What Makes Ken Burns’s Films Unique?

From cutting huge amounts of footage to zooming and panning on still photos, the documentarian explains the techniques that distinguish his films—and why changing them now would be “ridiculous.”
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TRANSCRIPT

Question: Did you attempt any new techniques in “The National Parks”?

Ken Burns: You know, I’m not sure that this need to be new is in fact anything that’s relevant. Some people, some artists their breakthrough is newness. I suppose when I began the coalescing of all of these elements was new, but the point is to be authentic and so I’m not sure we’ve ever thought that we should go and do something new for the sake of being new. That’s actually ridiculous and part of a kind of decadence of a society of an art that always wants to be different thinking that difference was anything better. It’s not necessarily better. The National Parks was essentially the modulation of all the elements that go into our film, but it would unique in so far as the main character would be the live cinematography, the old magnificent parks that we’ve set aside in conjunction with a set of 50 or 60 historical figures who like a Russian novel existed in the foreground in front of that spectacular backdrop and it was our great challenge to figure out how to organize the stories of the 50 or 50 odd people that we introduce you to, knit their narratives together into something that made a coherent narrative all the while having this drama play out in front of I would argue, some of the most beautiful places on earth.

Question: How much footage do you gather for a long film, and how much gets cut?

Ken Burns: You know, I live in New Hampshire. We make maple syrup. It’s takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup, boil, boil, boil, evaporate, evaporate, evaporate. That’s pretty much what documentary filmmaking is for me. It’s about 40 to 1 shooting ratio to footage shot to footage used. It varies in different films on something like “The National Parks.” It’s going to probably be a lot more because you’re spending a lot of time with live cinematography, but for every archival photograph you see we’ve looked at 150 and shot a hundred and you know had that possibility of putting in you know 40 times that much, 50 times that much in any other thing and the cutting room floor as I suggested before is not filled with bad scenes. It’s just scenes that didn’t fit. You remember the movie Amadeus, a wonderful scene where there arrogant Franz Joseph says to Mozart, “Too many notes.” You know there is a truth to that. You just have to figure out what is going and if I showed you scenes taken out of the film you’d think, “What an idiot. He’s lost it. Why would he leave this out?” But it had a destabilizing affect and what you serve is a larger whole.

Question: How did the “Ken Burns Effect” originate?

Ken Burns: Well as I described before I was interested in sort of willing these still photographs alive, to explore them with an energetic camera eye, to not hold them at arm’s length, to bring them alive, to not only look at them and take them apart dynamically and put them back together in good storytelling fashion, but to listen to them and add complex sound effects, to add period music and first person voices that would give you the sense as William Faulkner said… once said that history is not was, but is, that for maybe a fraction of a second you might feel that you are not so much participating, but you could feel what it was like to be there even with a still photograph and all of those complex things and thousands of other things that I haven’t told you about are what now gets reduced to a shorthand called the Ken Burns Effect.

Essentially Steve Jobs called me up six or seven years ago, I guess it was now, and asked me to come out to Cupertino, California. He and some classically nerdy technicians had been working on this thing called… which, their working title was the Ken Burns Effect that allowed people who downloaded photographs to pan, or I mean zoom or pan on them, and they had perfected it and this was November and every Apple computer from then on would have that as its basic software starting that January, and they wanted to keep the name and I said I didn’t do commercial endorsements, but we worked it out where they give me equipment, which I give to nonprofits and I allowed them to use the name. And so all of the sudden it sort of seeps in the consciousness, and the Ken Burns Effect, for anyone who has an Apple computer, is part of the lexicon, and it’s one of those classic examples where the technological tail is wagging the dog of a much more complex thing. But the spirit, Steve’s spirit was exactly right, that we don’t want to have a relationship to images that is just at arm’s length, that we want somehow to penetrate the proscenium as we would say in theater to get beyond the artificiality, the plasticity of imagery into some moment that might have something that we could learn in which one and one would equal three, that if you put this image next to this image the combination of the two would be greater than the two images themselves. That’s the metaphor as I’m suggesting all during this conversation for life, for art, for what we’re here for. It’s what a scientist will tell you they’re after.

Recorded November 25, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen