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The historian Stephen Ambrose once said that “more Americans get their history from Ken Burns than from any other source.” That quote sounds plausible enough, and Burns' company Florentine Films certainly hasn't hesitated to put it to promotional use. For almost four decades now, Burns has indeed demonstrated not just his skill at crafting long-form documentaries about American history — most famously, 11 hours on the Civil War, 18 hours on baseball, and 19 hours on jazz — but his skill at placing his work, and that of his collaborators, centrally in the culture as well. What can we learn from his career in documentary filmmaking, with its seeming infinitude of both historical material and critical acclaim? Masterclass now offers one set of answers to that question with the online course "Ken Burns Teaches Documentary Filmmaking."
Priced at $90, the course covers every step of the documentary-filmmaking process, from writing a script to finding source materials to interviewing subjects to designing sounds and recording voiceovers. Most of this has, in a technical sense, become vastly easier since Burns began his career in the late 1970s, and iMovie has made his signature pans across still photos effortlessly implementable with the "Ken Burns Effect" option. But it takes much more than pans across photographs to make the kind of impact Burns does with his documentaries, and the most valuable insight provided by a course like this one is the insight into how its teacher sees the world.
"People are realizing that there's as much drama in what is and what was as anything that the human imagination dreams of," says Burns in the course's trailer, "and you have the added advantage of it being true." But at the same time, Burns also believes that "there's no objective truth. This is human experience. We see things from different perspectives. And that's okay." This brings to mind a line from Burns' Jazz, originally spoken by Wynton Marsalis but quoted by Burns in a New Yorker profile last year: "Sometimes a thing and the opposite of a thing are true at the same time." A tolerance for contradiction, in Burns' book, makes you a better documentarian, but it may also make you a sharper observer of the world around you. Now, in what Burns calls "one of the most challenging moments in the history of the United States," the world needs the sharpest observers it can get.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.