Self-Motivation
David Goggins
Former Navy Seal
Career Development
Bryan Cranston
Actor
Critical Thinking
Liv Boeree
International Poker Champion
Emotional Intelligence
Amaryllis Fox
Former CIA Clandestine Operative
Management
Chris Hadfield
Retired Canadian Astronaut & Author
Learn
from the world's big
thinkers
Start Learning

Ken Burns: Historian, Filmmaker, Both?

Question: What drew you to history and filmmaking? 

\r\n

Ken Burns: Well first and foremost I’m a filmmaker. I don’t know whether I’ve ever formally trained in history. I mean the last time I took a course in American history was eleventh grade when they hold a gun to your head make you take it. I’ve always wanted to be a filmmaker for almost as long as I can remember. My mother died of cancer when I was 11. There wasn’t a moment when I wasn’t aware that she was dying. After she died my father who had a very strict curfew for me and my younger brother would forgive it if there was a movie late at night on TV, even on a school night that might go to 2 a.m. and I remember watching my father cry a couple of years after my mother died. He hadn’t cried at her funeral and I realized how much power there was in this world of filmmaking and I became convinced that I was going to be the next John Ford or Alfred Hitchcock or Howard Hawks. Those are old American movie directors and I went to college assuming that that would be the case, but all of my teachers at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts in the fall of 1971 were social documentary, still photographers who reminded me, I think quite correctly, that there is much more drama in what is and what was than anything the human imagination makes up, and it’s only later that I realized that what I wanted to do was about American history, but it’s completely- un-completely, untrained and untutored.

\r\n

Question: Which filmmakers were among your early role models?

\r\n

Ken Burns: Well I… You know I remember being obviously very impressed with the **** cinéma vérité movement. There was so much energy in it and that would be John Marshall and Frederick Wiseman I guess would be the chief purveyors, Ricky Leacock. The ancient tradition of documentary goes back to Flaherty and one always absorbs his thing. I particularly like a British director named John Grierson whose Night Mail is one of my favorite films, a kind of more composed and formalistic documentary for the BBC. Perry Miller Adato made a film in the ‘70s about Gertrude Stein called When This You See, Remember Me that used actors to read on camera the words of the people, the characters in this biography of Gertrude Stein, and I was really fascinated and in some way my pioneering use of first-person voices to compliment a third-person narrator was born in the inspiration I found in her very completely different work, but nonetheless very seminal and influential to me, but you know Orson Welles, the French New Wave, Antonioni. I think particularly my two favorite directors or three favorite directors, if I had to do that, would be Kurosawa, Bonneuil, and Buster Keaton, and not necessarily in that order.

Recorded November 25, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen

The documentarian last took a formal history class in 11th grade, "when they hold a gun to your head." But as a passionate student of film, he soon became drawn by the human dramas of the past.

LIVE ON MONDAY | "Lights, camera, activism!" with Judith Light

Join multiple Tony and Emmy Award-winning actress Judith Light live on Big Think at 2 pm ET on Monday.

Big Think LIVE

Add event to calendar

AppleGoogleOffice 365OutlookOutlook.comYahoo

Keep reading Show less

The mind-blowing science of black holes

What we know about black holes is both fascinating and scary.

Videos
  • When it comes to black holes, science simultaneously knows so much and so little, which is why they are so fascinating. Focusing on what we do know, this group of astronomers, educators, and physicists share some of the most incredible facts about the powerful and mysterious objects.
  • A black hole is so massive that light (and anything else it swallows) can't escape, says Bill Nye. You can't see a black hole, theoretical physicists Michio Kaku and Christophe Galfard explain, because it is too dark. What you can see, however, is the distortion of light around it caused by its extreme gravity.
  • Explaining one unsettling concept from astrophysics called spaghettification, astronomer Michelle Thaller says that "If you got close to a black hole there would be tides over your body that small that would rip you apart into basically a strand of spaghetti that would fall down the black hole."

Space travel could create language unintelligible to people on Earth

A new study looks at what would happen to human language on a long journey to other star systems.

Credit: NASA Ames Research Center.
Surprising Science
  • A new study proposes that language could change dramatically on long space voyages.
  • Spacefaring people might lose the ability to understand the people of Earth.
  • This scenario is of particular concern for potential "generation ships".
Keep reading Show less

Scientists see 'rarest event ever recorded' in search for dark matter

The team caught a glimpse of a process that takes 18,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years.

Image source: Pixabay
Surprising Science
  • In Italy, a team of scientists is using a highly sophisticated detector to hunt for dark matter.
  • The team observed an ultra-rare particle interaction that reveals the half-life of a xenon-124 atom to be 18 sextillion years.
  • The half-life of a process is how long it takes for half of the radioactive nuclei present in a sample to decay.
Keep reading Show less

Your emotions are the new hot commodity — and there’s an app for that

Many of the most popular apps are about self-improvement.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Personal Growth

Emotions are the newest hot commodity, and we can't get enough.

Keep reading Show less
Quantcast