Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The genius of Ken Burns

I've just finished watching the Ken Burns film Thomas Jefferson. In my mind, Mr. Burns is the preiminent historical documentarian. In the special features section of the DVD I found two short films on him and his work. Here are some notable excerpts:

Listen to the photos
One of Mr. Burns' trademarks is taking a still photo and either zooming in or out or panning across it in some way while the viewer hears an audio track. It's now even called the "Ken Burns effect" in filming jargon. There's a whole lesson in just this point on embracing constraints (see a chapter on this in 37signals book). But Burns says he would stare at a photo and "listen to it." He elaborates by saying the trees in the photo had a rustling sound, the boat going by, the people walking and chatting in the background all would have been making sounds. He even goes so far as to ask, "What did the dust sound like?"

Find an emotional connection

My work is not just interested in the dry dates and facts and events of the past, but the emotional archaeology--and I call myself an emotional archaeologist--because we know that's the glue that makes these complex past events stick in our minds and in our hearts and become permanetly a part of who we are now.

This is very similar to the approach author David McCullough takes to his work.

History is

History is, not was. We're never going to change what happened...But the way we engage our questions now about it tell us who we are right now. (now quoting Harry Truman) The only thing really new is the history you don't know.

Meaning accrues
When asked about the length of his films in general and his slow, gliding shots in an era of quick frenetic cuts:

We realize that all meaning accrues in duration. The things that we are all proudest of, the work we've done, the relationships we have, accrue in duration. It's the things we've given our best attention to, and we realize in the end the only thing we have is our attention.

No comments: