Ken Burns on Why His Formula for a Great Story Is 1+1=3

From The Civil War to Jazz, Ken Burns's sweeping documentary series have brought American history to life for millions of viewers. His signature style is so well known that Apple's iMovie has a function -- a slow zoom on a still image -- called "the Ken Burns effect." For a documentary filmmaker, it's hard to imagine a more intimidating project than making a documentary film about Ken Burns. When Sarah Klein and Tom Mason set out explore the mysterious nature of story, however, they decided to do just that. In their beautiful short documentary, Ken Burns: On Story, premiering here today, the filmmaker shares insights into the craft of storytelling and reveals his highly personal quest to "wake the dead." Klein and Mason talk about the genesis of the project in an interview below. 

The Atlantic: What inspired you to explore storytelling as a topic for this film?

Sarah Klein and Tom Mason: Everyone loves a great story. Stories teach us things, move us emotionally, and form the basis of the way we understand the world. As filmmakers, we’ve been telling stories for a while now -- but at a certain point we realized that it’s actually really hard to explain what makes a good story. We know it when we see it, but the recipe always proves elusive. Ken Burns has been telling incredible stories for decades, and we thought that if anyone would have a thoughtful perspective on this, it’d be him. So this project started as our own exploration to figure out what that magic dust is that brings his stories to life.

It takes guts to make a documentary about one of documentary cinema’s most iconic filmmakers. How did you approach it?

We were definitely nervous about it. Ken Burns has defined documentary for our whole lives. We both remember sitting with our families watching The Civil War series in awe. We came to this project with a lot of questions and very little idea where they’d lead. He was incredibly patient, and brought his own curiosity and open mind to the conversation about how he tells stories and why. The first time we sent him a cut, we both poured a couple glasses of bourbon and crossed our fingers. Luckily, he liked it. 

What was the postproduction process like?

The was definitely a moment where we sat down with his interview and no other visual material and wondered what the hell we had gotten ourselves into. These lofty concepts like 1+1=3 and story as an act of manipulation don’t present b-roll opportunities very readily. So we cut the interview together into a rough sequence and then wrestled with each visual black hole. 

Stylistically, we knew we had to work with lots of archive, but wanted to do it in a way that paid tribute to his style while creating its own perspective and identity as a film. We worked with Elliot Cowan who did a lot of work on the stills in After Effects, and worked really hard on the music and sound design. Our composer Ryan Sayward Whittier did some of his best work ever on this piece.

Redglass has done a number of great short-form videos for the web, like Sub City New York, Sub City Parisand Miracle on 22nd Streetto name a couple. Do you see high quality short videos, and documentaries in particular, becoming more popular online? How do you see the format evolving?

We both have seen a really big evolution in online documentaries in the past five years. We come from a feature documentary background, but a few years ago we started making shorter pieces for a series of museum installations and loved the cut-to-the-chase feel of them. It wasn't until we had our short Miracle on 22nd Street up on the front page of The New York Times that we realized the real power that documentaries can have online and the desire the public has to watch them. The short reached millions of people, and in some cases actually seemed to inspire people to be kinder and more thoughtful. It was a wonderful payoff.

That being said, the model for funding is much different. We love that we can make creative pieces that connect immediately with a broader audience and get exposure, but it’s hard to make a living doing short online docs. We are starting to see some higher-end sponsored content out there, and we’re hoping that it continues to grow.

What's next for you?

That's always the big question! Aside from our more commercial projects, we are planning on expanding the On Story idea into a series. We'd love to talk to people who craft narratives in many different ways -- a political strategist crafting a campaign message -- a trial lawyer persuading a jury -- even a chef preparing a meal. We still have lots of questions about story, and would love to keep exploring them from really different angles.

For more films by Redglass Pictures, visit http://redglasspictures.com/.

Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg is the executive producer for video at The AtlanticMore

Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg joined The Atlantic in 2011 to launch its video channel and, in 2013, create its in-house video production department. She leads the development and production of original documentaries, interviews, and other video content for The Atlantic. Previously, she worked as a producer at Al Gore’s Current TV and as a content strategist and documentary producer in San Francisco. She studied filmmaking and digital media at Harvard University.

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