Masterclass: Ken Burns Teaches Documentary Filmmaking

Since its 2017 debut, Ken Burns’s The Vietnam War has enthralled over 39 million viewers by painting an intimate and revealing portrait of history. In this online film class, learn how Ken captivates audiences with his ability to distill vast research and complex truths into compelling narratives. From first treatment to final edit, Ken teaches his documentary filmmaking techniques that “wake the dead” to bring their stories to life.

Instructor(s): Ken Burns
Class Length: 26 video lessons (4 hrs 56 min)
Category: Arts & Entertainment
Course Materials: Class Workbook.pdf

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Course Lessons:

  1. Introduction
    Meet your new instructor: award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns. Ken shares why he’s teaching his MasterClass, what you’ll learn, and encourages you to break free from the rules of conventional filmmaking.
  2. What It Takes
    Your life experiences, personal goals, and early films are all fodder for your career as filmmaker. Learn the highs and lows of Ken’s first film and his advice for navigating the filmmaking process.
  3. Choosing Your Story
    Using examples from his own project files, Ken teaches you how to identify powerful, universal themes that will resonate with audiences.
  4. Finding Your Story Within The Subject
    You’ve selected your topic, but what’s the story you’re telling? Ken teaches you how to use research to seek out different perspectives, discover your story, and anchor it in facts.
  5. Telling A True Story
    Learn how Ken sculpts stories to honor opposing viewpoints and portray a larger narrative picture.
  6. Treatments, Pitching, and Funding
    Filmmaking requires passion, vision—and money. Using an example from The Civil War, Ken teaches you the purpose and process of writing a treatment and his tips for navigating the world of fundraising.
  7. Structuring a Documentary Narrative
    A bold beginning, engaging middle, and compelling end—the laws of storytelling can and should be applied to documentary filmmaking. Learn how to structure your narrative to keep viewers hooked.
  8. Sourcing Archival Materials
    Archival materials are some of the richest storytelling resources available. But how do you navigate the huge volume of possibilities? Ken teaches you his time-tested methods for unearthing rare audio and visual materials.
  9. Shaping Nonfiction Characters
    Learn how to identify character arcs, leverage conflict, and set aside judgment to portray memorable nonfiction characters that capture the complexity of real life.
  10. Case Study: The Vietnam War Episode Boards
    Using the episode board from his docuseries The Vietnam War, Ken teaches you his strategies for visualizing the structure of your film.
  11. Writing a Script
    For Ken, writing a script is an essential step towards organizing and shaping a film’s story and structure.In this lesson, he explains how to leverage all the narrative tools at your disposal—from interview bites to narration—in order to craft your script.
  12. Visual Storytelling: Cinematic Techniques
    Ken teaches you how to use the cinematic tools of dramatic filmmaking to infuse emotion and meaning into the stills and live action of your documentary.
  13. Visual Storytelling: Unforgivable Blackness Case Study
    Using imagery from his film Unforgivable Blackness, Ken demonstrates how to artfully juxtapose photographs and interweave film to craft a compelling storyline.
  14. Selecting Interview Subjects
    The people you choose to interview help bring your film to life. Ken teaches you how to identify, approach, and vet the right subjects for your documentary.
  15. Conducting an Interview
    Learn Ken’s interviewing techniques to help you connect with your subjects and draw out their most compelling stories.
  16. Case Study: Navigating a Challenging Interview
    Not all interviews run smoothly. Using raw footage from The War, Ken walks you through one of his most difficult interviews, and shares how four simple words transformed it into some of the most powerful moments in the film.
  17. Nonfiction Cinematography
    You don’t need a huge crew to make a great film. Ken teaches you how to approach interview and field shoots using a lean production team.
  18. The Power of Music
    Learn how Ken uses music as a powerful storytelling tool in order to add layers of narrative depth and spark emotions in his audiences.
  19. Editing: Process
    After editing Civil War, Baseball, and Jazz, Ken created a new process to efficiently hone raw footage into the final cut. Learn his method for tackling vast amounts of material during the editing process.
  20. Editing: Principles
    Ken teaches you the guiding principles he’s developed over the course of four decades in the edit bay.
  21. Editing Case Study: The Vietnam War Introduction
    Using early, never-before-seen-cuts of The Vietnam War, Ken illustrates how to synthesize the components of a story and sculpt the film in the edit.
  22. Recording and Using Voice Over
    Using pages from The Vietnam War and The Roosevelts, Ken walks you through the process of tracking a VO session and directing talent.
  23. Sound Design
    To truly immerse an audience in your film, sound design is key. Ken teaches you how to spot for sound and harness the vast array of aural tools at your disposal.
  24. The Artist’s Responsibility
    Film has the ability to bridge geographic, linguistic, and political boundaries. Ken breaks down the role of the filmmaker in society and their power and responsibility as an artist.
  25. Sharing Your Film
    Part of the thrill of making a film is sharing it with others. Learn how to reach your audience and the importance of opening your film up to interpretation and conversation.
  26. Jump The Chasm
    Ken encourages you to let go of any lingering doubt and take the leap toward making your documentary film.

Course Content

Masterclass: Ken Burns Teaches Documentary Filmmaking Section


For a decade, Dame Luthas collaborated with global United Nations Organizations on the most pressing, multi-dimensional challenges. The experience uncovered new opportunities for tomorrow; and reinvigorated a clarity of vision and passion for empowering organizational, business, and technical harmonization here in the United States. In this spirit, Mr. Luthas also created The Luthas Center for Excellence - committed to the establishment; and strengthening of collaborative global mastermind networks enabling multi-lateral network empowerment of Women and Children via the maximization of inherent gifts, talents, and abilities.

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