from the video letters sent home to one serviceman’s family.

I learned a huge amount about how to access these archives and get the most out of them. But, you must not underestimate how long this process can take. Sure, you will get a lot of information, but, you are going to have to distil it all down to get what you need. This is crazy time-consuming.

“I use the analogy of maple syrup: It takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup,”

Ken Burns Documentary Filmmaking

Selecting and interviewing your sources

A big part of what makes a documentary convincing is the interviews. You really cannot beat watching someone share what happened, in their own words.

But, you have to know how to get what you need from each subject. Being able to select the right interview subjects and get what you need from each of them is a real art. One that Ken clearly excels at. I promise you, you will learn a huge amount from these 3 videos.

Creating your documentary narrative

As someone who writes a lot, unsurprisingly, I really enjoyed this part of Ken’s course. Here, he explains how to:

  • Hook your audience immediately
  • Use the rules of storytelling to quickly build your story’s framework
  • Tweak things until it works
  • Use small details to share large chunks of information that take your audience smoothly to the next stage of the story
  • Use chronology as a compass
  • How to end your story and send the audience home happy

How to write a script for a documentary

Writing a script is a special skill set. One that is rarely spoken about outside of specialist courses. So, I was really pleased to see Ken cover it in considerable detail. It was also interesting to see the differences between how you would write a script for a non-fiction film and one you write for a documentary explained.

These are the main skills Ken teaches here:

  • How to create an early draft
  • Making sure that you incorporate all of your narrative elements
  • Writing with poetic detail
  • How to draw facts into your structure
  • Using different points of view
  • When to use caveats
  • Choosing the right words to avoid confusion
  • Balancing third and first-person elements

His tip to forget about the images when you write your documentary script is an excellent one. Doing this frees you up to tell your story in full. As Ken points out there are lots of ways to go back and sort out images to fill in any gaps. In his experience, the visuals always follow.

Shaping nonfiction characters

This was another interesting section of the course. The fact that the characters in a non-fiction film are real people does not mean that you do not need to develop them.

In fact, you need to do so even more. Often, your audience will already have preconceived ideas about each of them. Your research may enforce or go against what they think they already know. So, you had better be convincing with what you present.

People are complex. So, conveying the character of someone real is never easy. If history says one thing about him or her and your research uncovers a totally different side of them you have to be careful about how and when you use this knowledge.

Ken explains how to walk that line. How to draw a rich image of your characters without over-complicating things.

Visual and cinematic techniques for documentary films

Unsurprisingly, Ken also spends quite a bit of time explaining the various visual techniques you can use to build and enrich the story you are telling. During the course he explains:

  • How and when to use still images
  • Creating meaning through juxtaposition
  • Activating your audience’s imagination through visuals
  • Using duration and motion to enrich the meaning of your story
  • How to use the power of words and images in tandem

Once again, Ken provides you with places to learn more. Some of the sources he recommends in his workbook will surprise you. But, as soon as you see them you will understand why Ken is such a genius filmmaker. Like so many experts, he learns and draws inspiration from everyone and everywhere.

Tap into the power of music when making films

Regardless of what type of film you are making, you have to reach your audience on an emotional level. If you do not engage with them in this way, they will soon lose interest.

There are lots of ways to do this, but, one of the most effective is to use music. People have a powerful response to what they hear.

Ken explains how different types of music can be used to set the scene. To transport people to a different place and time.

Music can be used to evoke a mood, to add tension, create suspense and push the narrative along. Ken quickly covers the subject and uses examples to help you to understand.

However, if you want to gain a more in-depth understanding of how to use music in filmmaking I suggest that you take Mira Nair’s masterclass. She goes into the subject in much more depth. I also found that I gained a better appreciation of the power of music in telling a story by taking the music production courses by Timbaland and Deadma5.

Once again, the workbook provides that little bit of extra information that makes this course an invaluable resource for any filmmaker. There you can access a list of music libraries and companies that Ken has used over the years to find the perfect track for each scene. Although, he clearly loves music, so most of the time he uses his own collection for inspiration.

Perfecting voice-overs

Voice-overs are what hold all of the other elements of a documentary together. So, getting this aspect of your film right is vital.

Ken starts by explaining where to source first-person tracks of historical figures. Again, nothing is more convincing than hearing what someone thinks from their own mouth.

But, you will usually also need to hire actors to voice characters and provide the in-fill commentary. Ken shows you how to hire the right people. He also briefly takes you through editing what they say. From the sounds of things getting the voice-over exactly right requires you to cut and combine numerous takes. So, you need to know how to get the most out of the actor that you hire.

Modern sound production techniques for films

This is another section that I struggled with. But, again, those of you who are already very familiar with making films will be able to follow and learn from it without any issues.

Good sound design is vital. If you get it wrong, it will be far harder for you to tell your story effectively. There is also a danger that important dialogue will be difficult for your audience to hear. It is all part of immersing your audience in the moment.

The film editing process

This is by far the most comprehensive part of the course. Yet, despite this, Ken only really scratches the surface of the subject.

But, importantly Ken covers the planning part in-depth. Using what he teaches you will help to ensure that you do not leave any important scenes out. It will also help you to take sufficient shots to ensure you can edit properly.

Editing takes time. The more you have the better your film will be.

Ken’s editing process is a bit different from what I have seen explained before. This is actually a good thing.

I can see how the technique he teaches will enable you to quickly get the bones of your documentary in place. The voice-over and talking heads parts.

This enables you to work through any story flow issues and may spark other ideas. Putting the image in place after that makes much more sense than trying to do that first as many people would try to do.

Across the following 2 editing videos, Ken goes through how to pare that very messy, long first cut down. How to craft it into your finished documentary. As he says, this process is not dissimilar to creating a piece of music. It was certainly fascinating to watch.

Ken Burns’ documentary case studies

Like a lot of masterclass instructors, Ken uses case studies to cement what he has just taught. This is one of the things I really like about taking masterclass courses. You can read more about the other special features you get from this learning platform, by reading my overview Masterclass review.

There are two in this course:

  • a case study of Unforgivable Blackness for the visual storytelling section
  • a case study of The Vietnam War for the editing and storyboards sections of the course

How to fund your project and create a good pitch

Documentary making is not as expensive as producing a movie. But, it still costs a lot. So, you really need funding.

To secure it, you have to put together a treatment. This is an in-depth description of your proposed film. In this section of the course, Ken explains how to write it so that it reads like a short story. This approach makes it digestible for any audience.

Writing the treatment is clearly also a big part of Ken’s creative process. I can see how doing it helps to fix the story in his mind and enables him to hone things further.

Ken explains how to develop the budget for your film. But, I struggled to follow most of his advice. However, I suspect that it will make far more sense to people who regularly make films or documentaries.

Perhaps the most important and useful section of this video was the part where Ken lists out potential sources of money. I was particularly interested in the idea that you might approach the government for funding.

There is a link in the workbook, which takes you to a list of 250 potential sources. If you are an active filmmaker, this page alone will more than cover the cost of taking Ken Burns’ documentary filmmaking masterclass.

Ken Burns’ documentary-making workbook

As you can see from my overview review of the masterclass.com platform, all of the courses include a workbook. Ken’s is no exception. Given the length and complexity of the subject, his workbook is quite short.

That means if you want to go back over what you have learned, you will have to go through the videos again. The workbook will help you to find the right one. But, sadly, not the point in the video that you need. Kind of annoying because it is not as easy as it should be to dip in and out of Ken Burns’ masterclass videos. Surprisingly, he has not used timestamps.

However, I still think that most students will still find the workbook to be useful. For example, following Ken’s assignments will help them to get started and create a documentary in an orderly fashion. Plus, it contains some great examples of concepts that may be difficult to grasp from a video format. The inclusion of an example pitch is just one example of this. So, don’t ignore the workbook when you take Ken Burns’ masterclass.

Is Ken Burns’ masterclass right for you?

Using my all-access masterclass pass, I have already taken around 30 of the platform’s 60+ courses. So, I can confirm that Ken’s course is a good one. It stands up well against the other filmmaking courses I have already taken via masterclass.com. Ken’s approach to creating and directing a film is different from David Lynch’s, Jodie Foster’s and Mira Nair’s.

But, that is a good thing, a very good thing because I have learned something different from each of these filmmakers. So, my recommendation would be that you spend $180 on buying the all-access pass and use it to take all 14 of the film-related masterclasses. The all-access membership enables you to take all 14 courses (plus more) for just $180 instead of paying $90 for each one. That is a huge saving.

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