Ken Burns

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Ken Burns
Burns in 2018
Kenneth Lauren Burns

(1953-07-29) July 29, 1953 (age 66)
Alma materHampshire College
Years active1970–present
Notable work
Political partyDemocratic
  • Amy Stechler Burns
    (m. 1982; div. 1993)
  • Julie Deborah Brown (m. 2003)

Kenneth Lauren Burns[1] (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), The Vietnam War (2017), and Country Music (2019). 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).[2]

Burns' documentaries have earned two Academy Award nominations (for 1981's Brooklyn Bridge and 1985's The Statue of Liberty)[3][4] and have won several Emmy Awards, among other honors.[5]

Early life and education

Burns was born on July 29, 1953,[1] in Brooklyn, New York, the son of Lyla Smith (née Tupper) Burns,[6] a biotechnician,[7] and Robert Kyle Burns, at the time a graduate student in cultural anthropology at Columbia University in Manhattan. [6] The documentary filmmaker Ric Burns is his younger brother.[8][9]

Burns' academic family moved frequently. Among places they called home were Saint-Véran, France; Newark, Delaware; and Ann Arbor, Michigan, where his father taught at the University of Michigan.[7] Burns' mother was found to have breast cancer when he was three, and she died when he was 11,[7] 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."[7] 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.[10] Turning down reduced tuition at the University of Michigan, he attended Hampshire College 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.[7] He worked in a record store to pay his tuition. Living on as little as $2,500 in two years in Walpole, New Hampshire,[11] Burns studied under photographers Jerome Liebling, Elaine Mayes, and others. He earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in film studies and design[12] in 1975.[7]

Florentine Films

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.[13][14] The trio were later joined by a fourth member, Lawrence "Larry" Hott. Hott did not actually matriculate at Hampshire, but worked on films there. Hott had begun his career as an attorney, having attended nearby Western New England Law School.[13]

Each member works independently, but releases content under the shared name of Florentine Films.[15] 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.[16]


Burns speaks at the Library of Congress in 2019

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.[12] 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",[17] Burns made the feature documentary Brooklyn Bridge (1981)[18], which was narrated by David McCullough, and 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 C. 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 built a long, successful career directing and producing well-received television documentaries and documentary miniseries. His oeuvre covers diverse subjects including art (Thomas Hart Benton, 1988), mass media (Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio, 1991), sports (Baseball, 1994, updated with 10th Inning, 2010), political history (Thomas Jefferson, 1997), music (Jazz, 2001), literature (Mark Twain, 2001), environmentalism (The National Parks, 2009), and war (the 15-hour World War II documentary The War, 2007; the 11-hour The Civil War, 1990, which All Media Guide says "many consider his 'chef d'oeuvre'").[17]

In 2007, Burns made an agreement with PBS to produce work for the network well into the next decade.[19] 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.[20]

Personal life

In 1982, Burns married Amy Stechler. The couple had two daughters, Sarah and Lilly.[21][12] Their marriage ended in divorce in 1993.

As of 2017, Burns was residing in Walpole, New Hampshire, with his second wife, Julie Deborah Brown,[22] 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.[22] They have two daughters, Olivia and Willa Burns.

Since 1994 Burns has owned a summer house on Lake Sunapee, New Hampshire.[20]

Burns is a descendant of Johannes de Peyster Sr. through Gerardus Clarkson, an American Revolutionary War physician from Philadelphia, and he is a distant relative of Scottish poet Robert Burns.[23][24] 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.[25]

Burns is an avid quilt collector. Approximately one-third of the quilts from his personal collection were displayed at The International Quilt Study Center & Museum at the University of Nebraska from January 19 to May 13, 2018.[26]


Burns is a longtime supporter of the Democratic Party, contributing almost $40,000 in political donations.[27] 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."[28][29] 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.[30] He said he had planned to be a regular contributor to Countdown with Keith Olbermann on Current TV.[31] In 2016, he also gave a commencement speech for Stanford University criticizing Donald Trump.[32][33]

Awards and honors

Burns with the Peabody Award for The Central Park Five in 2014

Altogether Burns work has garnered several awards, including two Oscar nominations, two Grammy Awards and 15 Emmy Awards.[18]

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.[36][37][38]

In 2004, Burns received the S. Roger Horchow Award for Greatest Public Service by a Private Citizen, an award given out annually by Jefferson Awards.[39]

In 2008 Burns was honored by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences with a Lifetime Achievement Award.[18]

In 2010, the National Parks Conservation Association honored him and Dayton Duncan with the Robin W. Winks Award for Enhancing Public Understanding of National Parks. The award recognizes an individual or organization that has effectively communicated the values of the National Park System to the American public.[40] As of 2010, there is a Ken Burns Wing at the Jerome Liebling Center for Film, Photography and Video at Hampshire College.[41]

In 2012, Burns received the Washington University International Humanities Medal.[42] 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.[43]

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.[44]

Burns was the Grand Marshal for the 2016 Pasadena Tournament of Roses' Rose Parade on New Year's Day in Pasadena, California.[45] 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.[46] He was the 2017 recipient of The Nichols-Chancellor's Medal at Vanderbilt University.[47]

In 2019, he received an honorary degree from Brown University. [48]


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."[49]

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. It has long been used in film production where it is known as the "rostrum camera". 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.[50]

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."[12]

In a 2011 interview, Burns stated that he admires and is influenced by filmmaker Errol Morris.[51]


Conversation with Ken Burns about The Vietnam War. Video by the LBJ Library
Future releases
  • Ernest Hemingway (2021, with Lynn Novick)[67]
  • Ali (2021, with Sarah Burns and David McMahon)[68]
  • The Holocaust & the United States (working title) (2021, with Lynn Novick)[69]
  • Benjamin Franklin (2022)[70]
  • Stand-up Comedy (TBA)[71]
Short films
  • William Segal (1992)[72]
  • Vezelay (1996)[73]
  • In the Marketplace (2000)
As an executive producer
  • The West (1996) (directed by Stephen Ives)[74]
  • Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies (2015)[2] (directed by Barak Goodman)
  • Walden (short, 2017) (directed by Erik Ewers and Christopher Loren Ewers)[75]
  • Country Music: Live at the Ryman, a Concert Celebrating the Film by Ken Burns (2019) (directed by Don Carr)[76]
  • College Behind Bars (2019) (directed by Lynn Novick)[77]
  • East Lake Meadows: A Public Housing Story (2020) (directed by Sarah Burns and David McMahon)[78]
  • The Gene: An Intimate History (2020) (directed by Chris Durrance and Jack Youngelson)[79]
As an actor


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Listed as "Kenneth Lauren Burns".


  1. ^ a b "Ken Burns Biography (1953–)". Retrieved August 19, 2011.
  2. ^ a b Genzlinger, Neil (March 27, 2015). "Review: In 'Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies,' Battling an Opportunistic Killer". The New York Times. The New York Times Company. Retrieved March 31, 2015.
  3. ^ "Documentary Winners: 1982 Oscars". YouTube. Retrieved August 13, 2019.
  4. ^ "Broken Rainbow Wins Documentary Feature: 1986 Oscars". YouTube. Retrieved August 13, 2019.
  5. ^ "About the filmmakers". Retrieved July 12, 2017.
  6. ^ a b "Ken Burns". Encyclopedia of World Biography via n.d.
  7. ^ a b c d e f Walsh, Joan (n.d.). "Good Eye: The Interview With Ken Burns". San Francisco Focus. KQED via Archived from the original on September 22, 2011.
  8. ^ "Ken Burns". biography at n.d. Archived from the original on May 17, 2016.
  9. ^ Wadler, Joyce (November 17, 1999). "PUBLIC LIVES; No Civil War, but a Brotherly Indifference". The New York Times. Retrieved November 4, 2016.
  10. ^ Ann Arbor Public Schools Educational Foundation, [1] (accessed October 29, 2013, recovered from Internet Archive).
  11. ^ "The Online Communicator: Ken Burns". Retrieved May 6, 2019.
  12. ^ a b c d Edgerton, Gary (n.d.). "Burns, Ken: U.S. Documentary Film Maker". The Museum of Broadcast Communications. Archived from the original on June 29, 2011.
  13. ^ a b "The Florentine Four: Ken Burns and Partners Look Back on 30 Years of Documentary Production". International Documentary Association. Retrieved September 19, 2017.
  14. ^ "Outstanding Documentary Achievement in Cinematography Award: The Visual Poet: Buddy Squires". International Documentary Association. Retrieved September 19, 2017.
  15. ^ "Florentine Films - Burns, Hott, Sherman & Squires". Retrieved September 18, 2017.
  16. ^ "The Filmmakers - Ken Burns". Ken Burns. Retrieved September 19, 2017.
  17. ^ a b Erickson, Hal. "Ken Burns biography". All Media Guide / Baseline / The New York Times. Retrieved September 22, 2011.. This single source gives two birthplaces. Under the header list, it reads "Birthplace: Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA." In the prose biography, it reads "Brooklyn-born Ken Burns..."
  18. ^ a b c MasterClass. "Academy Award Nominated and Emmy Winner Ken Burns Joins MasterClass to Teach Documentary Filmmaking". Retrieved December 5, 2019.
  19. ^ "Ken Burns | Biography, Documentaries, & Facts". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved August 8, 2019.
  20. ^ a b Parker, Ian (September 4, 2017). "Ken Burns's American Canon". The New Yorker. Retrieved October 5, 2017.
  21. ^ "Lilly Burns". Retrieved July 9, 2019.
  22. ^ a b "Weddings/Celebrations; Julie Brown, Ken Burns". The New York Times. October 19, 2003. Archived from the original on October 5, 2011.
  23. ^ Stated on Finding Your Roots, PBS, October 7, 2014
  24. ^ "Nerding Out with Ken Burns & Rebranding Marijuana". Public Radio International.
  25. ^ Whitall, Susan (September 23, 2014). "Henry Louis Gates probes celebs' origins on PBS". The Detroit News. Retrieved August 26, 2015.
  26. ^ "'Uncovered: The Ken Burns Collection' Opens". International Quilt Study Center & Museum. January 8, 2018. Archived from the original on May 3, 2018. Retrieved February 17, 2019.
  27. ^ "Ken Burns's Federal Campaign Contribution Report". Newsmeat. Archived from the original on August 15, 2011.
  28. ^ M.E. Sprengelmeyer (August 24, 2008). "Filmmaker Ken Burns behind documentary tribute to Sen. Ted Kennedy". Rocky Mountain News. Archived from the original on May 3, 2012. Retrieved August 26, 2009.
  29. ^ Rogers, David (August 26, 2008). "Ailing Kennedy: 'The dream lives on'". Politico. Retrieved June 19, 2011.
  30. ^ MacGillis, Alec (December 18, 2007). "Ken Burns Compares Obama to Lincoln". The Washington Post. Retrieved June 19, 2011.
  31. ^ Guthrie, Marisa (May 11, 2011). "Michael Moore to Be a Contributor on Keith Olbermann's New Show". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved June 19, 2011.
  32. ^ Gladnick, P. J. (June 12, 2016). "Prepared text of the 2016 Stanford Commencement address by Ken Burns". Stanford News. Retrieved July 19, 2018.
  33. ^ "Filmmaker Ken Burns destroys Donald Trump during Stanford Speech". Film Industry Network. June 13, 2016.
  34. ^ 1982|
  35. ^ 1986|
  36. ^ The Civil War, retrieved September 19, 2017
  37. ^ "Nonesuch Records The Civil War [Soundtrack]". Retrieved September 19, 2017.
  38. ^ "About the Series | The Civil War | PBS". Retrieved September 19, 2017.
  39. ^ "National Winners | public service awards". Jefferson Archived from the original on November 24, 2010. Retrieved December 25, 2013.
  40. ^ "Awards and Recognition". National Parks Conservation Association.
  41. ^ "Hampshire College – The Ken Burns Wing". Kuhn Riddle Architects. 2010. Archived from the original on September 22, 2011.
  42. ^ "Ken Burns Recognized for Epic Contributions to the Humanities", Washington Magazine, February 2013.
  43. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on September 30, 2015.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  44. ^ "Ken Burns to Receive Steinbeck Award". SJSU News. Retrieved December 25, 2013.
  45. ^ Cormaci, Carol (November 10, 2015). "Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns named 2016 Rose Parade grand marshal". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved March 12, 2016.
  46. ^ Manly, Lorne (January 18, 2016). "Ken Burns to Discuss Race in Jefferson Lecture". The New York Times. Retrieved March 12, 2016.
  47. ^ Patterson, Jim. "Follow the better angels of their nature, grads are told". Vanderbilt University.
  48. ^ [2]
  49. ^ Kamiya, Gary (n.d.). "Shame and Glory: The West holds a mirror before the double face of a nation". Archived from the original on April 13, 2009.
  50. ^ Allen, Austin. "Big Think Interview with Ken Burns". Big Think. Retrieved April 23, 2014.
  51. ^ Bragg, Meredith; Gillespie, Nick (October 3, 2011). "Ken Burns on PBS Funding, Being a 'Yellow-Dog Democrat,' & Missing Walter Cronkite". Reason. Archived from the original on May 3, 2012.
  52. ^ Frank Lloyd Wright, retrieved December 5, 2019
  53. ^ "Not for Ourselves Alone. JMMH video review". Retrieved December 5, 2019.
  54. ^ "Home | Ken Burns". Jazz. Retrieved December 5, 2019.
  55. ^ "Home | Ken Burns". Horatio's Drive. Retrieved December 5, 2019.
  56. ^ "Home | Ken Burns". Unforgivable Blackness. Retrieved December 5, 2019.
  57. ^ "Prohibition". 2011. Archived from the original on May 3, 2012.
  58. ^ "Ken Burns Seeking Dustbowl Stories". OETA. Archived from the original on September 6, 2011. Retrieved August 19, 2011.
  59. ^ a b "Introduction". n.d. Archived from the original on January 2, 2013.
  60. ^ The World Premiere of Yosemite: A Gathering of Spirit Archived October 23, 2013, at the Wayback Machine, Yosemite Conservancy Retrieved October 21, 2013.
  61. ^ "Q&A: Ken Burns Discusses His New Documentary, The Address". National Geographic News. April 5, 2014. Retrieved December 5, 2019.
  62. ^ Moore, Frazier (September 10, 2014). "PBS' 'The Roosevelts' portrays an epic threesome". AP News. Retrieved September 10, 2014.
  63. ^ Cladwell, Evita (May 14, 2014). "Filmmaker Ken Burns discusses upcoming projects, Wash U commencement speech, more". St. Louis Public Radio. Retrieved August 26, 2015.
  64. ^ "Defying the Nazis: The Sharps' War; A new film directed by Ken Burns and Artemis Joukowsky". Retrieved September 16, 2016.
  65. ^ "Vietnam". Ken Burns media. August 26, 2015.
  66. ^ "Upcoming Films". Ken Burns Media, LLC. Retrieved July 6, 2017.
  67. ^ "Ernest Hemingway". Ken Burns Media, LLC. Retrieved July 6, 2017.
  68. ^ "Ali". Ken Burns. Ken Burns Media, LLC. Retrieved February 26, 2020.
  69. ^ "The Holocaust & the United States". Ken Burns. Ken Burns Media, LLC. Retrieved February 26, 2020.
  70. ^ "Benjamin Franklin". Ken Burns. Ken Burns Media, LLC. Retrieved February 26, 2020.
  71. ^ Gilbert, Josh (May 18, 2015). "Filmmaker Ken Burns joined The Carney Show to chat about the only documentaries you actually want to see". KTRS. Archived from the original on October 3, 2015.
  72. ^ Jensen, Elizabeth (July 29, 2010). "PBS to Show Ken Burns Films on William Segal". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved December 5, 2019.
  73. ^ "The Accidental Historian: Ken Burns Mines America's Past". International Documentary Association. December 10, 2002. Retrieved December 5, 2019.
  74. ^ "PBS - THE WEST - Stephen Ives". Retrieved December 5, 2019.
  75. ^ "Walden". ewers brothers production. Retrieved February 26, 2020.
  76. ^ "Country Music: Live at the Ryman DVD". Public Broadcasting Service. Retrieved February 26, 2020.
  77. ^ College Behind Bars|PBS
  78. ^ "East Lake Meadows". Ken Burns. Ken Burns Media, LLC. Retrieved February 26, 2020.
  79. ^ Morgan, Jillian (February 19, 2020). "PBS sets April air date for Ken Burns documentary on human genetics". Realscreen. Brunico Communications Ltd. Retrieved February 26, 2020.
  80. ^ "Part I: My experience on set of the movie "Gettysburg"". National Museum of American History. October 17, 2012. Retrieved December 5, 2019.

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