After earning his BA at Hampshire College, Brooklyn-born Ken Burns pursued a career as a documentary filmmaker. At age 22, he formed Florentine Films in his home base of Walpole, New Hampshire. Dissatisfied with dry, scholarly historical documentaries, Burns wanted his films to "live," and to that end adopted the technique of cutting rapidly from one still picture to another in a fluid, linear fashion. He then pepped up the visuals with "first hand" narration gleaned from contemporary writings and recited by top stage and screen actors. Burns' first successful venture was the award-winning documentary The Brooklyn Bridge, which ran on public television in 1981. While he was Oscar-nominated for his 1985 theatrical release The Statue of Liberty, Burns' work has enjoyed its widest exposure on television: such films as Huey Long (1985), Thomas Hart Benton (1986) and Empire of the Air (1991) (a bouquet to the pioneers of commercial radio) have become staples of local PBS stations' seasonal fund drives. In 1990, Burns completed what many consider his "chef d'oeuvre": the eleven-hour The Civil War, which earned an Emmy (among several other honors) and became the highest-rated miniseries in the history of public television. Civil War was the apotheosis of Burns' master mixture of still photos, freshly shot film footage, period music, evocative "celebrity" narration and authentic sound effects. In 1994, Ken Burns released his long-awaited Baseball, an 18-hour saga which, like The Civil War, was telecast at the same time as the publication of a companion coffee-table book. Over the coming decades, Burns would continue to ingrain his reputation as the biggest name in long-form documentary film making, creating multi-part histories of Jazz, WWII, Baseball, and Prohibition.
photo credit: Mark Von Holden/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images
by Hal Erickson biography