Why Should Ken Burns Get to Have All the Fun?

By Brian Comfort, Ph.D. Candidate, Department of History

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Grumbling can often be heard emanating from various history departments around the country about the power that documentary filmmaker Ken Burns wields over public perceptions of history and how he wields that power. After all, his extraordinarily popular documentaries on subjects as diverse as the Civil War, jazz, baseball and legendary prizefighter Jack Johnson reach a few more folks than your average or even highly regarded monograph from a respected academic publisher. The Civil War reached 40 million viewers on PBS in its initial run. That’s Michael Jackson Thriller territory, whereas we historians would gladly settle for some airplay on local radio and a couple of CDs sold from the trunk of a car. Stephen Ambrose was quoted as saying, “More Americans get their history from Ken Burns than any other source.” And that continues to be the case as the number of viewers of his documentaries has soared past 100 million.

There has been plenty of discussion as to whether Burns is qualified to be Our National Historian. Burns has no specific academic training in history, as he was a film studies and design major down the road at Hampshire College and never had to endure rituals of public humiliation like oral comprehensive exams and doctoral dissertation proposals and defenses. I will leave that debate to others.

As my new friend and colleague Michael Van Wagenen pointed out on more than one occasion recently, perhaps we historians should take Burns to task not because of his academic credentialing but for aesthetic reasons: how many more slow pans over static photographs do we really need in historical documentary films? The technique is so ubiquitous in Burns’ films that the video editing software iMovie even names a special effect that creates this slow pan over a still photograph the “Ken Burns effect.”

Underlying this critique was another challenge that Van Wagenen threw down this past May to six historians at the inaugural Visual History Summer Institute (VHSI) at Georgia Southern University: why aren’t more academically trained historians presenting their research on film? Why are formally trained historians relegated to on-screen talking heads or critics lobbing missiles from the outside rather than primary creative forces in a medium that, as Burns has shown — whether you agree with his accuracy/conclusions/approach or not — has the potential to be engaging, captivating and widely accessible?

I had the good fortune of engaging with these questions, as well as other ones like what is an f stop and is a boom microphone better than a lavalier mic, at the VHSI this past May with the generous assistance of the “Hands On” Grant from the History Department. Van Wagenen, Assistant Professor of History at Georgia Southern who received his PhD from the University of Utah but also had a previous, and occasionally concurrent, life as a filmmaker, created and ran the VHSI, bringing together historians from tenured professors to grad students to public historians to one recent college graduate and former student of his. Each one of us students had a project or project idea that we were going to work on at the VHSI (you can read more about some of the fascinating work of my VHSI colleagues here, with the added bonus of also being able to see a particularly flattering picture of me). I was hoping to develop a short documentary film (see the exciting trailer here!) I have been working on about a man building a castle in the mountains of Colorado into a feature-length documentary. This man will also be the subject of one chapter of my dissertation.

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At the VHSI, I was excited to explore ways that I can bring into the film historical forces like de-industrialization and the degradation of labor that often operate invisibly and thus are hard to present visually. And I wanted to figure out how I can marry these twin interests of film and history in a manner that won’t give short shrift to either. One of the knocks on Burns is that he makes compelling movies that may be light on the really hard historical questions; some historical documentaries that may offer penetrating historical analysis might be pretty boring as movies. This doesn’t have to be the case.

We started our two weeks discussing our various projects and exploring the ways in which documentary film is both well- and ill-suited to telling historically rigorous stories. The very first day of the institute saw us talking about film and history from eight in the morning until past ten at night, well after the dinner plates were cleared. We began to refer to it as boot camp and the pace kept up for the next two weeks. We shifted from theoretical and critical concerns to the more practical realities of making a movie, from pitching concepts to fundraising to effective writing and research strategies. Clearly, money is one of the factors that keep more historians from embracing films as a means of getting their stories out there. It is a very real and forbidding obstacle, amplified by a different “Ken Burns effect” that tends to concentrate the small pool of money available for large-scale, big-budget documentaries into the hands of a few well established filmmakers. But it is also becoming easier to navigate with the advent of digital technology (my phone takes video of a quality that is nearly equivalent to that of some $50,000 cameras of 15 years ago) and the changing media landscape that offers myriads of opportunities outside of traditional movie and television industry channels for getting work out to a broad public at minimal costs.

Then it was on to the meat of the institution and another very real barrier that keeps historians from taking up filmmaking: the technical aspects of making movies. From lighting to camera operation to capturing high quality sound to editing all this into a coherent product with computer software, the technical challenges of filmmaking are vast. All of these components of making a film are much easier to mangle than to do well. It is another language in many ways, and you can get bogged down into endless technical details that leave your eyes blurry and a soft aching feeling in your temple, a very familiar feeling the two weeks I was in Georgia. But these challenges can also be fun and in some ways are no different than other research skills we may undertake as historians, such as learning another language or using computer-assisted research technologies. Yes, it’s work to learn these things, but it is not some secret alchemical magic that only movie wizards can practice. Even historians can learn to operate a camera or a boom mic. I know; I am doing it, and I am by no means technologically savvy. I was greatly aided in this by the VHSI and the great technical instructors Van Wagenen put together: Ryan Noble of Spring Hill College and Jason Knowles of Georgia Southern.

The culminating experience of the VHSI was breaking into two groups, where each group conceptualized, filmed, recorded audio, and edited short book commercials for Georgia Southern historians with forthcoming monographs. We got to put all we had been taught together in a very real way, and under deadline pressure. There was a long day of filming under the beating Savannah sun, marathon editing sessions, discoveries of missing necessary pieces, discoveries of small gems of visual nuance or the interviewee putting it just right — all in a collaborative environment where each of us got the chance to work the sound or the camera or the lighting, and got to see the ways in which we did things differently and what worked and what didn’t.

Though all my questions were not answered, the VHSI did make me confident that it is very worthwhile to keep asking these questions and to keep trying to figure out ways to incorporate filmmaking into my historical research and production. I also discovered that there are other, smart people out there grappling with similar ideas and some really fascinating historical projects waiting to be told on film. I also learned that filmmaking can be really fun, so why should we leave it all to Ken Burns?

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