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Ken Burns


Ken Burns

Filmmaker Ken Burns

Florentine Films

The Quote:

"I began to feel that the drama of the truth that is in the moment and in the past is richer and more interesting than the drama of Hollywood movies. So I began looking at documentary films."

The Basics:

Kenneth Lauren Burns was born in Brooklyn, New York, on July 29, 1953. After graduating from Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor, Michigan, he earned his Bachelor of Arts degree from Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, in 1975. He is one of the co-founders of Florentine Films. He received an L.H.D. from Bates College in 2002. He currently lives in Walpole, New Hampshire, with his wife Julie Deborah Brown and three daughters. Burns' brother, Ric Burns, is also a documentary filmmaker and the two often collaborate on projects.

The Story:

Ken Burns is unique among documentary filmmakers in that he is a documentary series auteur who produces, writes, directs, serves as cameraman, music director, editor and chief bottle washer on his multi-episode epic documentaries, which always reflect his unique style and point of view. He often says that if his films fail, he alone is at fault--because "I enjoy total creative control right now. Nobody tells me to make it longer, shorter, better, sexier, more violent, whatever."

Signature Documentary Series:

  • The Civil War (1990)
  • Baseball (1994)
  • JAZZ (2001)
  • The War (2007)

Other Documentaries:

  • Brooklyn Bridge (1981)
  • Remembering Chicago and World War 2(1982)
  • The Shakers: Hands to Work, Hearts to God(1984)
  • The Statue of Liberty(1985)
  • Huey Long (1985)
  • Congress(1988)
  • Thomas Hart Benton (1988)
  • William Segal (1992)
  • Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio (1991)
  • Thomas Jefferson (1997)
  • Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery (1997)
  • Vezelay (1997)
  • Frank Lloyd Wright (1998)
  • Not For Ourselves Alone: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony (1999)
  • In the Marketplace(2000)
  • Mark Twain(2001)
  • Horatio's Drive (2003)
  • Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson (2004)
  • The Central Park Five (2012)

Emmy Awards:

  • The Civil War, 1991, Outstanding Informational Series, Outstanding Individual Achievement
  • Baseball, 1994, Outstanding Informational Series
  • Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, 2002, Outstanding Nonfiction Special

Books and DVDs:

Burns has co-authored illustrated companion books for his films:
  • The Civil War: An Illustrated History, with Geoffrey C. Ward, Knopf, 1990
  • Baseball: An Illustrated History, with Geoffrey C. Ward, Random House, 1994
  • Lewis and Clark: An Illustrated History, with Dayton Duncan, Knopf, 1997
  • Mark Twain, with Geoffrey C. Ward, Random House, 2001
  • Horatio's Drive: America's First Road Trip, with Dayton Duncan, Knopf, 2003
  • All of Burns' films are available on DVD and/or VHS, and can be easily obtained at Amazon.com, local bookstores or public libraries.
  • Several of the films are available on audio cassettes
  • .

Core Values:

By using archival photographs and, where available, newsreels and other footage as his images and creating soundtracks with period music rather than specially composed scores, Ken Burns emphasizes authenticity in his in depth studies of all-American subjects, ranging from transformational events in history and the personal achievements of great citizens to the cultural roots and current trends that define America's profile. At the same time, he adds appeal to his films by casting well-known actors, authors and other experts to provide the voice over narration and other character voices in his films.

The Ken Burns Effect:

Because many of Burns’ films cover historical subjects for which there is little or no archival footage, the filmmaker relies heavily on the use of archival stills. To bring the stills to life, he uses the camera to slow pan and zoom within the frame of the photograph, which continually refocuses the viewer’s attention from one element within the still to another. He also employs gradual fades between photographs to transition from subject to subject. These techniques, now widely used in documentary filmmaking, have been dubbed “The Ken Burns Effect.“

Documenting America:

In a career spanning more than 30 years, Ken Burns has created some of the most watched, most highly acclaimed historical documentaries ever made--and they are all about American history and culture.

Burns is best known for epic documentary series in which he presents the biggest possible picture and most comprehensive coverage of his subject, be it The Civil War, Baseball or Jazz. Most Burns films are made for and aired on the Public Broadcasting System (PBS).

Burns' first epic series, the Emmy Award winning The Civil War, is probably still the best known of his works. When the series premiered on PBS in September, 1990, it attracted a record-setting 40-million viewers. The Civil War, eleven hours long and consisting of nine episodes, explores in depth the realities and effects of the bloody, bitter War Between The States. During production, Burns filmed some 16,000 archived photographs, period paintings, drawings and newspaper images, using them to tell the personal stories of soldiers and others whose lives were transformed by the war. Narration is provided by author David McCullough, with Sam Waterston as Abraham Lincoln, Jason Robards as Ulysses S. Grant, Garrison Keillor as Walt Whitman and Morgan Freeman as Frederick Douglass. Burns created a uniquely moving, extraordinarily engaging account of the human aspect of the War Between The Stares.

The second of Burns’ epic documentary series is Baseball. It is, of course, about America’s self-invented favorite pastime. The series, covering the game's history from the 1840s to the present, took more than four years to complete and consists of nine two-hour episodes. Using archival photographs, as he did in The Civil War, and adding fascinating newsreel footage, Burns reveals baseball to be a mirror of American society, reflecting the nation‘s achievements and problems. The series premiered during nine nights in September, 1994, and attracted some 45-million viewers, becoming one of the most-watched series in PBS history.

Jazz, the most recent in Burns’ epic documentary series, explores the roots and flowering of America's home grown art form. The ten-part series is 19 hours long, and traces the development of jazz through swing, bebop and fusion. It premiered on PBS in January, 2001.

Additionally, Burns's profiles of great Americans include Mark Twain, Thomas Jefferson, Frank Lloyd Wright, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.

His latest series, The War, about World War II, premiers in September, 2007.

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