The Ken Burns Way

As a master documentary filmmaker of series that can take years to make and days to watch, Ken Burns knows a thing or two about conquering a massive creative project. In a recent interview with Fast Company he shares his approach to long-term creative undertakings. Here are four of our favorite lessons on adopting "the Ken Burns way."



The amount of work required for the lengthy endeavors Ken Burns takes on can be enormous. Losing steam and becoming overwhelmed are common hurdles with any extensive project, but the way you see challenges along the way can make all the difference.

In making a film, particularly a big, long series like The Roosevelts, there are literally millions of problems,” says Burns. “But I don’t see problems in the pejorative sense; I see them as things to be figured out and worked out in the course of the many years, in this case, that it took us to make this film.


When researching and gathering material for a project, Burns often looks beyond the obvious and pursues subjects that diverge from his main subject. What might seem irrelevant at first could be just the source you need to tell the story you're crafting.

As much as 50% might not be specifically the Roosevelts—it might be New York City in 1910 or 1914, or this or that,” he says. “Because you’re trying to evoke the age and the era in which they took place. So you’re constantly looking in different places. It’s a detective thing.
  Filmmaker Ken Burns editing  The Civil War    (Photo: Cori Wells Braun)

Filmmaker Ken Burns editing The Civil War (Photo: Cori Wells Braun)


Preparing for a creative marathon usually involves planning. Outlining a strategy to navigate your way through the hilltops and valleys can be essential to seeing a project through. But while plans are often necessary, being flexible to change can also be vital.

The dynamics of any scene, of any one act within an episode, are in constant flux all the time,” says Burns. “That’s what good storytelling is; it’s about the sort of calibration of that. We had originally planned six episodes and at one point through the richness of materials we’d collected, we had to change the goalpost of the last episode and make it into two. So we then had to look for the ‘out’ of episode six, and the ‘in’ of this newly created episode seven.
  First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt speaking with a child in 1935 (Photo:   CORBIS)

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt speaking with a child in 1935 (Photo: CORBIS)


Working on creative projects, large and small, can generate a ton of material. It's easy to find yourself digging your way out of too many ideas, notes, lists, places to start. Editing is hard. It requires decisions and letting go. But at the end of the day, editing is what makes a story.

It’s difficult deciding on what’s essential to the story and what isn’t. I think that’s what I do for a living,” says Burns. “As you write whatever you’re writing, you struggle with more raw material than you have space or time, or more importantly an audience has interest in. And so you will then do what I do every day of my life which is edit and cut and figure out how to have that complexity survive in the service of very challenging narratives, but not have too many notes.
Telling a story is editing. When your significant other says, “Honey, how was your day?” You don’t say, “I backed slowly down the driveway, avoiding the garbage can at the curb . . . You cut to the chase, you tell stories, you edit. That’s what human beings do.

We're currently watching our way through The National Parks and reliving our recent National Park hop. The Roosevelts is next up on our documentary watching queue.

h/t Fast Company