Ken Burns


Supported by Greenhaven Road Capital, finding value off the beaten path.

Know that Ken Burns effect on Apple computers? He trades his name for equipment that he then donates to non-profits. But a Mac with the Ken Burns Effect doesn’t make you Ken Burns.


Burns is interesting because he’s looking for things that are true. That’s what we’re all doing. Patrick O’Shaughnessy and David Gardner talked about how investing is like journalism. Many investors point out that writing is a type of thinking.

Whatever the field, being curious about new things is a successful path. Here’s how Burns does it.

First, get the idea. How does Ken Burns pick his projects?  “The flip and glib answer is that I don’t pick them, they pick me.”

After a day of editing a WW2 battle scene Burns went to sleep then, “I woke up and thought, ‘We have to do Vietnam.'”

“I don’t pick subjects because I know about them. I pick subjects because I want to know about them…Everything comes with a blizzard of new things you learn.”

“It’s a gut feeling. It’s the chemistry that happens between friends. You’ve got a lot of ideas — 60, 70 film ideas — but then every once in a while, one drops from your head to your heart and you go, “Gotta do that one.” You sort of add that to the queue, and then it just becomes a matter of finding the bandwidth and figuring out who the collaborators are.”

The common theme to the ideas is their appeal to Burns. He does things that suit him.

“You have to know who you are. There’s a kind of ultimate Socratic thing: Who am I? What am I interested in? What’s my strength? Is this what I’m supposed to be doing?”

“I have no problem starting my day. Coffee is not in my diet. It’s the other way around. I have to figure out how to turn off the machine at the end of my day. That’s my biggest problem. There are lots of things to do and not enough time to do them.”

This raison d’etre created the Ken Burns style. There are eight elements to this. Orally there is the voice of god narrative, the first person voices – like actors reading diaries,  sound effects, and music. Visually it’s live cinematography, live interviews, newsreel footage, and still photos. The idea for using photos came from Burns’s early experience with photography. He wanted to reframe their use. He used the photos to zoom, pan, and animate.

The eight elements aren’t equal. Burns tries to minimize re-enactment sequences. There’s nothing that ruins a battle between fatigued men like a fat soldier. Burns’s Lewis and Clark documentary was four hours long with two minutes of re-enactments.

Once he gets the idea Burns adopts an agnostic curiosity. The Vietnam project – that Burns promoted in 2017 – took ten years to make.

“Most people think American history is just a series of presidential administrations punctuated by wars and that gives you a fairly superficial handle on things. It’s much more complicated than that. The bottom up view that we’ve always tried to adopt delivers you much more complexity and undertow.”

Burns wants true love. He wants people to know the full history. It’s a warts and all approach. It’s not easy. The binary approach of good/bad, won/lost, zero/one is easy but wrong. “It’s completely childish. There’s nothing in life that suggests things are so crystal clear.”

We have to get past what Burns calls the ‘sanitized Madison Avenue perspective.’ There’s irony in history. There are winners with vices and losers with virtues.

Burns tries to “triangulate” to find these stories. Like in navigation, distance helps. The middle east conflicts are too recent to get a good perspective on, says Burns. Time has to pass first, hence his work on Jazz, baseball, prohibition, the national parks, and Vietnam. Time also filters out biases. It reduces our identity footprint.

Of course, biases will remain. “We had no thumb on the scale, we had no ax to grind,” Burns said about the Vietnam project, “Obviously, we’re going to be who we are and try to learn what baggage we brought into it.”

You get past baggage by being curious. You’re curious when you ask a lot of questions. There’s no best question said, Burns. Rather, good listening and following serendipity are the most important facets for gathering facts. “We employed scholars who knew what happened and we were interested in saying what happened. With them come arguments but arguments aren’t the same thing as facts.”

It’s a lot of hard work.

“I’m in a medium people think is glamorous and only a small fraction of it is. It’s mostly a lot of hard work.”

“A lot of people are drawn to film for its apparent glamour and don’t realize it’s really hard work.”

“Once you know what you want, getting it requires perseverance. I’m sure there are a lot of more talented filmmakers than me, with really great ideas, who just haven’t followed through.”

Location helps.

“Plus I don’t live in Los Angeles or New York City. I live in a tiny village in New Hampshire, which permits us to do the deep dives, to do the necessary research and keep the sanity in the course of a 10-plus-year project.”

Once he has the facts he starts the story. This isn’t a recitation of the encyclopedia. “In the stories, I like to tell, the good guys have really serious flaws and the villains are very compelling. My interest is always in complicating things.” Burns is like the sculptor who takes away bit by bit.

“I live in New Hampshire. It takes forty gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. Boil boil boil. Evaporate evaporate evaporate. That’s pretty much what documentary filmmaking is for me.”

Like syrup making, story making is messy.

“I’d like to liberate you from sequential production. That is to say, begin here and do this and do this. You research you write you shoot and you do post production. We never stop researching and we never stop writing.”

“The researching isn’t done by a legion of researchers, it’s done by us. We read the books. We talk about it. Four or five people on any given production. We’re going to the places. We’re finding the facts. We’re writing them down. We’re engaging scholars. It’s a process that never ends.”

Within that cycle, debris jams the gears.

“Every film is a set of millions of problems. I use the word problems not so much pejoratively but as resistances or frictions that you just have to overcome.”

And his team debates what they should do.

“Everybody screws up, including me…It’s a question of process. We’re all going to try something. We can have disagreements that can be passionate, but they’re not loud and vociferous; they’re not personal and angry. There’s a generous spirit of collaboration.”

If these documentaries are different, so what! The Civil War documentary was originally five hours long, one hour for each year. It expanded to eleven. Who is going to watch 11 hours of this? people whispered. Forty million people it turns out. History is wonderful and learning it doesn’t have to “be like Castor Oil” or high school classes.

But don’t try to copy Burns.

“Every working documentary filmmaker I know has gotten there through their own unique path that’s the good news and the terrible news – there is no career path.”

What I liked so much about Burns’s approach is that it’s similar to others we’ve looked at.

  • You are your competitive advantage so there’s no point in imitating.
  • Good things take time.
  • There will be Resistance.
  • There is no playbook.
  • Uncertainty is okay.
  • The journey should be (partially) the reward.
  • Good teams argue well.
  • Biases are omnipresent but we can mitigate them.
  • Tool experts are more important that expert tools.
  • Where you work matters.


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16 thoughts on “Ken Burns”

  1. […] Ken Burns said that he loves living, as Thompson does, away from it all. ” I live in a tiny village in New Hampshire, which permits us to do the deep dives, to do the necessary research and keep the sanity in the course of a 10-plus-year project.” Michael Mauboussin guessed that a smidgen of Warren Buffett’s success is due to being away from New York City. William Thorndike guessed this too, “This distance helped insulate them from the din of Wall Street’s conventional wisdom.” […]


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