Ken Burns is so famous for making historical documentaries that bring American history to life that there’s a video production effect named after a technique he pioneered. The "Ken Burns Effect"—the technique of zooming and slow-panning over an image that might be well over a hundred years old—is one of the hallmarks of the man’s visual storytelling style.
It’s also something that he didn’t need to use much for his newest documentary for PBS, the network that’s been the home of much of Burns’s work in his 30-plus year career. That’s a bit of a surprise, because on the surface, that film—The Address, which celebrates the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address—is very much in keeping with Burns’s other work. While, at 90 minutes, it’s much shorter than his 19-hour documentaries detailing the stories of Baseball and Jazz, fans could be forgiven for assuming that The Address will recount the story of the battle of Gettysburg and the subsequent great speech given by President Lincoln.
That’s not what The Address does, though. Instead, the film focuses on the words of that speech, and the boys who attend Putney, Vermont’s tiny Greenwood School. For the past 35 years, the boys, aged 11 to 17, who live with a variety of learning challenges, have been required to memorize and recite the words of the Gettysburg Address—and Burns turns off the Effect and largely abandons his familiar form of filmmaking in favor of a style that he refers to as almost cinema verite as he tells the story of the boys at the school.
But for Burns, a story is a story, and the things that go into a 14-hour history of World War II and a 90-minute verite documentary about boys learning to deliver a famous speech don’t change much when you look at it through that lens. Here are Burns’s subject-spanning tips for storytelling:
"The elements of storytelling are always the same," Burns explains. "You’re just drawn to a good story, whether a small one or a big one. This one just caught my fancy—I wept at the inspirational efforts of the boys in the film. I had to do it, so we hunkered down and embedded with the boys."
Burns wasn’t necessarily seeking the opportunity to make a verite-style documentary when he found the Greenwood School—but he didn’t shy away from it, either. The first thing was finding a story that he felt he had to tell.
"This is not my style, but I’m not completely unfamiliar with it—I experimented with it in school 40 years ago," he laughs. "It was a very steep learning curve, but the elements of a good story are there in whatever form they arrive in." The elements that Burns found in The Address included some heady themes—the way Americans claim to celebrate individuality, but also marginalize people with learning differences like the Greenwood boys; the way that people yearn for community through the shared experience of memorizing and reciting a given speech or song—as well as characters who inspired him to tell their story.
Burns has spent most of his career telling stories that document the distant past, and he recognizes that The Address has some surface similarities to those films. "At its center, the context is the United States and the Civil War, Lincoln, the greatest battle ever fought on U.S. soil," he says. "But the struggle of the kids is so inspirational that it transcended any didactic aspect that may be present. I think it’s really just working with the materials that you have, and learning how to tell the best story, and responding."
To that end, Burns says that storytelling isn’t so much a process of arriving at a previously determined end, but about an investigation of the material.
"These things evolve over the course of the project, and they involve that sense of intensive purpose that wasn’t there in the beginning—if it were, it’d have been self-imposed. What I want to do is share with the audience the process of discovery, which we love," Burns explains. "How long that scene can last, the voices of six of the boys as narrators. We had 320 hours of material, which we had to winnow down to 90 minutes."
"There’s always conflict and tension between characters," Burns says, stressing the way that even a documentary filmmaker can focus on things like the development of a character and the poetics of a character. That’s something that may seem intuitive to a storyteller whose medium is, say, a novel or a narrative screenplay, but it’s true of anyone. He cites examples from The Address that continue to resonate with him: "You follow Ned, who wants the coin [that each student receives upon completing the address], and is frustrated that Geo will memorize it before he does—he’s disappointed, and has a sulk, but then he learns it, qualifies, and hits it out of the park. Geo can memorize it early, but he has oral language-based issues that he has to deal with. There’s tall Max, who can do it, but he’s terrified of public speaking, and he’s not sure he can do it. Ian comes from a bullying situation..."
The point, Burns says, is that every story has characters—it’s just a matter of letting them breathe and tell their stories. "You have all of the elements of the progress of characters," he says. "You have the drama of ‘who will do it, who will not,’ and all of these things that go into a good story, specifically. It’s not so much that you manipulate the story to focus on that, but as you’re winnowing it down, these rise to the surface like cream."
There was one moment that Burns captured on camera that he knew was one of the most compelling and dramatic things that occurred during the making of The Address—and he left it on the floor as he was editing.
"If I told you what it was, you’d say, ‘Burns! What’s wrong with you?’ But I couldn’t do that—these are children, and I couldn’t be sure that they wouldn’t be adversely affected by it, so I feel good about the decision to leave it on the table," he says. Ultimately, for Burns, telling the story the way he felt it needed to be told was more important than capturing every moment of drama to squeeze every moment of conflict out of the material. That’s what makes a Ken Burns film a Ken Burns film—and using your own moral compass, taste, and aesthetics as a guiding light is what can help any storyteller find a voice.
In The Address, Burns balances the classical structures with a lot of playfulness—things that he hasn’t always had the opportunity to depict in his other films. "It’s an extra element," he says. "These are boys, and like all boys, they do funny things, and stupid things like run outside without their shirts on, or tussle with each other, or trap each other in the gym mats. I loved feeling liberated enough in this film to balance those with the more serious moments."
Ultimately, for Burns, The Address is of a piece with his other work because it is still bringing life to history—it’s just that this time, he’s doing it while making himself invisible as a filmmaker, rather than using a device like the ongoing spoken narration that defined some of his other films.
"My job is to wake the dead," Burns says. "That’s what I do for a living. I knew with this film that I was in different territory, but storytelling is storytelling. It’s different in some regards, but the same in the structure of storytelling."
[Images courtesy of PBS]