Follow TV Tropes


Creator / Ken Burns

Go To
A portrait of the man just after having his head shaved.note 

"History isn't really about the past – settling old scores. It's about defining the present and who we are."

Kenneth Lauren Burns (born July 29, 1953 in Brooklyn, New York) is a popular and influential American documentary filmmaker known for his explorations of US history. Since the 1980s, he and his production company, Florentine Films, have created more than a dozen documentary miniseries for PBS, including The Civil War (1990), Baseball (1994), Frank Lloyd Wright (1998), Jazz (2001), The War (2007), The National Parks (2009), Prohibition (2011), The Dust Bowl (2012), The Roosevelts (2014), and The Vietnam War (2017).

His documentaries are known for their unique style, including a visual technique first made famous with The Civil War and now known as The Ken Burns Effect (though Burns himself has gone on record stating that he didn't actually invent the eponymous effect, crediting the National Film Board of Canada documentary City of Gold as his inspiration). He also employs distinctive musical scores, such as the upbeat string arrangements of The War or the folk waltz "Ashokan Farewell", which was played over twenty times during The Civil War (though it was first used in 1985's Huey Long). Among the well-known musicians who have contributed music to Burns' films are the likes of jazzman Wynton Marsalis, singer-songwriter Norah Jones, and Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails. His projects have also been able to attract some very esteemed actors to do voice over work, usually reading contemporary diaries and letters (The Civil War, for instance, featured Laurence Fishburne, Morgan Freeman, Julie Harris, Jeremy Irons, Jason Robards, and Sam Waterston among others, while other films have used heavyweights such as Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep). His go-to narrators have included notables such as David McCullough (The Civil War), Keith David (The War and Muhammad Ali), and Peter Coyote (most of Burns' films from the past decade or so). Another trademark is that a character will usually state their name and sometimes the year they wrote their thoughts. Burns has become well-known in the documentary world as a result, and many other filmmakers have emulated his style.

In later years Burns has collaborated with documentarian Lynn Novick, who has been producing his documentaries since Frank Lloyd Wright and was co-director with Burns of The War, The Vietnam War, and three episodes of Prohibition. Other frequent collaborators are historian and writer Geoffrey W. Ward (who has scripted many of Burns' documentaries as well as written their companion books) and Burns' own brother Ric, who has also made documentaries of his own in a style similar to his brother's, including "The Donner Party" episode of The American Experience.

Ken Burns also had a cameo in Gettysburg, as a Union officer who asks General Hancock to get off his horse as Hancock rides along the line to inspire his terrified men.

  • Brooklyn Bridge (1981): His first documentary, about the conception and construction of the Bridge and the people involved.
  • The Shakers: Hands to Work, Hearts to God (1984)
  • The Statue of Liberty (1985)
  • Huey Long (1985)
  • Thomas Hart Benton (1988)
  • The Civil War (1990): Burns' first miniseries-style doc, covering the American Civil War in exhausting, often gruesome detail. A huge success that earned what was then the highest Nielsen ratings in PBS history.
  • Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio (1991): The story of the development of American radio broadcasting, and the contentious relationship between the people who created it.
  • Baseball (1994): His second miniseries-doc, exploring the history of Baseball from its origins to the early 1990s.
  • The West (1996)
  • Thomas Jefferson (1997)
  • Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery (1997): The story of the first journey by Americans across the North American continent.
  • Frank Lloyd Wright (1998)
  • Not for Ourselves Alone: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony (1999)
  • Jazz (2001): A (limited) history of Jazz music.
  • Mark Twain (2001)
  • Horatio's Drive: America's First Road Trip (2003): The story of the first journey across the United States by automobile.
  • Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson (2005)
  • The War (2007): A history of World War II, which was criticized for its intentionally limited scope (focusing on the American role in the war, and more specifically on four small-to-midsize American towns/cities).
  • The National Parks: America's Best Idea (2009)
  • The Tenth Inning (2010): A follow-up to Baseball covering the years since that documentary's release.
  • Prohibition (2011): A history of the Prohibition of alcohol in the United States, including the origins of the movement and its lingering effects. Based heavily on Last Call by Daniel Okrent.
  • The Dust Bowl (2012): A tragic remembrance of America's greatest environmental disaster.
  • The Central Park Five (2012)
  • Yosemite (2013)
  • The Address (2013): Schoolchildren memorize Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, 150 years after it was originally recited.
  • The Roosevelts: An Intimate History (2014): Chronicling the history of Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Eleanor Roosevelt from Theodore's birth to Eleanor's death, including their personal and political lives and the influence they had on America and the world.
  • Jackie Robinson (2015): A two-part spinoff of Baseball, focusing on the life and career of Jackie Robinson, who broke Major League Baseball's color barrier in 1947.
  • The Vietnam War (2017): Darker and Edgier, not to mention Bloodier and Gorier, than his other wartime documentaries, this miniseries chronicles The Vietnam War in detail even more excruciating than that shown in The Civil War and The War.
  • The Mayo Clinic: Faith, Hope, Science (2018)
  • Country Music (2019)
  • Ernest Hemingway (2020)
  • Muhammad Ali (2021)
  • Benjamin Franklin (2022)
  • The U.S. and the Holocaust (2022)
  • The American Buffalo (2023)