Filmmaker Ken Burns talks about his latest documentary "The War" at the Lutcher Theater for the Performing Arts in Orange on Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2007. Burns' lecture is part of the Lamar State College-Orange Distinguished Lecture Series.
Mark M. Hancock / © The Beaumont Enterprise
Please read Ken Burns' biography.
Videos by © Mark M. Hancock / NewsEagles
Burns granted an interview specifically for PhotoJournalism. He discusses his background and respect for the still photograph, and how it evolved into his documentary film style.
Burns:   I originally wanted to be a feature filmmaker, and I ended up going, in 1971, to Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts and all the film and photography teachers, and they taught film and photography together with social documentary still photographers. And, film was mostly an afterthought for most of them.About the "Ken Burns effect."
So, I really had my molecules rearranged and (was) taught by great photojournalists and social documentary still photographers promoting a humanistic tradition. And I brought that into my work as a filmmaker.
I abandoned the Hollywood route, but have been trying to bring kind of a value of entertainment and storytelling to the documentaries that I've made. But, in a way in which the still photograph is the DNA - the basic building block - of what we're doing.
At the heart of the work is a healthy respect for the power of individual images to convey complex information without undue manipulation. That's been the heart of what we've been trusting that a great deal of information can come out of an image.
That's why we move in. We don't hold them at arm's length. We get inside and try to resurrect the moment in which they were taken. So, in "The War," it's filled with sound and complicated sound effects track or music appropriate voice that I think helps will this moment alive.
About linear presentation of still images
The Ken Burns effect is something that if you have a Mac computer, it's a feature that's on there. So, we don't want to talk too much about the Ken Burns effect because it's like the tail wagging the dog and not the other way around. This was something developed in respect for an approach I took for still photographs.
And, Steve Jobs and the folks at Apple had spent some time perfecting it, and when they did put it on the computers and asked my permission to say, "Ken Burns effect."
Now, what they're responding to is that for the last 35 years, I have been unsatisfied with the notion that a still photograph is something you just pin up on the wall and hold at arm's length like a slideshow.
I, using those old roots of a feature filmmaker, wanted to get inside that image. And so I treat it like a feature film director, who has a long shot with a possibility of a medium shot, a close shot, an extreme close-up, a pan, a tilt, a reveal. All the different elements at the disposal of a feature filmmaker, I bring to bear into the photograph.
Now, that to me is more an energy than it is a technique. That is to say, we want to energetically explore the landscape of a still photograph and tell stories within those still photographs. That's what I've done.
Now if that's the "Ken Burns effect" and it's now been, sort of, reduced to a button you can push or a mouse you can click that permits you to download your photographs and zoom and pan through them to make your little wedding stories, that's OK.
But, at the heart of my interest was to try to get inside a photograph and resurrect the time in which it was taken and trust that that may be the closest representation we have to the past.
The fundamental use of a still photograph is usually in isolation, so the viewer, himself, has the opportunity to determine the length of time you spend looking at it. So, when you're getting into telling stories with pictures, you're getting close to film. And, you're beginning to realize that at the heart of film is a still image.
There aren't any rules because at the heart of this compact between the photographer and his subject is the essence of seeing and each individual circumstance has a different demand of seeing.
You're going to cover a wedding on Thursday different than you'd cover a wedding on Saturday, and you're going to cover a wedding quite differently than you're going to cover a funeral.
It gets a lot subtler than weddings and funerals because life in incredibly complicated.
At the heart of our enterprise is, kind of, an awareness and a self-discipline and an interest in understanding what are the natural and authentic stories and how you can get out of the way of them - in presenting them.
And those that you have to superimpose. That's what a filmmaker does, or a photographer does, is put a frame around a moment and make it happen.
Burns most recent project, "The War," explores WWII from a factual and historical point of view. He explains the film and the pressing motivation to make the film.
Please also read, "...how he made 'The War'" by Fred Davis.