In this Ken Burns MasterClass Review, we’ll dive deep into his filmmaking masterclass. Shooting short films and documentaries is often considered to be a harder activity than shooting a full-fledged 2-hour flick.
Though the aspects involved in shooting a documentary and a complete motion picture are similar, the approach is totally different, since you have to tell an entire story in a shorter time frame in a documentary.
Documentary making is a dynamic process. Yet, one that is broken down by Ken Burns’ Masterclass into simple lessons to learn and execute. Regardless, what kind of documentary Ken’s advice you want to make can help.
So, today I will walk you through an elaborate review of how Ken Burn’s teaches viewers of his Masterclass, the art of short filmmaking, and everything that goes into turning an ordinary script into an amazing documentary.
Your short filmmaking coach – Ken Burns!
Kenneth Lauren Burns, or simply Ken Burns, is globally known for his style of using archival footage and photographs in documentary films. He has gone on to a long, successful career directing and producing well-received television documentaries and documentary miniseries on subjects as diverse as arts and letters.
Creator of some widely acclaimed documentary series like The Civil War (1990), Baseball (1994), Jazz (2001), The War (2007), The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (2009), Prohibition (2011), The Roosevelts (2014), and The Vietnam War (2017), today Ken Burns is on Masterclass with a complete course on how to create a stunning and impactful documentary from beginning till the end!
Ken Burns Filmmaking Masterclass Review 2020
The Ken Burns Teaches Documentary Craft which is officially my most popular Masterclass ever. And it’s not a small compliment. Because almost all the Masterclasses I have tracked so far have amazed, inspired, energized, motivated, and made me smarter. However, in a catalog of phenomenal learning experiences, Ken Burns has managed to raise the already high bar.
This review is my effort to translate that sense of “wow” into words and to explain why Ken Burns Filmmaking Masterclass is my favorite among many fantastic classes. Of course, not because I’m impressed by this Masterclass, everyone will enjoy it.
Although I am not a documentary maker, this art has aroused my interest for many years and I am currently preparing a documentary as a hobby.
I’m also a storyteller and a creator, so obviously there is a lot of overlap and teaching that can be learned from Ken.
If you are not creative, documentaries are not interesting for you, Ken Burns and his work do not interest you, or you are not interested in learning the process from someone who tops his domain (after all, this is one of the best Documentary filmmakers), so this Masterclass is probably not for you. But I think it falls into one of these categories, so this review is probably for you.
Ken Burns Masterclass – A QUICK OVERVIEW
If you know documentaries, you already know Ken Burns! Even if you are unfamiliar with your work, you probably already know the style of panning and zooming still images with your name: The Ken Burns effect. If you edited some personal movies on an Apple computer, you saw that name. Steve Jobs explicitly asked Ken to use his name in the software.
26 video lessons
The contents of Ken Burns Masterclass are nicely structured and divided into 26 video lessons. That’s 5 hours of video content (ignoring the hour’s students can ask Ken questions), with each module between 10 and 20 minutes. There is also a 156-page workbook with exercises, tasks, and tasks that can keep you busy for months.
It’s beautifully filmed, the message is evocative, the music wakes up and the emotion takes you away. Before plunging into the heart of the class, Ken says that the Masterclass is about finding your own path and giving them something that will help them to really learn.
The course is meant for you to deepen your lyrics, e-mail voices, files, archive footage, music, sound effects, sound design, and everything you need for great results. Documentation.
The course begins with a stimulating and inspiring discussion on the qualities of filmmakers and an invitation to Ken to participate in the documentary revival that has been taking place since the mid-eighties.
The speed at which Ken speaks intellectually is incredible.
He has a great understanding of work, creativity, art, and man’s condition, hard to follow, but it’s easy to feel inspired. We’ll begin with an important discussion on how to get to know your creative goals and what questions to answer before you make a documentary.
What is Ken doing to make a living? He wakes up the dead. It gives people the opportunity to explore the complex emotions that they never had before. Each lesson is a call to action for artists like no one else I’ve ever seen in my life.
A lesson contains more valuable advice than most courses in his career.
This is not a class where you can relax and watch without thinking. That does not mean it’s not good. Because I cannot remember the last time I had so much fun listening to someone who spoke for a long time. But you really have to deal with this material because it is deep and deep.
The research part of the course really impressed me and gave me a better understanding of the incredibly effective immersion process that precedes creation.
We’ve learned to find the deepest possible sources, and we’ve learned how Ken got hold of Vietnam’s private video cassettes and created the person she thought was the film’s character.
After a detailed discussion about why we should go to the mattress and what we want to sacrifice for our art, the course starts with practical advice. Of course, this is not even a fraction of what you get in this Masterclass. We then began to structure a documentation story and establish a direct connection to your audience.
We learn the fascinating lessons in terms of arcs: at the macro-level (episodes/seasons) and at the micro-level (scene/dialogue). And as Ken Burns and Steven Spielberg obey the same laws of narration, the only difference is that he can “do things wrong and I can not”.
Ken Burns is not only a born storyteller but also a born teacher and educator, born of a passion full of passion that is so full that you cannot be otherwise trained.
ELEMENTS YOU WOULD LOVE!
Ken Burns filmmaking Masterclass is a course for every person who is passionate about the art of filmmaking and shooting good quality documentaries. There is something in each lesson that makes it a “WORTH IT” experience for learners. So, here are some of the elements of Ken’s Masterclass which I think you would really love!
Choosing your subject
The first step is to find a story that needs to be told. You have to narrow down hundreds, even thousands of possibilities. Ken explains how to do this so you can avoid investing time and effort in a project for which you can’t finish or find an audience.
His advice is to do the following:
- Identify and answer the core questions of your core audience
- Identify the subjects your audience feels passionate about
- Connect with your audience on a human level
- Choose something that interests you too
- Finding the story within your subject
Once you’ve got things narrowed down to a subject, the next step is to decide how to cover it. That means finding a story to tell inside it. Interestingly, Ken’s advice at this stage isn’t to focus on the visuals, at least. Instead, you need to find a story to tell that shows a particular aspect of your broader subject.
Which is to go beyond your preconceptions. He’s not really describing how to find such special stories, sadly. This left me wondering how you might hope to tackle an enormous subject like the Vietnam War on earth like Ken did.
Really, the only way you can learn this set of skills is to start making movies and learn from the feedback you get. He also shared one valuable tip, suggesting the students study a subject using the materials academics recommend, as a good starting point.
Assignments For Documentary Makers
Luckily, the exercises in Ken’s workbook fill much of the frustrating holes in his video-sharing expertise. He suggests, for example, that something else is discovered while researching a subject:
- Pick up on anything that surprises you
- Explore the controversial areas of a subject by making a note of opposing views
- Are there any witnesses or specialists you would like to interview?
- Find some additional sources of information and make notes.
How to make sure that you tell the true story?
Documentary filmmakers owe their audience an extra responsibility. They must make every effort to balance their art with the truth. That’s a difficult thing to do. The dry facts aren’t that difficult to discover. For example, the event date and who was involved.
But, once you put the dry facts together, things get complicated. There are always different eye-witness accounts of the same event. In some instances, they contradict one another entirely.
This is human nature and likewise, you as the director will be affected. This is inescapable. It is tricky to tell the true story, then. But you can learn to be conscious of your own emotional, historical, and cultural baggage and learn how to work around all this. Doing so will allow you to produce a balanced documentary, with practice.
There are however occasions when you don’t need to be factually accurate at 100 percent. Ken gives a few examples of where he’s mixed images and metaphors to take modern viewers through a twist of stories. You may want to skip up Video 21 at this point. There Ken Burns discusses the responsibilities an artist has.
5 things I loved about Ken Burns Masterclass!
Now that we are almost through with the entire review, let me talk about the 5 things I loved the most about Ken Burns filmmaking Masterclass.
Exploring narrative elements!
Ken analyzes the various narrative elements at his fingertips, how he can decide in the first iterations of his film’s narrative layer, how he writes with descriptive descriptions, constructs a structure around the truth, generates a dimension across different narratives, and even more.
Ken Burns’ description of the result was exciting: how he takes a photo and says “It’s my master shot” and has a perfect chance, a middle image, a close-up photo, an intense approach, a tilt, a panorama, a discovery insertion of details.
Ken shows you how to create meaning through coexistence, how to activate your audience’s imagination, how to transform a visual experience into an auditory experience, how to make sense through time and movement, and how people think. Usually, the Ken Burns effect is incorrect. The result is “an attempt to bring a picture to life for the benefit of a dynamic display of dramatic narratives.”
Sourcing archival materials for your research
One of the reasons Ken is still making documentaries turning heads is that he hasn’t fallen into the trap of simply regurgitating what’s already in the public domain. It drives me nuts when you watch 3 documentaries about a similar topic and realize that they are basically the same. What they did is put half a dozen so-called facts about an incident together online, and made a movie about it.
- That’s absolutely not what Ken does. He is certainly using the internet for his initial research. Then, well-known sources in academia.
- But, most importantly, he is taking things a few steps further. He goes straight to the archives and takes information from there.
- A lot of files to dig into. Many of which will encourage you to make free use of what you find.
- Libraries and Museums are at the top of the list. Other good sources are newspapers, institutions, charities, and companies.
Plus, you should never underestimate what is stowed away in your attic by private people. Some of the most iconic footage from his documentary about the Vietnam War came from video letters sent home to the family of one serviceman.
I learned a lot about how to access and get the most out of these archives. Yet you shouldn’t underestimate how long this will take. You will certainly get a lot of information, but you will have to distill it all down to get what you need.
How to write a script for a documentary?
Writing a script is a compilation of specific competencies. One which is rarely mentioned outside of specialist courses. So, I was very pleased to see Ken explaining it in considerable detail. It was also fascinating to see the similarities between how you would write a script for a non-fiction movie and one you would write for an overview of a documentary.
These are the main skills Ken teaches here:
- How to create an early draft
- Make sure you embed all of your narrative elements
- Writing with poetic detail
- How to draw facts into your structure
- Using different points of view
- When to use caveats
- Choosing the right words to avoid confusion
Visual and cinematic techniques for documentary films
Unsurprisingly, Ken also spends quite a bit of time describing the various visual tools you can use to create and enrich the tale you tell. He explains over the course:
- How to use still images, and when
- Making sense by the juxtaposition
- Stimulating the imagination of the audience through the visuals
- Use the length and motion of your tale to deepen its significance
The film editing process
This is the most comprehensive part of the course, by far. Yet despite this, Ken is only scratching the subject’s surface really. But Ken most importantly deals in-depth with the planning part.
Using what he teaches should help ensure you don’t miss out on any important scenes. This will also help you take enough shots to ensure proper editing is possible.
It takes time to edit it. The more your film gets the better. Ken’s editing process is a little different from what I’ve seen previously described. In reality, this is a positive thing. I can see how the technique he teaches can help you to get your documentary bones into place quickly. Parts of the voice-over and talk heads up.
This allows you to work through any issues related to the story flow and might spark other ideas. It makes much more sense to put the image in place after that than trying to do that first, as many people would try to do.
Ken goes through this very messy, long first cut through the following 2 editing videos. How to shape it into your documentary. As he says, creating a piece of music is not dissimilar to this process. It was fascinating to watch for sure.
Ken Burns’ Masterclass workbook
As you can see from my Masterclass.com platform overview review, all the courses have a workbook in them. Ken’s are no exception to this. His workbook is fairly short given the length and complexity of the subject.
This means you’ll have to go through the videos again if you want to go back to what you’ve learned. The workbook is set to help you find the right one. However, unfortunately, not the point you’ll need in the video.
A kind of annoying because dipping in and out of Ken Burns’ Masterclass videos isn’t as easy as it should be. Surprisingly, he did not use time-markings.
I do think most students will still find the workbook useful though. Following Ken’s assignments for example will help them get started and create a documentary in an organized fashion. Plus, it includes some great examples of concepts that might be hard to grasp from a video format.
Another example of this is the inclusion of a sample pitch. So, when you take masterclass of Ken Burns, don’t ignore the workbook.
Masterclass Pricing Plans
There are two ways by which you can purchase a Masterclass, a single Masterclass, and an All-Access Pass for any of the gurus on the platform.
- Single Masterclass: ₹7,775
- All-Access Pass: ₹15,550 per year
The All-Access Pass comes in real handy when you wish to take more than one Masterclass, so this means that there is no limit on the number of Masterclasses on the All-Access Pass.
Seeing Ken’s teaching methods is extremely helpful. After we have shown his logic and reasoning in the overview of the episode, we see the real pictures in action, a real joy, and a wonderful process of learning. Ken was passionate all the time but when he stands in front of the boards of his episodes, his passion reaches its peak. He jumps before feeling and challenges everyone to find more soul in this caliber’s educational experience.
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Masterclass is a great way of learning online from top creators as it brings in the best influencers from the art industry under one platform. The platform gives you the opportunity to learn various forms of arts like Creative Writing, Photography, Directing, Cooking Techniques, Acting, Music, and much more from an elite list of masters.