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Martin Barrett
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Ken Burns MasterClass Review

Ken Burns MasterClass Review: Is It Worth It?

Ken Burns is one of the most revered and celebrated documentary filmmakers in the world – known for his detailed approach, distinct storytelling style, and his tasteful, informative approaches to some of the most harrowing human events in history. 

But what exactly does he teach on his MasterClass course, and what benefits can it have to prospective students? 

Let’s read this detailed Ken Burns MasterClass review where Ken talks intellectually about the documentary renaissance and what practical advice he gives.

Who Is Ken Burns? 

Ken Burns is a celebrated documentary filmmaker – perhaps most famous for his historically-themed documentary series’ set around various wars, including the American civil war, and his work on Vietnam. 

Long possessing a love for non-fiction – especially history – Burns sees his job as bringing history to life and introducing new generations of viewers to some of the most important moments in American history. 

What Does The Course Teach? 

Ken Burns teaches documentaries to the students and they will learn all about the practices and methods involved in documentary filmmaking – drawing upon Burns’ own 50+ years of experience in the industry. 

The course features 26 sections, each focused on a different facet of the film industry and the process of making respected documentaries that will stand the test of time – and the scrutiny of historians and critics alike. 

Some of the areas covered in this Ken Burns filmmaking masterclass session include: 

  • What It Takes. 
  • Choosing your story. 
  • Finding a story within the subject matter. 
  • Telling a true story. 
  • Treatments, pitches, and funding. 
  • Structuring a documentary narrative. 
  • Sourcing archival material. 
  • Shaping non-fiction characters. 
  • A case study on the Vietnam war documentary. 
  • Writing a script. 
  • Visual storytelling: cinematic techniques. 
  • Visual storytelling: unforgivable blackness. 
  • Selecting interview subjects. 
  • Conducting an interview. 
  • Navigating a bad interview. 
  • Non-fiction cinematography. 
  • The power of music. 
  • Editing: process. 
  • Editing: principles. 
  • Editing case study: The Vietnam War Doc. 
  • Recording and using voiceover. 
  • Sound design. 
  • The artist’s responsibility. 
  • Sharing your film. 
  • Jumping the chasm. 

It’s certainly true that Burns’ course has some of the most extensive sessions, as well as one of the longest-running times, and this is a testament to the amount of hard work, research, and effort he puts into his documentaries – something that has made his work stand the test of time, and which has left him so revered amongst filmmakers everywhere. 

Ken Burns MasterClass Review: Is It Worth It? 1

What Are The Benefits Of The Course? 

Through his documentary filmmaking MasterClass course, Burns takes prospective students on a journey into the world of documentary filmmaking, showing them his process, his filmmaking style, and providing insight into how people can get into the field. 

There are of course several benefits – both for storytellers and aspiring filmmakers alike. 

Bringing History Alive

Whether you are a historian with an interest in Burns’ work, a fan of documentary filmmaking, or just a storyteller in general, then Burns’ documentary films are an excellent example of appropriately, and effectively creating intimate, revealing works based around real people, and this skill can be invaluable for a number of different reasons. 

Documentary filmmaking, in essence, is more complex than other mediums – namely because of the distinct issues of respect and care that have to be taken with often sensitive subjects. 

Amount Of Content

Burns’ course is far vaster than some other courses offered by MasterClass, meaning that prospective students will get far more bang for their buck. 

This is great, both for those who might be concerned by the cost of signing up with MasterClass and for those who really are wanting to learn from the master. 

Variety Of Content 

The thing about filmmaking is that it covers numerous different roles and skill sets.

With this course, many of these skill sets are covered, including scriptwriting, cinematography, sound design, editing, voiceovers, and even research – the latter of which usually goes unmentioned in most film courses. 

This could be a great all-rounder for anyone wanting to break into filmmaking – especially documentary film – and what better person to learn from than one of the leading contributors in his field? 

Are There Any Downsides To The Course? 

While there are a few downsides to Ken Burns’ course, there are some with the MasterClass package in general. 

The Price

The price could certainly be an issue for some people, even with the different tiers of use and the options therein. 

While there are differently priced options, they do seem to favor larger groups – such as the family dynamic wherein four or five users can make use of the courses. 

This is fine if you are indeed in that dynamic – or if you have a group of housemates or friends you want to share the account with – but for single people who live alone, this could dissuade them from wanting to get involved. 

Even though MasterClass does allow for individual courses to be paid for, this is still just shy of the $100 dollar mark, meaning that the whole system is really incentivized to get you to subscribe on a monthly plan. 

New Information? 

One thing that often concerns us with online education – particularly that where you have to pay a subscription fee – is whether the content/information you are going to be exposed to will actually be something new, rare, or just not seen or talked about elsewhere online. 

After all, the internet provides us with numerous free resources, both for information, learning skills, and accomplishing any number of tasks, so if the information regarding, say, documentary filmmaking, is already online and free to access, then is there a need to engage with this course and pay the fees? 

So, Is It Worth It? 

This is a constantly difficult question and one that, ultimately, depends on the individual user and what they are looking for. 

If you are an existing MasterClass user with free reign to access all the courses, then this is certainly one to check out – regardless of whether you want to become a filmmaker or not.

Ken Burns is a leader in his field, and hearing what he has to say is definitely worthwhile. 

Likewise, if you have the means and the inclination to pay for his course, then you should go for it – especially if you are a keen documentary maker, and are a fan of his work.

The fact of the matter is that you simply won’t get the same one-to-one feel anywhere else, least of all with someone at his level. 

However, if you are a fair-weather student, or you have only a passing interest and no account, then I would certainly recommend starting somewhere else first, and accessing the countless pieces of free content online. 

Burns himself has numerous documentaries you could engage with, not to mention filmmaking resources. 

Final Thoughts

And there we have it, everything you need to know about Ken Burns, and the content he teaches in his MasterClass course. 

Ken Burns is one of the most revered and celebrated documentary filmmakers in the world and has consistently released gripping, documentary craft materials based on all manner of historical and societal themes. 

So if you happen to be a fan of his work, or you simply want to learn from the hands of a master craftsman, then why not check out this MasterClass course? Something tells me you won’t be disappointed!

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