Kenneth Lauren Burns (born July 29, 1953) is an American filmmaker, known for his style of using archival footage and photographs in documentary films. His widely known documentary series include The Civil War (1990), Baseball (1994), Jazz (2001), The War (2007), The National Parks: America's Best Idea (2009), Prohibition (2011), The Roosevelts (2014), and The Vietnam War (2017). He was also executive producer of both The West (1996, directed by Stephen Ives), and Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies (2015, directed by Barak Goodman).
Burns was born on July 29, 1953, in Brooklyn, New York, the son of Lyla Smith (née Tupper) Burns, a biotechnician, and Robert Kyle Burns, at the time a graduate student in cultural anthropology at Columbia University in Manhattan. The documentary filmmaker Ric Burns is his younger brother.
Burns' academic family moved frequently. Among places they called home were Saint-Véran, France; Newark, Delaware; and Ann Arbor where his father taught at the University of Michigan. Burns' mother was found to have breast cancer when he was three and she died when he was 11, a circumstance that he said helped shape his career; he credited his father-in-law, a psychologist, with a significant insight: "He told me that my whole work was an attempt to make people long gone come back alive." Well-read as a child, he absorbed the family encyclopedia, preferring history to fiction.
Upon receiving an 8 mm film movie camera for his 17th birthday, he shot a documentary about an Ann Arbor factory. He graduated from Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor in 1971. Turning down reduced tuition at the University of Michigan, he attended Hampshire College, an alternative school in Amherst, Massachusetts, where students are graded through narrative evaluations rather than letter grades and where students create self-directed academic concentrations instead of choosing a traditional major. He worked in a record store to pay his tuition. Studying under photographers Jerome Liebling, Elaine Mayes and others, Burns earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in film studies and design in 1975.
In 1976, Burns, Elaine Mayes, and college classmate Roger Sherman founded a production company called Florentine Films in Walpole, New Hampshire. The company's name was borrowed from Mayes' hometown of Florence, Massachusetts. Another Hampshire College student, Buddy Squires, was invited to succeed Mayes as a founding member one year later, and the trio were later joined by a fourth member, Lawrence "Larry" Hott. Hott, who did not actually matriculate at Hampshire, but worked on films there, had begun his career as an attorney, having attended nearby Western New England Law School.
Each member works independently, but release their content under the shared name of Florentine Films. As such, their individual "subsidiary" companies include Ken Burns Media, Sherman Pictures, and Hott Productions. Burns' oldest child, Sarah, is also currently an employee of the company.
Burns worked as a cinematographer for the BBC, Italian television, and others, and in 1977, having completed some documentary short films, he began work on adapting David McCullough's book The Great Bridge, about the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. Developing a signature style of documentary filmmaking in which he "adopted the technique of cutting rapidly from one still picture to another in a fluid, linear fashion [and] then pepped up the visuals with 'first hand' narration gleaned from contemporary writings and recited by top stage and screen actors", he made the feature documentary Brooklyn Bridge (1981), which earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary and ran on PBS in the United States.
Following another documentary, The Shakers: Hands to Work, Hearts to God (1984), Burns was Oscar-nominated again for The Statue of Liberty (1985). Burns frequently collaborates with author and historian Geoffrey Ward, notably on documentaries such as The Civil War, Jazz, Baseball, and the 10 part TV series The Vietnam War (aired September 2017).
Burns has gone on to a long, successful career directing and producing well-received television documentaries and documentary miniseries on subjects as diverse as arts and letters (Thomas Hart Benton, 1988); mass media (Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio, 1991); sports (Baseball, 1994, updated with 10th Inning, 2010); politicians (Thomas Jefferson, 1997); music (Jazz, 2001); literature (Mark Twain, 2001); war (the 15-hour World War II documentary The War, 2007); environmentalism (The National Parks, 2009); and the Civil War (the 11-hour The Civil War, 1990, which All Media Guide says "many consider his 'chef d'oeuvre'").
According to a 2017 piece in the New Yorker, Burns and his company, Florentine Films, have selected topics for documentaries slated for release by 2030. These topics include country music, the Mayo Clinic, Muhammad Ali, Ernest Hemingway, the American Revolution, Lyndon B. Johnson, Barack Obama, Winston Churchill, the American criminal justice system, and African-American history from the Civil War to the Great Migration.
In 1982, Burns married Amy Stechler, with whom he had two daughters, Sarah and Lily; the marriage ended in divorce in 1993. As of 2017, Burns resides in Walpole, New Hampshire, with his second wife, Julie Deborah Brown, whom he married on October 18, 2003. She is the founder of the non-profit Room to Grow which aids soon-to-be parents living in poverty. They have two daughters, Olivia and Willa Burns.
Burns is a descendant of Johannes de Peyster Sr. through Dr. Gerardus Clarkson, an American Revolutionary War physician from Philadelphia, and he is a distant relative of Scottish poet Robert Burns. In 2014 Burns appeared in Henry Louis Gates's Finding Your Roots where he discovered startling news that he is a descendant of a slave owner from the Deep South, in addition to having a lineage which traces back to Colonial Americans of Loyalist allegiance during the American Revolution.
Burns is a longtime supporter of the Democratic Party, with almost $40,000 in political donations. In 2008, the Democratic National Committee chose Burns to produce the introductory video for Senator Edward Kennedy's August 2008 speech to the Democratic National Convention, a video described by Politico as a "Burns-crafted tribute casting him [Kennedy] as the modern Ulysses bringing his party home to port." In August 2009, Kennedy died, and Burns produced a short eulogy video at his funeral. In endorsing Barack Obama for the U.S. presidency in December 2007, Burns compared Obama to Abraham Lincoln. He said he had planned to be a regular contributor to Countdown with Keith Olbermann on Current TV.
The Civil War received more than 40 major film and television awards, including two Emmy Awards, two Grammy Awards (one for Best Traditional Folk Album), the Producer of the Year Award from the Producers Guild of America, a People's Choice Award, a Peabody Award, a duPont-Columbia Award, a D. W. Griffith Award, and the $50,000 Lincoln Prize.
As of 2010, there is a Ken Burns Wing at the Jerome Liebling Center for Film, Photography and Video at Hampshire College.
In 2012, Burns received the Washington University International Humanities Medal. The medal, awarded biennially and accompanied by a cash prize of $25,000, is given to honor a person whose humanistic endeavors in scholarship, journalism, literature, or the arts have made a difference in the world. Past winners include Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk in 2006, journalist Michael Pollan in 2008, and novelist and nonfiction writer Francine Prose in 2010.
In 2013, Burns received the John Steinbeck Award, an award presented annually by Steinbeck's eldest son, Thomas, in collaboration with the John Steinbeck Family Foundation, San Jose State University, and The National Steinbeck Center.
Burns was the Grand Marshal for the 2016 Pasadena Tournament of Roses' Rose Parade on New Year's Day in Pasadena, California. The National Endowment for the Humanities selected Burns to deliver the 2016 Jefferson Lecture, the U.S. federal government's highest honor for achievement in the humanities, on the topic of race in America. In 2016, he also gave a commencement speech for Stanford University criticizing Donald Trump. He was the 2017 recipient of The Nichols-Chancellor's Medal at Vanderbilt University.
Burns frequently incorporates simple musical leitmotifs or melodies. For example, The Civil War features a distinctive violin melody throughout, "Ashokan Farewell", which was performed for the film by its composer, fiddler Jay Ungar. One critic noted, "One of the most memorable things about The Civil War was its haunting, repeated violin melody, whose thin, yearning notes seemed somehow to sum up all the pathos of that great struggle."
Burns often gives life to still photographs by slowly zooming in on subjects of interest and panning from one subject to another. For example, in a photograph of a baseball team, he might slowly pan across the faces of the players and come to rest on the player who is the subject of the narrator. This technique, possible in many professional and home software applications, is termed "The Ken Burns effect" in Apple's iPhoto, iMovie and Final Cut Pro X software applications. Burns stated in a 2009 interview that he initially declined to have his name associated with the software because of his stance to refuse commercial endorsements. However, Apple chief Steve Jobs negotiated to give Burns Apple equipment, which Burns donated to nonprofit organizations.
As a museum retrospective noted, "His PBS specials [are] strikingly out of step with the visual pyrotechnics and frenetic pacing of most reality-based TV programming, relying instead on techniques that are literally decades old, although Burns reintegrates these constituent elements into a wholly new and highly complex textual arrangement."
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