The digital revolution has made filmmaking technologies available to the masses. But the idea that it makes us all artists, says Ken Burns, is “bullshit.”
Question: How have technological advances changed your filmmaking?
Ken Burns: In the 35 years that I have been sort of professionally making films the technological change has been enormous. We have resisted it as much as possible. We didn’t move to digital editing for 10 or 15 years after most of my colleagues had done so. We liked the tactile feel of cutting film, of taping it together and I did not begrudgingly move to it. It’s helpful in so many ways, digital editing, but I did so out of concern for the interns, the unpaid interns who came because for a long while during the nineties it was sort of a badge of honor for them to learn how to use rewinds and editing machines, analogue editing machines, but after awhile I realized that asking these interns to do this was like asking someone who wanted to be a racecar driver to first learn how to shoe a horse and it was just too anachronistic and so we sort of came into the twenty-first century. We still shoot on film though. Though it’s been proven to me by George Lucas personally that there is no difference that I could tell we still sort of love the discipline of film, the terror. We’ve been speaking now for almost an hour with a tape that didn’t need to be changed and 60 millimeter you have to change every eleven and a half minutes and it’s very expensive. It’s not reusable. You could decide, probably decide that this is a completely worthless conversation and erase it and start over on the memory card, but you can’t do that in film and that creates a kind of urgency, a kind of terror in a good sense of that word, which we still like. We like to feel you know like we have to sit up straight and be on the edge of our seats to try to get something out of the person we’re interviewing or the person or the scene that we’re shooting or the archive that we’re engaged in. That’s an exciting process. So we’ve both resisted it and reluctantly welcomed new technological change.
You know it’s often said that the digital revolution that puts a TV camera in everyone’s hands makes everyone a filmmaker. It’s bullshit. It’s bullshit. What makes someone a filmmaker is somebody who knows how to tell a story and telling a story… I’ll tell you I’ve been doing this for a long time, almost 40 years that I’ve been trying to tell stories with film and I still feel like a student. I still feel like I’m learning what a good story is or how to tell a story or a new way to approach a story and that means that it requires a kind of lifetime of devotion. It isn’t enough just to be there when something happens. It isn’t enough just to record whatever happens. We have to be storytellers and it’s just logical that only a few of us are going to be able to do that and even do it in sort of flawed ways. I don’t consider myself that great a storyteller. I’m learning. I’m learning. I’m learning.
Recorded November 25, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen