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Ken  Burns

Ken Burns

Documentary Filmmaker

Biography

Ken Burns has been making films for more than 30 years, directing and producing some of the most celebrated historical documentaries ever made. The late historian Stephen Ambrose has said of his films, “More Americans get their history from Ken Burns than any other source.” David Zurawik of The Baltimore Sun wrote in March 2009, “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.” Burns’ films have won ten Emmy Awards, garnered two Oscar nominations, and in September of 2008, he was honored by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences with a Lifetime Achievement Award. Read More >

Burns’ recent documentary, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, aired on PBS in the fall of 2009.  Directed and co-produced by Burns, 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 – in short, 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. Films currently in production include The Tenth Inning, an update to Burns’ 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 include films on the Dust Bowl, the Roosevelts, the Vietnam War, and the Central Park Jogger case.

PBS broadcast the documentary The War in 2007, a seven-part film telling the story of the Second World War through the personal accounts of nearly 40 men and women from four quintessentially American towns. The series explores the most intimate human dimensions of the greatest cataclysm in history, a time where worldwide catastrophe touched the lives of every family on every street in every town in America.

PBS broadcast Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson in 2005, a two-part film on the life of the first African American heavyweight boxing champion.  The film premiered at the

2004 Telluride Film Festival, and won three Primetime Emmy Awards: Outstanding Nonfiction Special, Outstanding Writing for Nonfiction, and Outstanding Voice-over Performance (for narrator Keith David).

Burns was the director, producer, co-writer, chief cinematographer, music director, and executive producer of the 1994 PBS series Baseball. Four and a half years in the making and eighteen and a half hours in length, it covers the history of baseball from the 1840s to the present. The film series also set a public television viewership record, attracting more than 45 million viewers and receiving numerous awards, including an Emmy, the CINE Golden Eagle Award, the Clarion Award, and the Television Critics Awards for Outstanding Achievement in Sports and Special Programming.

Burns was also the director, producer, co-writer, chief cinematographer, music director, and executive producer of the landmark series The Civil War. This film was the highest rated series in the history of American Public Television and attracted an audience of 40 million during its premiere in 1990. The series has been honored with more than 40 major film and television awards, including two Emmy Awards, two Grammy Awards, Producer of the Year Award from the Producer’s Guild, People’s Choice Award, Peabody Award, DuPont-Columbia Award, D.W. Griffiths Award, and the $50,000 Lincoln Prize, among dozens of others.

 Burns produced and directed his first film for PBS in 1981, the Academy Award nominated Brooklyn Bridge. His extensive and critically acclaimed filmography includes the Oscar nominated Statue of Liberty, as well as Huey Long, The West, Thomas Jefferson, Frank Lloyd Wright, Not For Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton & Susan B. Anthony, Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio, Mark Twain, and Horatio’s Drive: America’s First Road Trip.

Born in Brooklyn, New York, Burns graduated from Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts and went on to be one of the co-founders of Florentine Films. Read Less ^

Speaker Videos

Interview with Bill Maher

PBS Interview

Speech Topics

The National Parks: A Treasure House of Nature’s Superlatives

Ken Burns discusses the great gift of our national parks with the same passion and depth that trademark his award-winning films. He notes that the immensity and the intimacy of time merge as we appreciate what the parks have added to our collective and individual spirit. This presentation begins with the 13-minute introduction from his documentary, National Parks: America's Best Idea.

Sharing the American Experience

In this 45 to 50 minute speech, compelling storyteller Ken 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 The Civil War, Baseball and Jazz, Burns engages and celebrates what we share in common.

No Ordinary Lives

Drawing on some of Lincoln's most stirring words as inspiration, this speech engages the paradox of war by following the powerful themes in two of Ken 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 WWII told through the experiences of so-called ordinary people from four geographically distributed American towns. Burns opens with Norah Jones 5-minute American Anthem clip from The War.

Mystic Chords of Memory

The Civil War continues to be the most important event in American history. In this eloquent address, Burns paints both an intimate and bird’s eye view of the searing events of the years1861 through 1865 and the war’s profound relevance to us today.

American Lives

This keynote combines the biographies of some of Ken’s most fascinating subjects, including Thomas Jefferson, Lewis & Clark and Frank Lloyd Wright. He shares how biography works, and gives insight into the storytelling process. 

On-Stage Q & A

This is a less formal, Inside-the-Actors-Studio type of event. Ken Burns responds to questions on all his films and issues in history and contemporary American culture.

Books & Media

Books

Baseball : An Illustrated History

Connect with Ken Burns