Ken Burns Profile

A poll by Real Screen Magazine designated Ken’s documentary film The Civil War as the second most influential documentary film of all time. He was also named, alongside Robert Flaherty, as the most influential documentary maker of all time. With a glittering roster of awards including ten Emmys and a pair of Oscar nominations, in 2008 Ken was given a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. In addition more than twenty higher education institutions have awarded him honorary degrees.

Ken’s films document nothing less than the history of America in a way which has brought pleasure and new understanding of the nation to many millions of viewers. His subjects have ranged widely from The Civil War (“a masterpiece” – New York Times,) which won more than forty major awards and garnered an audience of 40 million viewers on its premiere, to Baseball, which the Daily News described as “[resonating] like a Mozart symphony.”

Other subjects have included Not For Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, telling the story of the women who effectively began the women’s rights movement in America. This documentary won the Peabody Award in 2000. Other major figures covered by Ken’s films are Jack Johnson, Mark Twain, Frank Lloyd Wright and Thomas Jefferson. He has also made a trilogy of films exploring the work and teachings of philosopher and painter William Segal.

The reaction of most critics to Ken’s work is perhaps best summed up by the comment of Jack Newfield in the New York Post: writing of Ken’s documentary Jazz he stated, “Jazz is the best American documentary film I have ever seen. Period.”

Ken is in much demand as a public speaker, bringing to his speeches the same passion, research, detail and immense in-depth knowledge of his subject as he does to his documentaries.

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    Ken Burns has been making films for more than thirty years. Since the Academy Award nominated Brooklyn Bridge in 1981, Ken has gone on to direct and produce some of the most acclaimed historical documentaries ever made. The late historian Stephen Ambrose said of his films, “More Americans get their history from Ken Burns than any other source.” A December 2002 poll conducted by Real Screen Magazine listed The Civil War as second only to Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North as the “most influential documentary of all time,” and named Ken Burns and Robert Flaherty as the “most influential documentary makers” of all time. In March, 2009, David Zurawik of The Baltimore Sun said, “… Burns is not only the greatest documentarian of the day, but also the most influential filmmaker period. That includes feature filmmakers like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. I say that because Burns not only turned millions of persons onto history with his films, he showed us a new way of looking at our collective past and ourselves.” Ken’s films have won ten Emmy Awards and two Oscar nominations, and in September of 2008, at the News & Documentary Emmy Awards, Ken was honored by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences with a Lifetime Achievement Award.

    Ken has been the recipient of more than twenty honorary degrees and has delivered many treasured commencement addresses. He is a sought after public speaker, appearing at colleges, civic organizations and business groups throughout the country.

    Films currently in production include “The Tenth Inning,” an update to Ken’s 1994 epic Baseball, scheduled to be shown on PBS in 2010, as well as a three-part, six-hour history of Prohibition, tentatively set for PBS broadcast in 2011. Future projects already in the works include films on the Dust Bowl, the Roosevelts, the Vietnam War and the Central Park Jogger case.

    In the fall of 2009, PBS broadcast The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. Directed and co-produced by Ken, it was co-produced by his long-time collaborator Dayton Duncan. The six-part series focuses on the ideas and individuals that helped propel the parks into existence. Filmed over the course of more than six years at some of nature’s most spectacular locales – from Acadia to Yosemite, Yellowstone to the Grand Canyon, the Everglades of Florida to the Gates of the Arctic in Alaska – the heart of the story is nonetheless a story of people from every conceivable background – rich and poor; famous and unknown; soldiers and scientists; natives and newcomers; idealists, artists and entrepreneurs; people who were willing to devote themselves to saving some precious portion of the land they loved, and in doing so reminded their fellow citizens of the full meaning of democracy.

    Ken’s film, The War, was co-directed and produced with his longtime colleague Lynn Novick, and aired on PBS in September 2007. The War is a seven-part series that tells the story of the Second World War through the personal accounts of nearly 40 men and women from four American towns. The series explores the most intimate human dimensions of the greatest cataclysm in history and demonstrates that in extraordinary times, there are no ordinary lives.

    His film prior to The War, produced with Paul Barnes, was Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson (on PBS in January 2005), the story of the first African-American heavyweight champion. Prior to Jack Johnson was Horatio’s Drive: America’s First Road Trip, a two-hour account of the first cross-country trip by automobile, co-produced by Ken’s longtime collaborator Dayton Duncan. It aired on PBS in October 2003. Mark Twain, a two-part, four-hour portrait of America’s funniest and most popular writer, was also co-produced with Dayton Duncan and aired on PBS in January 2002. In January 2001, Jazz, the third in Ken’s trilogy of epic documentaries, which began with The Civil War and continued with Baseball, was broadcast on PBS. Co-produced with Lynn Novick, this 19-hour, 10-part film explores in detail the culture, politics and dreams that gave birth to jazz music and follows this most American of art forms from its origins in blues and ragtime through swing, bebop and fusion. Jack Newfield of the New York Post said, “Jazz is the best American documentary film I have ever seen. Period.” Tom Brokaw wrote, “Jazz is a masterpiece of American television.” John Carmen of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote, “Jazz informs, astonishes, and entertains. It invites joy, tears, toe-tapping, pride, and shame and maybe an occasional goose bump.” Jazz premiered on PBS in January 2001.

    Not For Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, winner of the prestigious Peabody Award, was co-produced with Paul Barnes and aired on PBS in November 1999. This dual biography tells the story of the two women who almost single-handedly created and spearheaded the women’s rights movement in America, changing for the better the lives of a majority of American citizens. As Bob Herbert of The New York Times stated, “The latest splendid effort from … Ken Burns is about two women who barely register in the consciousness of late-20th century America, but whose lives were critically important to the freedoms most of us take for granted.” The 2000 Peabody Award citation for NFOA reads, “Remarkable … It is an inspiring story of hopes, dashed dreams and dogged determination … NFOA … brings heart, soul and considerable poignancy to the stories of these two leaders of the women’s suffrage movement.”

    Frank Lloyd Wright, co-directed and produced with Lynn Novick, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 1998 and aired on PBS in November 1998. The film, which tells the riveting story of America’s foremost architectural genius, is, according to Janet Maslin of The New York Times, a “towering two-and-one-half-hour(s) … sure to have a high profile because of the turbulent, colorful life of the architect and the austere magnificence of his work, which is thoughtfully assessed.” Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times wrote that the film “… has the unbeatable combination of exceptional interview material and beautiful architectural photography put at the service of an astonishing life.” In 1999, it won the Peabody Award.

    In November 1997, Lewis and Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery was released to critical acclaim and garnered the second-highest ratings in public television history. This four-hour film, co-produced with Dayton Duncan, chronicles the corps’ journey westward on the first official expedition into uncharted spaces in United States history. Tony Scott of Weekly Variety called the film “… a visually stunning account … Striking photography, superb editing, informative reportage and little-known anecdotes characterize the latest fine documentary work from Burns,” and Don Heckman of the Los Angeles Times wrote, “… superb … a vast landscape that, even on the television screen, underscores the sense of awe reported by Lewis and Clark in their journals.”

    Thomas Jefferson, a three-hour portrait of America’s third president, aired on PBS in February 1997. This film explores the contradictions in the man who was revered as the author of the most sacred document in American history and condemned as a lifelong owner of slaves. Walter Goodman of The New York Times said, “… Thomas Jefferson is a considerable accomplishment, a thoughtful and affecting portrait of the intellectual who captured the essence of a new nation’s hopes in phrases that continue to resound around the world.” And George Will, in The Washington Post, said, “… Ken Burns presents a timely corrective, a visually sumptuous and intellectually judicious appraisal of Jefferson.”

    In fall 1996, The West, an eight-part, 12½-hour film series on the American west was released. The West is the story of one of the great crossroads in human history, a place where, tragically and heroically, the best of us met the worst of us and nothing was left unchanged. Ken Burns was executive producer and creative consultant for this highly praised series, directed by Stephen Ives, which won the 1997 Erik Barnouw Prize.

    Ken Burns was the director, producer, co-writer, chief cinematographer, music director and executive producer of the public television series Baseball. Four and a half years in the making and 18½ hours in length, this film covers the history of baseball from the 1840s to the present. Through the extensive use of archival photographs and newsreel footage, baseball as a mirror of our larger society was brought to the screen over nine nights during its premiere in September 1994. It became the most watched series in PBS history, attracting more than 45 million viewers. David Bianculli of the Daily News said, “[Baseball] … resonates like a Mozart symphony.” Richard Zoglin of Time magazine wrote, “Baseball is rich in drama, irresistible as nostalgia, and … an instructive window into our national psychology.” Baseball received numerous awards, including an Emmy, the CINE Golden Eagle Award, the Clarion Award and the Television Critics Association Awards for Outstanding Achievement in Sports and Outstanding Achievement in Movies, Mini-Series & Specials.

    Ken Burns was also the director, producer, co-writer, chief cinematographer, music director and executive producer of the landmark television series The Civil War. This film was the highest-rated series in the history of American public television, prior to Baseball, and attracted an audience of 40 million during its premiere in September 1990. The New York Times called it a masterpiece and said that Ken Burns “takes his place as the most accomplished documentary filmmaker of his generation.” Tom Shales of The Washington Post said, “This is not just good television, nor even just great television. This is heroic television.” The columnist George Will said, “If better use has ever been made of television, I have not seen it and do not expect to see better until Ken Burns turns his prodigious talents to his next project.” The series has been honored with more than 40 major film and television awards, including two Emmy Awards, two Grammy Awards, a Producer of the Year Award from the Producer’s Guild, a People’s Choice Award, a Peabody Award, a duPont-Columbia Award, a D.W. Griffiths Award and the $50,000 Lincoln Prize, among dozens of others.

    In 1981, Ken Burns produced and directed the Academy Award-nominated Brooklyn Bridge. He has gone on to make several other award-winning films, including The Shakers: Hands to Work, Hearts to God; Statue of Liberty, also nominated for an Oscar; Huey Long, the story of the turbulent Southern dictator, which enjoyed a rare theatrical release; The Congress; Thomas Hart Benton, a portrait of the regionalist artist; and Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio. Ken Burns has also produced and directed three films, William Segal, Vezelay, and In the Marketplace (a trilogy entitled Seeing, Searching, Being), which explore the question of search and individual identity through the work and teachings of philosopher and painter William Segal.

    Ken was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1953. He graduated from Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, in 1975.

Ken Burns Speaking Videos

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Ken Burns's Speech Descriptions

Ken brings his immense historical knowledge and passion for both the history and the ideals of America to every speech. Audiences are guaranteed an enthralling, humorous and fascinating exploration of American history and culture, and new philosophical insights into the power of history and the art of storytelling.

The National Parks—A Treasure House of Nature's Superlatives
In this unusually moving and personal lecture, filmmaker Burns discusses the great gift of our national parks. Both “the immensity and the intimacy of time” merge, as we appreciate what the parks have added to our collective and individual spirit. He begins the talk with a 13-minute clip—the intro to “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.”

Sharing the American Experience
Burns reminds the audience of the timeless lessons of history and the enduring greatness and importance of the United States in the course of human events. Incorporating his documentaries “The Civil War,” “Baseball” and “Jazz,” Burns engages and celebrates what we share in common. No clips are utilized in this presentation.

No Ordinary Lives
Drawing on some of Abraham Lincoln's most stirring words as inspiration, this speech engages the paradox of war by following the powerful themes in two of Burns' best known works—“The Civil War,” his epic retelling of the most important event in American history, and “The War,” his intensely moving story of World War II told through the experiences of ordinary people from four American towns. The presentation opens with Norah Jones’ “American Anthem” clip (five minutes) from “The War.”

American Lives
This presentation combines the biographies of some of Burns' most fascinating subjects, including Thomas Jefferson, Lewis & Clark and Frank Lloyd Wright. He shares how biography works to provide insight into the storytelling process.

In this presentation, Burns takes audiences through the compelling saga of Prohibition's rise and fall that goes far beyond the tales of gangsters, rum runners, flappers, and speakeasies, to reveal a complicated and divided nation in the throes of momentous transformation. He discusses with audiences the vital questions raised by this era and the 18th Amendment, which are as relevant today as they were 100 years ago—about means and ends, individual rights and responsibilities, the proper role of government and finally, who is—and who is not—a real American.

Race in America
For more than 30 years, Burns has dealt with the theme of race in his uniquely American documentaries. Now, in the age of President Obama, he looks back from the perspective of monumental change in the United States to reflect where we’ve been. This presentation is best presented as a moderated Q&A with Burns to spark a meaningful and impactful conversation with the audience. He uses several clips from earlier films in this presentation.

Conversation with Ken Burns
This is for a less formal, conversational type of event. Burns addresses questions about all of his films, issues in history and contemporary American culture.

What People are Saying about Seeing Ken Speak

Rating Entries

“You won’t be surprised to hear that Ken was amazing last night. He was mesmerizing (as I’ve heard about him) and fit in perfectly with our program, the occasion of which was to award our 3rd annual Hiett Prize in the Humanities to a young person.

His clips of The War were stunning. In addition, he’s so personable, generous, and genuine. He’s obviously devoted to his work and passionate about sharing it with everyone. I don’t know how we’ll top, or equal, him next year. We got nothing but compliments from the 400 in the audience, who left feeling that they had experienced something significant (which was true).

Once again, thanks for helping us “hit a home run,” as one of our donors said last night. I look forward to more.”

– The Dallas Institute of Humanities

“It was a great event. Ken goes above and beyond on all accounts. He put the film together in segments that allowed him to introduce each segment in context. The Q&A portion was well done. I just got off of the phone with someone that called last night ‘f’in brilliant. I was enraptured.’ I’d like to find a time to bring Ken back to Dallas!”

-Dallas Center for the Performing Arts

“Ken was wonderful. His presentation was excellent and resonated well with our clients. I heard great feedback afterwards.”

-Teachers Insurance and Annuities Association – College Retirement Equities Fund

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