Ken Burns Masterclass review

by Tom Barrance

I earn affiliate commission from links on this page. MasterClass gave me free access to the Ken Burns course but I have not been paid for this review.

Ken Burns MasterClass screenshot

MasterClass film courses are presented by leading directors, actors and writers. (You can also learn skills in many other fields.) I tried Ken Burns Teaches Documentary Filmmaking.

Ken Burns is the director of epic series like The Vietnam War, currently available on Netflix. Even if you haven’t seen his documentaries, you may know his name from Apple’s iMovie editing app, which named its photo pan and zoom effect after him. He’s famous for his creative use of archive photos and video.

What you’re really getting on Masterclass courses like this is an insight into the individual filmmaker’s personal approach, rather than a detailed how-to guide. So on this course you’ll learn about how Ken finds stories; his ethical approach; and how he puts together treatments and proposals for his movies. He talks about how to structure a narrative, where to access archive material, and how to present real people as characters with story arcs and goals.

A case study shows how Ken and his team planned one episode from The Vietnam War; another demonstrates his visual storytelling techniques. For me, the lessons on interview planning and technique were particularly useful: there’s advice on how to keep interviewees on track and how to handle challenging interviews.

Later lessons cover cinematography and lighting, music, sound design, editing and voiceovers. I particularly liked the editing case study, where Ken works with editor Dan White to show how the opening sequence of The Vietnam War evolved, from four early versions to the final result.

Like all Masterclass courses, the lessons are filmed and edited to a high standard. There’s an amusing scene where Ken describes how he likes to film with a minimal crew. Then the camera camera cuts away to reveal just how many cameras and people are filming his presentation. But the high quality production makes the lessons easier to watch.

This particular course is really extensive: 26 lessons (that’s five hours of video). There’s also a 156-page, illustrated PDF workbook. It includes assignments, suggestions for further reading and viewing, and authentic materials like proposals, scripts, storyboards, and shot lists. There’s also an online class community, though it isn’t particularly active.

I’d highly recommend this course for anyone who’s interested in documentary filmmaking.

Other Masterclass filmmaking classes feature Martin Scorsese, Jodie Foster, David Lynch, Spike Lee, Mira Nair and others. Check them out here. You can download most of them to watch offline with the Masterclass app.

Ken Burns Teaches Documentary Filmmaking

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