Ken Burns' Faith in Storytelling
Published: May 10, 2012
In an age dominated by short-form content in almost all media, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns prefers long-form and has no plan to change. His films, which may be 10 to 20 hours long, include “Baseball,” “Jazz,” “The Civil War” and “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.” He has won two Emmys, two Grammys and was twice nominated for an Academy Award. Burns gave the 2012 undergraduate commencement address on May 5. A few days before, he spoke with us about his work and the importance of storytelling. He was interviewed by José Martinez ’11.
You've said that all your work is about “waking the dead." Why the fascination with the past?
We tend to think of the past as irrelevant, but, in fact, human nature remains the same; the lessons that the past continually delivers give us the best possible perspective on where we’ve been, where we are now and, most importantly, where we’re going.
How do you make films with focused topics — Frank Lloyd Wright, baseball and jazz, for example — that have widespread appeal?
I think every story has interest. Hollywood is celebrated for its glamour, but it basically works with half a dozen plot lines. Then they attach bells and whistles. But with documentaries, you have an infinite number of plot lines — and that makes each one an adventure and, in essence, a detective story of how you dig out the good storytelling.
What in the world gave you the confidence that viewers would sit down to watch an 11-hour documentary on the Civil War over five nights?
I was scared out of my wits. But I knew I had faith in this sort of storytelling, and faith in the power to transcend those limitations. And I was refusing to do re-creation, which was what every poor documentary on the Civil War had done. The rest is history — that documentary is our perennial bestseller.
Does the increasing emphasis on brevity in video forms impact how you think about your work?
Not at all. I’ve gotten longer, sort of defiantly so. People bring that up a lot, and that was a question that came up more than 20 years ago with the advent of MTV’s music videos. Now we have YouTube. But in the end, we human beings are still as we’ve always been: hungry for instant gratification, but also hungry for the things that require our sustained attention and give us meaning.
Is there a storytelling medium unrelated to films that simply fascinates you?
The closest one is writing. There’s a presumption that film is the enemy of the written word, but they’re really close partners. I think we all acknowledge, not just biblically, but fundamentally, that in the beginning was the word.
Your attention and commitment to detail is legendary. I'd also imagine it's exhausting. How do you know when to stop?
The joke is always that you never finish a work of art; you abandon it. There’s a great deal of truth to that. We do exhaustive research and digging. I live in New Hampshire, and we make maple syrup here. It takes 40 gallons of sap to make a gallon of maple syrup. That’s sort of like making a documentary. We have 600 hours of footage to distill into a 15-hour doc. You feel when you lock the picture and walk away that you’ve done the best that you can at that moment.