Ken Burns Teaches Documentary Filmmaking with His New Online Masterclass

FYI: If you sign up for a Mas­ter­Class course by click­ing on the affil­i­ate links in this post, Open Cul­ture will receive a small fee that helps sup­port our oper­a­tion.

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. You can sign up for Burns’ course here.

You can take this class by sign­ing up for a Mas­ter­Class’ All Access Pass. The All Access Pass will give you instant access to this course and 85 oth­ers for a 12-month peri­od.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Film­mak­er Ken Burns Urges Stan­ford Grad­u­ates to Defeat Trump & the Ret­ro­grade Forces Threat­en­ing the U.S.

How to Tell a Good Sto­ry, as Explained by George Saun­ders, Ira Glass, Ken Burns, Scott Simon, Cather­ine Burns & Oth­ers

Mar­tin Scors­ese Teach­es His First Online Course on Film­mak­ing: Fea­tures 30 Video Lessons

Wern­er Her­zog Teach­es His First Online Course on Film­mak­ing

Spike Lee to Teach an Online Course on Film­mak­ing; Get Ready By Watch­ing His List of 95 Essen­tial Films

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.

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