‘Igniting Imagination:’ Q&A with Ken Burns
By Julian Danziger, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Thursday, October 11, 2012
Editor’s Note: This week, five members of The Dartmouth Arts and Entertainment Staff sat down with the featured guests in this Friday’s “Igniting Imagination,” who will be returning to campus to celebrate the Hopkins Center’s 50th Anniversary. Actor and comedian Aisha Tyler ’92 will host the multimedia show, which will include special appearances by actor and singer Jennifer Leigh Warren ’77, singer Michael Odokara-Okigbo ’12, actor and comedian Rachel Dratch ’88 and filmmaker Ken Burns, an honorary member of the Class of 1993. The spectacle, produced by College Gospel Choir director Walt Cunningham and the Hopkins Center’s Director of Student Performances Joshua Kol ’93, will assemble a cast of more than 250 Dartmouth students, faculty and alumni performers this weekend in Spaulding Auditorium.
Q: Can you tell me a little about how you got into documentary making?
A: I studied and majored in film production and design at Hampshire College. That’s what I wanted to do — I’ve known since I was 12 that I wanted to be a filmmaker. I’ve made documentary films. I have always had a passion and interest in history, it’s just untutored and untrained, all my life. Histories and non-fiction biographies and things like that, and it became pretty interesting that my chance to prove myself as a senior at Hampshire was producing a film for Old Sturbridge Village, a living history museum, and I think at that point the film bug and the history bug sort of fused, like a nuclear reaction.
Q: Has history always been your main source of inspiration for documentaries or have there been other sources?
A: I think that the word “history” is mostly made up of the word “story.” Story is, in essence, the DNA of how human beings talk to one another and how they communicate, and so story has been a huge party of it.
Q: What do you consider to be your favorite documentary?
A: I’m the parent of four daughters, and I would be a horrible father if I loved one more than the other — so I love them equally. Some are more famous, like the “Civil War” (1990), or “Baseball” (1994), some have earned more money, but I don’t think parents judge their kids on that sort of success. Or at least good parents don’t. So I have films that I love equally.
Q: What are the preparations that go into the research and planning of your documentaries?
A: I think the biggest thing that we do is that we never stop researching and never stop planning. For most production companies, there is a finite research and planning period. Then, you sort of assume you know everything you need to know, and then you write a script and the script is sort of etched in stone, and that’s it. And we never stop researching, so while the research is extensive it’s ongoing, it never stops. That also makes the writing much more flexible. It’s possible to add and subtract even at the last moment of editing. There’s a huge amount of work that we do — it’s an extraordinarily exciting detective story, tracking down the individuals we might interview, tracking down the sources of footage, tracking down the hundreds of archives for each film, for the still photographs that we need to tell the story. And like maple syrup production that we do here in New Hampshire, it takes 40 gallons of sap to get one gallon of syrup. We also have to collect way, way more in order to get the critical mass necessary to tell the story.
Q: “Baseball” was almost 19 hours long. Because of their length, are the editing processes very different for your documentaries than a two-hour feature film?
A: It’s actually not, and that’s what makes these major series so complicated and complex. The idea of length just has to do with subjects, and for me the criticism we get for a big long series like “Baseball,” “Jazz” (2000), “The Civil War” is always about what we left out. If you talk to a baseball fan who is asking about where their favorite World Series is or their favorite player is, 18 and a half hours is never enough.
Q: Have you ever made a documentary about something that you knew nothing about before researching it?
A: Baseball was something I thought I knew something about, although I quickly had to disabuse myself of that when I realized three weeks in that in fact I didn’t know, and that’s it. What I’d rather do is be excited about the possibility of something and dive in and then come to you and share with you the process of discovery. “Hey, look what I just learned!” is a lot better than, “This is what you should know, and there will be a quiz next week.”
Q: You’ve actually created a panning and zooming technique on imagery that’s been dubbed the “Ken Burns Effect.” Can you tell me a little about how that came about?
A: It’s the tail wagging the dog. Apple has an application in iPhoto and iMovie that allows you do pan and zoom across photographs. It’s an elemental version of what I’ve done for years trying to make photographs come alive. It’s nothing special — it’s just attention to the detail. It’s trusting the photograph, that a static image once had a past and a future. You can tilt, you can pan, you can isolate details and try to help will that photograph alive. There’s also a significant oral component to it in which you can have the photograph and try to add the appropriate sound effects and bring it alive. Although that’s different than what you can do on every computer. Steve Jobs and I were joking about it as a way for them to label what has saved a lot of people’s wedding, vacation or bar mitzvah pictures.
Q: What advice would you give to college students interested in film or history?
A: My advice is pretty simple and will sound like they are platitudes, only because they are simple and incredibly difficult. One is, filmmaking is very popular and attracts a lot of people because of the glamour. It’s extraordinarily hard work. You have to question yourself all the time — is this what I want to do? Is there something I want to say? And there’s no shame in saying, I don’t think I do. I think I want to do something else. Because there are so many good ideas and there are so many good filmmakers and so few dollars to do that, it requires an extraordinary amount of perseverance and patience to get it done. So I’m sorry to say my best advice is know yourself and persevere.