MasterClass – Ken Burns Teaches Documentary Filmmaking


MasterClass – Ken Burns Teaches Documentary Filmmaking

We are in a renaissance and have been for 30 or 40 years, 30 years at least, of the 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.

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 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…

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