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Ken Burns Brings History to Life on Film


Award-winning documentary filmmaker Ken Burns has made American history come alive on film, and revived the public's interest in the often-forgotten human details of the nation's past. VOA's Andrew Baroch profiles the 54-year old cinematographer, director, and producer.

Ken Burns describes himself as "an emotional archaeologist… uninterested in excavating dry dates and facts and events of the past, more curious about larger issues."

The award-winning cinematographer, director, and producer of historical documentaries has made American history come alive on film, and revived the public's interest in the often-forgotten human details of the nation's past.

His most recent work, a miniseries about World War Two, simply titled The War, was broadcast on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) here in the United States. Commenting on the numbing enormity of the death toll of the war, (nearly 60 million people), Burns says he tried to bring the statistics down to a human level, "in which we realize that every one of those numbers had a mother."

So he told the story he says the only truthful way he could: from the soldier's point of view, which he says can be "…distilled into a few declarative sentences: 'I was scared. I was bored. I was hot. I was cold. I don't think my officers knew what they were doing. They didn't give me the right equipment. I saw bad things. I did bad things. I lost good friends.'"

Burns says he hopes The War can help to dispel what he believes are often misleading depictions or half-truths about war that have appeared in similar documentaries, which he says tend to focus on the more dramatic, sensational aspects of war, documentaries that even appear to glorify the Nazi war machine and ensuing battles. "The viewer can't help but be drawn to these incredibly existential moments of battle," Burns says. "Or the guns that did the damage with technological force, or the Nazis who in the end, were just the enemy. We were interested in a more personal story."

Telling that personal story has been Ken Burns' personal mission for three decades, along the way garnering him, his brother, his wife, and others who worked with him, many of the most prestigious awards for documentary filmmaking.

Burns' signature documentary film technique (known popularly as the "Ken Burns Effect") uses the camera in a special way, bringing archival still photos to life. Now copied by others in his field, the technique is to slowly zoom in on subjects of interests in the photograph, then pan from one subject to another. "Zooming and panning," wrote one film analyst, "simulate the feeling of motion and keep the viewer visually entertained."

Burns' overall approach to documentary films is to blend period photographs, works of art, film, music, and authentic sound effects with authoritative yet understated narration.

Burns' work is encyclopedic and exhaustive. His most-acclaimed work, the 11-hour miniseries, The Civil War, which aired on PBS in 1990, took longer to make than its subject, the American Civil War, which raged from 1861 to 1865. Burns shot 16,000 photographs from some 160 archives and used 3000 of the photos in the final version. Nearly 40 million Americans watched the series.

Some of Burns' other work has been more overtly celebratory: an epic story about the American sport of baseball, for instance; a cinematic survey of the roots of jazz; a look back at the exploration of the American northwest in the early 19th century. There have also been biographies: a close-up view of the lives of America's third President, Thomas Jefferson, as well as 19th century feminists.

Ironically, Ken Burns' first full-length documentaries, airing on PBS in the early 1980's, were about architecture, not about people. The Brooklyn Bridge, for example, was the story of the world's largest steel-wire, vehicular suspension bridge, built in the late 19th century. But Burns told the story in his signature style, in people terms: how engineers overcame construction obstacles, how workers performed heroically, with nearly 30 men losing their lives, and how the bridge still stands as a monument to the spirit of American know-how, pride, and achievement.

Much the same can be said in praise of Ken Burns. Decades ago, the Brooklyn-born teenager was given his first camera by his father to make a documentary for a high school project. In 1975, after graduating from Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, where he studied film and design, Burns and some friends formed their own film production company and immediately set out to make history-based documentaries.

Now, Burns is making history, himself, almost single-handedly reviving Americans' interest in their past. Ken Burns uses his picture-making machine and myriad special techniques to tell us the plain truth about the role of real people in history. He has touched our emotions and dignified the human spirit.

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