Settle in, because there is going to be a week of Ken Burns here at Doc Soup. Burns’s seven-part series, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History is premiering Sunday night and will be airing for the next week. After doing a deep dive with Burns for a Kindle Singles Interview, I’ve had a series of epiphanies about the significance of his oeuvre, some of which I am going to spell out here in a series of posts.
I’ve already issued my manifesto removing the asterisk from his name, and putting him, in my opinion, in the elite circle of greatest documentarians of all time—without qualification. Now, let’s get into why.
It starts with a misperception. It would be easy to think of the two dozen films by Burns as mere stitchings together of photographs and talking heads using that nifty pan-and-zoom that comes pre-loaded on your Mac.
But Apple’s “Ken Burns Effect” is a codification of his work that diminishes him. “I don’t want to be pejorative about it,” Burns told me. “It does what it’s supposed to do. I have saved millions of bar mitzvahs and weddings and vacations. But it’s a very superficial version of a very honorable attempt on my part to will old photographs alive.”
What Burns does is go beyond the two-dimensionality of a photograph by going “into its world and to trust that that world had a past and a present,” he said. “And to activate it. And to be the feature filmmaker with a master shot, a wide shot, a medium shot, a close shot, a pan, a tilt, a reveal, inserts of shots.”
I think this is really well exemplified in the second episode of The Roosevelts, which airs Monday night, with a remarkable photograph of two beatific, smiling girls. The camera then pans to show a nearby Theodore Roosevelt in a sweep that speaks volumes. It tells of the moment, but it resonates with the power of the first celebrity president. It speaks of the common American in relation to the political elite, and so much more. It’s Ken Burns at his best.
He’s a master. And forever more, when a photograph appears in a film, it will somehow be framed by Burns. And this also applies to the newer iterations of photographic effects. Consider the brilliant application of Adobe After Effects in countless commercials and in The Kid Stays in the Picture, where photographs were animated to attain three-dimensionality. Burns made the way for those images.
But the Ken Burns Effect is just one element. When speaking about his work, Burns reduces the filmmaking process to eight elements: four visual, four oral. Photographs, news reels, interviews and live cinematography; and then, first-person narration, third-person narration, music and sound effects. Using these elements, each film is calibrated differently.
“They are techniques,” he told me. “And if you apply them authentically, you have a style.”
As any filmmaker should, Burns aspires to creating a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. “We are always looking for that,” he says. “And that is something mysterious. Instead of mere illustration, you do something that is more. You do. And I do. We want something more.”
He’s achieved it in that photograph of the girls and Roosevelt. Look for it and other instances throughout the week. In the comments below, let me know which are your favorites.
The Roosevelts: An Intimate History begins Sunday, September 14, 2014, on PBS stations. “Ken Burns: The Kindle Singles Interview” by Tom Roston is now available at Amazon.com.
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