Last month, Laura and I had the great fortune to attend a lecture by Ken Burns at Belmont University, in Nashville. Many thanks to Asheley R. for arranging awesome seats right up front and for letting us know about it in the first place. The lecture was fascinating to say the least, in fact it was so amazing that I will not even attempt to report on it, as I am sure that I cannot begin to do it justice. One thing I will say, Mr. Burns packs an incredible amount of information into a lecture. First off he speaks very rapidly, which requires you to pay attention just to catch all of the words, never mind processing those words. Secondly, there is no filler, he spoke for an hour and it was all substantial, simply amazing. Just listening to his prepared lecture was treat enough, but he was just getting started.
He followed up his speech with a 30-45 minute question and answer session. He handled the basic stuff you expect, explaining how they choose their subjects and the research process, how he got started in film, etc. We were also treated to watching him handle an overzealous but misguided Belmont student who took this opportunity to argue history with Ken Burns, the words “epic fail” suddenly come to mind. It was interesting though to watch him take the time to try to teach even when faced with a confrontational student. I did not intend to participate, I was honestly too interested in listening to take the time to formulate a reasonable question, but suddenly I found myself standing up not only asking a question but engaged in a conversation with one of my heroes, with several hundred people listening in. While I enjoy his documentaries for the information they impart, in my mind, what really sets his work apart is his artistic approach. He and his production crew seem to have struck a nearly perfect balance when it comes to presenting facts in an entertaining and engaging way. Like the best professors you had in college, he teaches you before you even realize you are learning, and the info sticks, because you enjoyed the process. In doing so he has not only become the dominant documentarian of American history, but in many ways his has become the voice of the story of our nation. I was curious, from an artistic point of view, if he ever felt trapped by his own success, if he ever felt obligated to present his subjects “in the style of Ken Burns” or if he was able to break away from the “Ken Burns’ effect.
I know that I am often faced with having to create a new design that has to fit into an existing product line and when I do there is always this nagging voice in the back of my head that tells me I am not being creative, I am just following a formula, and I don’t even have my own effect. While adapting a new project to fit an old one sometimes makes things easier, it is often less rewarding than a totally new creation. So my question was essentially how does he deal with that same difficulty and how does he fight the impulse to make change for changes sake.
I loved his take on this problem, first off he dismissed the notion of change for change’s sake with two words, modern jazz. He then described his approach to film making and the “Ken Burns effect” as, in a very simplified way, using a collection of tools and combining those tools in different ways to communicate the message of his subject. He described walking into an exhibition by Manet, if you looked around the room you would be able to easily identify the works as Manet’s, as they all employed the “Manet effect”. However, as you moved closer and began to examine individual pieces you would find many differences from piece to piece, even though they were all created using the same set of tools. He then explained that voice-overs, sound effects, slow pans and zooms across still images and the myriad of other techniques he regularly employs, are the brushes, paints and canvas, that he employs in many different ways in order to achieve not only the “Ken Burns effect”, but the hundreds of effects it is made of.
It was really gratifying to find that even with all of his success he still faces basic artistic choices and difficulties everyday. Selfishly, I also have to admit that it was extremely gratifying to have Ken Burns validate my own artistic frustrations. On top of that, three separate times during our discussion he paused to compliment the excellent question, I guess since he deals in documenting facts, people often overlook the incredible artistry his work requires. Whatever the reason, when the guy who reinvented the historical documentary, I mean a guy who asks questions of the ghosts of our past and gets answers on a regular basis, tells you that you posed an excellent question, well, it makes you proud. So there it is, my brush with Ken Burns, hopefully I will someday get the opportunity to continue the conversation, if I can get beyond being starstruck long enough to ask another question.
(On a side note, he found it quite humorous that the “effect” he took years to create and master is now available to any Mac user with the click of a button. No more spending hours with documents held on a magnetic board, slowly panning and zooming through them, just check the box and it does it for you.)
* For our non-Latin studying readers, “Mutatio Gratio Mutationis” roughly translates to “Change for Change’s Sake”, many thanks and apologies to Louis Schochenzuber, my favorite stoic German and Latin teacher.