Ken Burns

For other people named Kenneth Burns, see Kenneth Burns (disambiguation).
Ken Burns

Burns in September 2007
Born Kenneth Lauren Burns
(1953-07-29) July 29, 1953
Brooklyn, New York, U.S.
Residence Walpole, New Hampshire, U.S.
Alma mater Hampshire College
Occupation Filmmaker
Years active 1981–present
Spouse(s) Amy Stechler Burns (m. 1982–93)
Julie Deborah Brown (m. 2003)
Children 4

Kenneth Lauren "Ken" Burns[1] (born July 29, 1953)[1] is an American filmmaker, known for his style of using archival footage and photographs in documentary films. His most widely known documentaries are The Civil War (1990), Baseball (1994), Jazz (2001), The War (2007), The National Parks: America's Best Idea (2009), Prohibition (2011), The Central Park Five (2012), and The Roosevelts (2014). 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 been nominated for two Academy Awards and have won Emmy Awards, among other honors.

Early life and education

Burns was born on July 29, 1953 in Brooklyn, New York, the son of Lyla Smith (née Tupper) Burns,[3] a biotechnician,[4] and Robert Kyle Burns, at the time a graduate student in cultural anthropology at Columbia University in Manhattan.[3] The documentary filmmaker Ric Burns is his younger brother.[5][6] He is a distant relative of Scottish poet Robert Burns.[7][8]

Burns's 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.[4] Burns's mother was found to have breast cancer when Burns was 3 and died when he was 11,[4] a circumstance that he said helped shape his career; he credited his father-in-law, a psychologist, with a signal insight: "He told me that my whole work was an attempt to make people long gone come back alive."[4] 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.[9] 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.[4] He worked in a record store to pay his tuition.[4]

Studying under photographers Jerome Liebling and Elaine Mayes and others, Burns earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in film studies and design[10] in 1975.


Burns at the LBJ Presidential Library in 2016

Upon graduation, he, Mayes and college classmate Roger Sherman founded Florentine Films in Walpole, New Hampshire. The company's name was borrowed from Mayes' hometown of Florence, Massachusetts. Another Hampshire College graduate Buddy Squires subsequently succeeded Mayes one year later in 1976.[11] 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.[10] 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",[12] 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 went 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'").[12]

Personal life

In 1982, Burns married Amy Stechler, with whom he had two daughters, Sarah and Lily;[10] the marriage ended in divorce. As of 2011, Burns resides in Walpole, New Hampshire, with his second wife, Julie Deborah Brown,[13] whom he married on October 18, 2003.[13] They have two daughters, Olivia and Willa 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 lineage tracing back to Colonial Americans of Loyalist allegiance during the American Revolution. [14]


Burns is a longtime supporter of the Democratic Party, with almost $40,000 in political donations.[15] 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."[16][17] 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.[18] He said he had planned to be a regular contributor to Countdown with Keith Olbermann on Current TV.[19]

Awards and honors

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

Burns is the recipient of more than 20 honorary degrees.

The Civil War has received more than 40 major film and television awards, including two Emmy Awards, two Grammy Awards, 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.[20]

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.[21]

In 2012, Burns received the Washington University International Humanities Medal.[22] 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.[23]

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.[24]

Burns was the Grand Marshal for the 2016 Pasadena Tournament of Roses' Rose Parade on New Year's Day in Pasadena, California.[25] 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.[26] In 2016 he also gave a commencement speech for Stanford University criticizing Donald Trump.[27]


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."[28]

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.[29]

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."[10]

In a 2011 interview, Burns stated that he admires and is influenced by filmmaker Errol Morris.[30]


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Listed as 'Kenneth Lauren Burns'.
Future releases
Ken Burns – Executive producer
Short films
Film roles


  1. 1 2 "Ken Burns Biography (1953–)". Retrieved August 19, 2011.
  2. 1 2 Genzlinger, Neil (March 27, 2015). "Review: In 'Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies,' Battling an Opportunistic Killer". New York Times. Retrieved March 31, 2015.
  3. 1 2 "Ken Burns". Encyclopedia of World Biography via n.d.
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Walsh, Joan (n.d.). "Good Eye: The Interview With Ken Burns". San Francisco Focus. KQED via Archived from the original on September 22, 2011.
  5. "Ken Burns". biography at n.d.
  6. Wadler, Joyce (1999-11-17), PUBLIC LIVES; No Civil War, but a Brotherly Indifference, The New York Times, retrieved 2016-11-04
  7. Stated on Finding Your Roots, PBS, October 7, 2014
  8. "Studio360: Nerding Out with Ken Burns, 13:50".
  9. Ann Arbor Public Schools Educational Foundation, Ann Arbor Public Schools Alumni (accessed October 29, 2013).
  10. 1 2 3 4 Edgerton, Gary (n.d.). "Burns, Ken: U.S. Documentary Film Maker". The Museum of Broadcast Communications. Archived from the original on June 29, 2011.
  11. Romeo, Jim. "The Florentine Four: Ken Burns and Partners Look Back on 30 Years of Documentary Production," Documentary (International Documentary Association magazine), November/December 2006.
  12. 1 2 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..."
  13. 1 2 "Weddings/Celebrations; Julie Brown, Ken Burns". The New York Times. October 19, 2003. Archived from the original on October 5, 2011.
  14. Whitall, Susan (September 23, 2014). "Henry Louis Gates probes celebs' origins on PBS". The Detroit News. Retrieved August 26, 2015.
  15. "Ken Burns's Federal Campaign Contribution Report". Newsmeat. Retrieved August 19, 2011.
  16. 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.
  17. Rogers, David (August 26, 2008). "Ailing Kennedy: 'The dream lives on'". Politico. Retrieved June 19, 2011.
  18. MacGillis, Alec (December 18, 2007). "Ken Burns Compares Obama to Lincoln". The Washington Post. Retrieved June 19, 2011.
  19. Guthrie, Marisa (May 11, 2011). "Michael Moore to Be a Contributor on Keith Olbermann's New Show". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved June 19, 2011.
  20. "Hampshire College – The Ken Burns Wing". Kuhn Riddle Architects. 2010. Archived from the original on September 22, 2011.
  21. "National Winners | public service awards". Jefferson Retrieved December 25, 2013.
  22. "Ken Burns Recognized for Epic Contributions to the Humanities", Washington Magazine, February 2013.
  24. "Ken Burns to Receive Steinbeck Award". SJSU News. Retrieved December 25, 2013.
  25. Cormaci, Carol (November 10, 2015). "Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns named 2016 Rose Parade grand marshal". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved March 12, 2016.
  26. Manly, Lorne (January 18, 2016). "Ken Burns to Discuss Race in Jefferson Lecture". The New York Times. Retrieved March 12, 2016.
  27. Gladnick, P. J. (June 13, 2016). "Ken Burns Politicizes Commencement Speech With Anti-Trump Rant". Media Research Center. Retrieved July 20, 2016.
  28. Kamiya, Gary (n.d.). "Shame and Glory: The West holds a mirror before the double face of a nation".
  29. Allen, Austin. "Big Think Interview with Ken Burns". Big Think. Retrieved April 23, 2014.
  30. 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.
  31. "Prohibition". 2011. Archived from the original on May 3, 2012.
  32. "Ken Burns Seeking Dustbowl Stories". OETA. Retrieved August 19, 2011.
  33. 1 2 "Introduction". n.d.
  34. The World Premiere of Yosemite: A Gathering of Spirit, Yosemite Conservancy Retrieved October 21, 2013.
  35. Moore, Frazier (September 10, 2014). "PBS' 'The Roosevelts' portrays an epic threesome". AP News. Retrieved September 10, 2014.
  36. Cladwell, Evita (May 14, 2014). "Filmmaker Ken Burns discusses upcoming projects, Wash U commencement speech, more". St. Louis Public Radio. Retrieved August 26, 2015.
  37. "Defying the Nazis: The Sharps' War; A new film directed by Ken Burns and Artemis Joukowsky". Retrieved September 16, 2016.
  38. "Vietnam". Ken Burns media. August 26, 2015.
  39. 1 2 "Upcoming Films". The Better Angels Society. Retrieved June 16, 2015.
  40. Gilbert, Josh (May 18, 2015). "Filmmaker Ken Burns joined The Carney Show to chat about the only documentaries you actually want to see". KTRS. Retrieved August 26, 2015.
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