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Kenneth Lauren "Ken" Burns (born July 29, 1953) is an American director and producer of documentary films known for his style of making use of archival footage and photographs. Among his most notable productions are The Civil War (1990), Baseball (1994), Jazz (2001), The War (2007), and The National Parks: America's Best Idea (2009).

Burns's documentaries have been nominated for two Academy Awards (Brooklyn Bridge in 1982 and The Statue of Liberty in 1986) and have won seven Emmy Awards, mostly from The Civil War and Baseball.

Personal life[]

Burns was born in Brooklyn, New York, the son of Lyla (née Tupper), a homemaker, and Robert Kyle Burns, an anthropology professor.[1] Burns's brother, Ric Burns, is also a noted documentary filmmaker. Burns graduated from Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1971. He earned his Bachelor of Arts degree from Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts in 1975, and went on to be one of the co-founders of Florentine Films.[2] The recipient of more than 20 honorary degrees, Burns is a sought-after public speaker, appearing at colleges, civic organizations and business groups throughout the country. He resides in Walpole, New Hampshire with his wife, Julie.

Burns is a longtime supporter of the Democratic Party, with almost $40,000 in political donations.[3] In 2008, the Democratic National Committee chose Burns to produce the introductory video for Senator Edward Kennedy's August 2008 speech to the Democratic National Convention.[4]


Burns has served as chief cinematographer on many of his documentaries, thus playing a crucial role in shaping the overall looks of the works. A key visual trait is the photographing of live-action material (such as old houses, or battlefield locations) during the low sunlight of dawn or dusk. As a result, much of the original filmed material in a typical Ken Burns documentary contains a distinctive orange ethereal coloring.[citation needed]

Burns is also a frequent user of simple musical leitmotiffs. For example, his acclaimed The Civil War features a distinctive violin melody throughout ("Ashokan Farewell" by Jay Ungar). In a review of Burns's work, the online journal noted "One of the most memorable things about The Civil War was its haunting, repeated violin melody, whose thin, yearning notes seemed somehow to sum up all the pathos of that great struggle."[5]

In a common technique among makers of documentaries on subjects where principally still material is available, Burns often gives life to still photographs by slowly zooming in on subjects of interest and panning from one subject to another. For example, in a photograph of a baseball team, he might slowly pan across the faces of the players and come to rest on the player the narrator is discussing.

This effect, present in many professional and home software applications, was affectionately named "The Ken Burns Effect" in Apple Inc.'s iPhoto and iMovie (Both for Mac and iPhone) software applications. It also figures in the 6th-generation iPod interface in the cover art of the main menu.

Of Burns's many film series, The Civil War is generally considered to be his masterpiece. It is narrated by Pulitzer Prize-winning author David McCullough, with Burns serving as director, producer, co-writer, chief cinematographer, music director and executive producer. The series has been honored with more than 40 major film and television awards, including two Emmy Awards, two Grammy Awards, the Producer of the Year Award from the Producers Guild of America, a People's Choice Award, a Peabody Award, a duPont-Columbia Award, a D.W. Griffith Award, and the $50,000 Lincoln Prize, among dozens of others. The nine episodes explore the Civil War through personal stories and photos. During the creation of the movie Burns filmed thousands of archived photographs. The Civil War has been seen by more than 40 million people.

The War, 15 hours in length and seven years in the making, tells the story of the Second World War from the personal perspective of the men and women from four geographically distributed American towns: Waterbury, CT; Mobile, AL; Sacramento, CA; and Luverne, MN. Airing in the fall of 2007, it was the most watched series in the last ten years on PBS. 117 PBS stations across the nation participated in some form of community outreach (local documentaries, screenings, workshops, etc.) and nearly 30,000 educator guides went to every high school in the country.

The National Parks: America's Best Idea was a 2009 documentary initially broadcast on PBS that explored the history of America's national parks, along with in-depth views of the people who helped create and influence the parks and park policies.[6] Like his previous most prominent films, The National Parks was very well received.[7]


  • Brooklyn Bridge (1981)
  • The Shakers: Hands to Work, Hearts to God (1984)
  • The Statue of Liberty (1985)
  • Huey Long (1985)
  • The Congress (1988)
  • Thomas Hart Benton (1988)
  • The Civil War (1990)
  • Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio (1991)
  • Baseball (1994, 2010)
  • Thomas Jefferson (1997)
  • Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery (1997)
  • Frank Lloyd Wright (1998)
  • Not For Ourselves Alone: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony (1999)
  • Jazz (2001)
  • Mark Twain (2001)
  • Horatio's Drive: America's First Road Trip (2003)
  • Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson (2005)
  • The War (2007)
  • The National Parks: America's Best Idea (2009)
  • Baseball: The Tenth Inning (2010)
  • Prohibition (2011)[8]
  • The Dust Bowl (scheduled for 2012)[9]

Under Burns's name only

  • The West (1996) (Executive Producer, Directed by Stephen Ives)

Short Films

  • William Segal (Biography) (1992)
  • Vezelay (1996)
  • In the Marketplace (2000)

Film Roles

Culture references[]

Ken Burns's prolific output (especially its documentary length and exhaustive nature) has often been subject to satire in popular media.

  • An episode of the 1990s HBO sketch comedy series "Mr. Show" featured a video mockumentary entitled "The Civil War: The Reenactments", a parody of Burns's The Civil War.
  • In an episode of The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius where Jimmy and his friends travel to Egypt, his classmates are watching a "97 hour-long documentary about Egypt by Ken Burns."
  • In The Simpsons episode "Pray Anything", Homer inadvertently watches a documentary by, about, and named for Ken Burns due to his inability to find his television remote. In the Episode The Color Yellow, it is implied that Burns and his brother Ric are related to Montgomery Burns.
  • Mystery Science Theater 3000 Episode 0805 The Thing That Couldn't Die segment four: Crow T. Robot produces a Civil War documentary, at once elaborate and hastily thrown together. Reminded that Ken Burns has already made a Civil War documentary, he states: "Oh, but was it about the Civil War?"[10]
  • In the season 3 of 8 Simple Rules episode "The Sleepover", a TV commercial is heard advertising "Ken Burns on Ken Burns, a nine-disc set."


External links[]

Template:Ken Burns films

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