The Ken Burns Effect


Ken Burns is responsible for dozens of distinguished historical documentary films, most famously The Civil War (1990) and most recently The Vietnam War, a 10-part series co-directed with Lynn Novick that will air on PBS in September. One characteristic of these films is zooming in and out of and panning across archival photographs. The device is so striking that it’s come to be known as “the Ken Burns effect”— not only informally but officially in Apple editing programs like iMovie and Final Cut Pro.

Burns himself is a bit bemused by the immortality he’s achieved through the technique. “I don’t want to be pejorative about it,” he said in a 2012 interview with a PBS blog. “It does what it’s supposed to do. I have saved millions of bar mitzvahs, weddings, and vacations. But it’s a very superficial version of a very honorable attempt on my part to will old photographs alive.”

And, of course, Ken Burns documentaries — and those of his many followers on PBS and elsewhere — do not consist of the Ken Burns effect alone. They characteristically have most or all of these additional elements:

  • Archival film footage and audio recordings.
  • Present-day testimony from talking heads who are experts on and (if it’s relatively recent) participants in the period or incident. The quintessential expert was Shelby Foote of The Civil War. The quintessential participant was Buck O’Neil of Baseball. The interviews are highly “produced,” with consistent and artful lighting, backgrounds, and camera angles.
  • A small amount of present-day cinematography — for example, showing a Civil War site, to the accompaniment of …
  • Contemporary music in the style of the period.
  • Voice-over narration by a well-known actor of a very historically solid script.
  • Other actors’ recitations of historical documents, such as letters and diary entries.
  • Sound effects.

The list might seem long and inevitable. But in fact it eschews a variety of tools that would help the School of Burns (SOB) tell their stories. And it’s slightly odd.

One aspect of the oddness is the last element on the list. Burns is in every other way scrupulous in his allegiance to accuracy. He would never think of having actors “recreate” past events — a common feature not only of the cheesier cable true-crime docs, but of lauded films like Standing in the Shadow of Motown and Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line. So why would he consent to goose archival photos and silent newsreels with fake sound effects? Writing about Frank Lloyd Wright, Michael Sorkin observed, “The sound of hammering over every shot of construction drove me nuts.” I felt the same way about The Great War, a recent SOB PBS series that larded its shots and footage of World War I battles with piped in gunshots and explosions.

The notion of Burns neglecting useful devices first struck me while I was watching Baseball, and the word “curveball” popped into my head. That pitch is an essential part of the history of the game, and film offers a great opportunity to show how it works — say, through animation or showing a pitcher throwing one in super-slow motion. But no: Burns was locked into his toolbox. I had a similar thought in connection with Jazz: After the mention of a seminal performance by, say, Louis Armstrong, it would have been cool to see and hear some contemporary players break it down. Nothing doing.

One obvious element is missing from The Great War. There’s nobody around to talk to who participated in the war. But surely there exist some interviews of veterans from the 1920s onward that would have shed light on the experience of battle. If so, they are nowhere to be found in the film. Not part of the Burns style.

I bring up these ideas not to argue not that they should necessarily have been included in theses documentaries, merely to observe that a strong style has over the years become constricting and limiting. A minor example is the chyron — the words superimposed on interview subjects (usually over their stomachs) to identify them. Probably to maintain the purity of the look, the School of Burns insists on a minimalist approach. Thus, in The Great War, we see and hear a distinguished gent musing about the meaning of the war, and the only thing you see on his stomach is “Richard Slotkin, Historian.” I’m not asking for his whole CV. But wouldn’t it be useful for readers (as well as reasonable compensation to Slotkin, for lending his services to the enterprise) to note that he’s the author of Lost Battalions: The Great War and the Crisis of American Nationality? The convention reaches absurd proportions in The Great War when another talking head, Dan Carlin, is identified only as “Podcast Producer.” Going to Google, I find that Carlin is creator, writer, and host of Hardcore History, a prize-winning podcast that has run for 10 years and offered several episodes on World War I.

(The funniest use of a chyron is a scene in Woody Allen’s mockumentary Take the Money and Run. The words over the chest of one interviewee are “STANLEY KRIM (Cretin).”)

To add insult to injury, even the Great War website doesn’t list the credentials or in fact the identities of the authorities interviewed on camera. So in Lingua Franca’s small attempt to address the omission, here are new and improved chyrons for the Great War‘s extraordinary lineup of talking heads:

Chad Williams, author, Torchbearers of Democracy: African American Soldiers in the World War I Era
Margaret MacMillan, author, The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914
A. Scott Berg, author, Wilson
Richard Rubin, author, The Last of the Doughboys: The Forgotten Generation and Their Forgotten World War
David M. Kennedy, author, Over Here: The First World War and American Society
Jennifer D. Keene, author, The United States and the First World War
Christopher Capozzola, author, Uncle Sam Wants You: World War I and the Making of the Modern American Citizen
Adriane Lentz-Smith, author, Freedom Struggles: African Americans and World War I
Jay Winter, editor, The Great War and the Twentieth Century
Andrew Carroll, editor, War Letters: Extraordinary Correspondence From American Wars
Kimberly Jensen, author, Mobilizing Minerva: American Women in the First World War
Nancy K. Bristow, author, American Pandemic: The Lost Worlds of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic
Michael Kazin, author, War Against War: The American Fight for Peace, 1914-1918
John Horne, author, Labour at War: France and Britain, 1914-1918
John M. Cooper Jr., author, Breaking the Heart of the World: Woodrow Wilson and the Fight for the League of Nations
Edward A. Gutiérrez, author, Doughboys on the Great War: How American Soldiers Viewed Their Military Experience





Return to Top