Ken Burns: Looking back and ahead

PBS is re-airing Ken Burns' epic The Civil War documentary starting April 3. Realscreen talked to the director about the film that changed his life, and what's on the way.
January 1, 2011

Despite making six documentaries prior to The Civil War, nothing compared to the challenges that came with making the 11-and-a-half hour opus on what Burns considers to be the most important event in U.S. history. “It was every metaphor that you could think of: drowning and learning how to swim, biting off more than you can chew and learning to chew,” says Burns.

After PBS debuted The Civil War in 1990, Burns was overwhelmed by the response. He remembers today, “I thought I was a pretty good filmmaker beforehand – I’d done a couple of films that’d been nominated for Oscars – but nothing came close to what the response was to The Civil War.” An audience of 40 million had tuned in, making it the highest-rated program in American public television history. Critics were unanimous in their praise, with the New York Times saying the project placed Burns as “the most accomplished documentary filmmaker of his generation.”

“Twenty-one years later, the remastered film remains relevant and modern,” said John F. Wilson, SVP & chief TV programming executive at PBS, in a statement released last week. “The storytelling and use of music, experts and personal narratives, along with a stunning collection of period photographs, are just as poignant today as when it premiered.”

The unique panning and zooming effect that Burns used on the still photos influenced designers of video editing systems, who added ‘The Ken Burns Effect’ to their packages.

“That was kind of a landmark for me and for docs in the country because we were all unaware that still photographs would arrest our attention,” he says.

The documentary, which won Emmys, IDA and Peabody awards, also received acclaim from Johnny Carson during his Tonight Show monologues. Burns later became a guest. “The pilot [on the flight to the Tonight Show] made comments over the P.A. system and I staggered through the show and went, ‘Things are going to be different now.’”

There were also smaller moments that Burns continues to treasure to this day. He carries letters in his pocket from The Civil War fans, as well as a heart-shaped trinket that someone made for him, called a ‘healing heart.’ “It’s never been out of my pocket, no matter whether I’ve been in a three-piece suit or blue jeans,” he says.

PBS will re-air the opus beginning Sunday, April 3 over five consecutive nights. In addition, PBS Home Video and Paramount Home Entertainment will release a new 150th anniversary edition of The Civil War on DVD on March 29. The six-DVD set includes over an hour of previously unreleased interviews.

PBS recently aired The Tenth Inning, the latest chapter of Baseball, and Burns has just completed a three-part series on the history of the prohibition. Ahead is a two-part, four-hour history of the Dust Bowl, a doc on the Central Park jogger case, and a seven-part, 14-hour look at Franklin, Theodore and Eleanor Roosevelt. Other projects include a film about baseball’s Jackie Robinson, a biography on Ernest Hemingway and a history of country music, as well as a major series on the history of the Vietnam War. “It’s time to go back and do for the Vietnam War what I hope we did with the Civil War and WWII in The War,” he says.

“Stay tuned, as we awkwardly say.”

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.