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How To Conquer Your Massive Creative Project The Ken Burns Way

One of the most acclaimed documentary filmmakers of all time, Ken Burns, offers advice on how to get all the way through a long-term creative undertaking like, say, an 14-hour documentary on the history of the Roosevelts.

How To Conquer Your Massive Creative Project The Ken Burns Way
Theodore Roosevelt at the Cheyenne Frontier Days rodeo [Photo: PBS Press, Courtesy of Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University]

There’s no sage advice that makes running a marathon any less challenging. It’s a Herculean feat that requires lots of training and the tenacity to see something difficult through to the finish. When it comes to a massive creative undertaking, though, there’s more to getting it done than plentiful energy and sheer force of will. The kind of project that takes years to complete can go wrong in any number of ways, but if anyone knows the guiding principles for getting through those marathons, it’s Ken Burns.

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Ken Burns

The four-time Emmy Award-winning documentarian has become one of the most renowned chroniclers of American history by going the distance, time and time again, to tell a complete story. In his 35-plus active years as a filmmaker, Burns has revealed truths behind subjects as broad as jazz and as specific as the Brooklyn Bridge. He pioneered a style in which artfully unveiled archival photos combine with carefully chosen music and celebrity narration, and he’s been refining this technique ever since. The resulting approach finds the director and his team spending years on documentary films that take up to 18 hours to watch. It’s perhaps this penchant for being so thorough that makes Burns one of the best.

His latest, The Roosevelts, is no exception. The 14-hour event series, which began September 14th on PBS and continues all week, finds Burns once again working with author Geoffrey Ward to illuminate all aspects of a complicated story. The Roosevelts may be the most well-known family in U.S. history, but there’s a lot more to the lives of Theodore, Eleanor, and Franklin, and their impact on America and the world, than what’s known already. Uncovering all the details is only part of finishing the job, though. Burns spoke with Co.Create recently and offered some hard-earned strategies for making it all the way through an epic creative effort.

It’s All a Matter Of Perspective

The amount of work required for an extensive project, and your enjoyment of it, both depend on the way you look at the challenges along the way.

“In making a film, particularly a big, long series like The Roosevelts, there are literally millions of problems,” says Burns. “But I don’t see problems in the pejorative sense; I see them as things to be figured out and worked out in the course of the many years, in this case, that it took us to make this film.”

Delegate Eleanor Roosevelt at a meeting of the United Nations, 1947Photo: PBS Press, Courtesy of Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library

Never Stop Researching

Although Burns and his team tend not to do much research before going into production, once they start, they keep on going and going. Even if it ultimately elongates the time spent on the project, and the project itself, continuing research the entire time helps ensure that the final product will have the best possible information.

“Most film companies have a set research period and then out of that is produced a script, which is written in stone,” says Burns. “Our scripts are continually evolving; we never stop researching. And sometimes the last day before picture is locked, we’ve discovered something new. You begin reading and figuring out the narrative. Then we begin amassing the photographic resources. That means traveling to many, many archives. We ended up in The Roosevelts with about 2,250 still photographs–from a database with a complicated description of more than 25,000 photos. We do that so we have at any moment options to put things in. Similarly, we’re also interviewing scholars and others who have written about the Roosevelts or adjacent presidential administrations. And then we assemble a body of subsequent further historical advisors to help us get it right. We actually calculated that we had 1,050 years of postgraduate expertise on one or more of the Roosevelts, commenting either in the film or in advisor meetings for it.”

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President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Casablanca, 1943Photo: PBS Press, Courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration

Cast a Wide Net

In gathering material for a large project, there are many places to turn, both obvious and obscure. The trick to finding the best stuff, apparently, is canvassing everything in between and beyond.

“You begin with the big public collections like the National Archives and the Library of Congress,” Burns says. “The specificity of the projects, say with Roosevelt, is going to send you to Hyde Park and Sagamore Hill and other places within the National Park Service system that have photographs. You’re going to go to many other collections. And now that so many of them are digitized you can at least get a sense of what’s there, and then travel there to scan and import photographs. In the case of the Roosevelts, Geoff Ward has himself been the beneficiary of contact with a couple of extraordinary people who, after one passed away, her letters revealed a whole side of FDR that’s never been covered before.”

But quite often, research involves pursuing subjects tangential to the true subject. “As much as 50% might not be specifically the Roosevelts–it might be New York City in 1910 or 1914, or this or that,” he says. “Because you’re trying to evoke the age and the era in which they took place. So you’re constantly looking in different places. It’s a detective thing. We’re sitting here in Vietnam [for a future Burns documentary], we’ve already got hundreds and hundred of hours of newsreel footage and we’ve got thousands of photographs. And we’re still today–halfway through editing–saying we need this, we need that, it would be really good to have something like this.”

Jackie Robinson slides home, from the documentary BaseballPhoto: courtesy of PBS

Accept That There Will Be Changes To Your Plan

It would be foolish to start any kind of massive creative project without a plan. It’s important to map out your strategy and to stay the course as much as possible. However, it’s also equally important to remain flexible when the situation calls for it.

“The dynamics of any scene, of any one act within an episode, are in constant flux all the time,” says Burns. “That’s what good storytelling is; it’s about is the sort of calibration of that. We had originally planned six episodes and at one point through the richness of materials we’d collected, we had to change the goalpost of the last episode and make it into two. So we then had to look for the ‘out’ of episode six, and the ‘in’ of this newly created episode seven. And it had to do with an embarrassment of riches and getting extraordinary material covering the last years of FDR’s life and the last years of the Second World War, and Eleanor’s life after FDR died.

“It’s happened many times before. Baseball was going to be nine one-hours and each episode called an inning. And it still has that nine episode, nine inning structure but those are eighteen and a half hours long, not nine hours. So it’s not uncommon for us to have to make adjustments upon finding valuable information. It just has to do with getting in the weeds, having extraordinary results in some areas, finding new scholarship, particularly with regard to The Roosevelts and Vietnam that people haven’t really used and that certainly are not in the film studies of Vietnam or the Roosevelts that have come before ours.”

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Be Willing To Go a Long Way For a Workaround

The flexibility of your plan, however, should not be restricted only to easy solutions. Sometimes the best way to get some long-term project finished involves going wildly out of your way to do it.

“Sometimes the solution to a problem is just a lot of extra work and travel. The National Parks was the longest project we’ve done, it took almost a decade. We were filming from Acadia National Park where the first rays of sunlight hit the United States to the Hawaii volcanoes; from the Dry Tortugas off the Florida Keys to the gates of the Arctic in Alaska. And doing it all in many, many seasons. We made a two-part four-hour documentary on Lewis and Clark and there are no photographs from the time so we just retraced the entire Lewis and Clark trail, twice, at different times during the season, so we could be where they were at that time, and filmed live modern cinematography to stand in for the absence of the archival material. You can attenuate a project that way.”

President Franklin D. Roosevelt at his home in Hyde Park, New York, 1937Photo: PBS Press, Courtesy of Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library

The Right Amount Of Notes (Or, Editing Is Everything)

Following the advice mentioned above will inevitably lead to generating more material than one might have imagined possible, which is why editing plays a more important role than usual on an enormous creative project.

“It’s difficult deciding on what’s essential to the story and what isn’t. I think that’s what I do for a living,” says Burns. “I’m credited with being a director, a producer, cinematographer, and co-writer, but I think the thing that I do is try to figure out what’s in and what’s out. There’s a moment in the Milos Forman film Amadeus where the Emperor critiques Mozart by saying, “there’s too many notes.” As you write whatever you’re writing, you struggle with more raw material than you have space or time, or more importantly an audience has interest in. And so you will then do what I do every day of my life which is edit and cut and figure out how to have that complexity survive in the service of very challenging narratives, but not have too many notes.

I’m very happy that we make films that are 18 hours and then the big complaint we get from people is not ‘Geez, this is so boring,’ but rather ‘Why did you leave that out?’ When somebody tells me what I left out of Jazz or Baseball, well, the reason is I’m not an encyclopedia. I do not wish for this to be a list of every World Series, every secondary jazz session players. Telling a story is editing. When your significant other says, “Honey, how was your day?” You don’t say, “I backed slowly down the driveway, avoiding the garbage can at the curb . . .” You cut to the chase, you tell stories, you edit. That’s what human beings do.”

Theodore Roosevelt waves to the crowdPhoto: PBS Press, Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Finish Long-Term Projects By Working On Many Of Them At Once

At any moment, Ken Burns has five or six projects going at once. The reasons for this prolificacy are partly due to funding issues, but also because taking on multiple long-term endeavors at the same time means always having something to work on; it means creating constantly.

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“In 35-plus years that I’ve been going at it, we’ve learned how to be logistical about stuff,” says Burns. “So for example I’m working with an editing crew on Vietnam and then I can work over a couple of weeks and give them a month or two of work, before I need to stop and look at the stuff again. It would take them that long to catch up to my corrections and notes. And then meanwhile I’m going out and filming for [upcoming projects] Jackie Robinson or filming for Ernest Hemingway or filming for particularly the country music history.

“These are all grant funded, there are no investors, so it takes a lot of time. And people have to have confidence even if you’ve got a fairly good track record. But a lot of it is the economy of scale that comes from having several projects going on at once. That’s why I know pretty much when I can go to the bathroom and when I can go on vacation until about the end of 2019 or so. And I’ve never not started a project I’ve been interested in pursuing. The ideas are always out there, and on a variety of really diverse topics. If I were given a thousand years to live I wouldn’t run out of topics in American history.”