Ken Burns to be honored at OSV fundraiser

Living museum was site for first documentary
By  Pamela  H.  Sacks


Ken Burns speaks about Old Sturbridge Village in lyrical terms and an almost reverential tone.

Mr. Burns, the award-winning documentary filmmaker, first visited the living history museum in the 1970s. He was a student at Hampshire College in Amherst creating his senior project, a 28-minute film about working in rural New England in the early 19th century.

“I can remember those early mornings waking up at 4 a.m. and driving from Hampshire through Belchertown and Palmer and into Sturbridge, and getting into the village in the early, early morning light, and trying to get as much done as possible before the visitors came,” Mr. Burns said. “This is where I cut my teeth and learned how to be a filmmaker.”

As it turned out, OSV was where Mr. Burns set the direction of his career. He discovered a genuine fascination with history and a style that resonates deeply with his audience.

Back then, as Mr. Burns was nearing the end of the shoot, he panned slowly across a painting to depict the transition from an agrarian economy to an industrial one. The technique would become known as “the Ken Burns effect.”

“I can remember as if it was yesterday,” he said. “We had spent most of our time on the farms. We were in a parlor, and it had a different feel. On the wall was a beautiful painting, and I decided to do it.”

Mr. Burns would go on to form Florentine Films. Over the next 30 years, he would make use of original prints and photographs in his documentaries in order to establish an atmosphere and evoke an emotional connection to a time and place.

“For all intents and purposes, without knowing it, I was locked and loaded for the rest of my life,” he said.

On Thursday, OSV will honor Mr. Burns for his extraordinary visual storytelling during a fundraising dinner at 6 p.m. at the Oliver Wight Tavern.

“This is wonderful, a coming full circle,” he said.

Mr. Burns has created some of the best known documentaries ever made, among them “The Civil War,” “Baseball,” “Jazz” and, most recently, “War.” He and his films have been showered with awards, and he has received two Oscar nominations for early films.

Mr. Burns decides what to pursue and how to tell the story. His documentaries are shown on public broadcasting stations, and he readily acknowledges that his association with PBS has made his career possible. His films, in turn, have set records for ratings at PBS. Some 40 million people have watched “The Civil War,” which first aired in 1990.

“I have been fortunate to lock into the family of public TV, which has given me artistic freedom,” Mr. Burns said. “I wouldn’t get any place anywhere else.”

Although he lives quietly in Walpole, N. H., with his wife and three daughters, Mr. Burns, 54, is recognized just about everywhere he goes. He is even something of a popular culture icon. He has been spoofed on several TV shows, among them “The Simpsons.” In one episode, Homer cannot find his remote control and is forced to watch a documentary by, about and named for Mr. Burns.

“It is totally fun,” Mr. Burns said, laughing. “It is the highest form of flattery. My only regret is they didn’t let me do the voiceover myself.”

“The Civil War” was published in book form, and in the 1990s TV show “Seinfeld,” Jerry keeps a copy of the book’s cover over his bookcase.

“When I first met Jerry Seinfeld, he asked if I’d seen it,” Mr. Burns recounted. “I said, `Of course.’”

Asked if he has a favorite among his films, Mr. Burns replied that he always prefers the one he is working on at the moment.

“I am so fortunate,” he said. “These are not jobs. I do not do these projects for clients. These are films I make for myself. They are very much informed by that.”

He allowed that he is best known for what is widely considered to be his masterpiece – the epic, nine-episode documentary on the Civil War. “If my obituary were written today, `The Civil War’ would be in the opening line,” Mr. Burns said.

When he first proposed the idea, he was turned down by possible funding sources. Even PBS was skeptical.

“They didn’t think anyone could be sustained with still photographs for more than an hour,” he said. “It turned out to be their most popular show ever. Johnny Carson talked about it every night in his monologue – every night. It grew in ratings each night.”

He attributes its popularity to the common ground it created by prompting a nationwide conversation about the tragedy of war and what that conflict meant to the country.

“We are all sort of fractured, and we yearn for that kind of connection,” Mr. Burns said.

Mr. Burns recently took “War,” his documentary on World War II, to West Point. He noted that all of the students are headed to Iraq, and the flag is perpetually at half staff.

“Several students came up and said they were there because as young children their parents had showed them `The Civil War,’ and they had chosen a military career because of that,” he said. “It was a profound experience for me.”

Before “War” aired, it was the subject of some controversy. An early version made no mention of Hispanics. Responding to pressure from advocacy groups, Mr. Burns added material to the content.

Mr. Burns said that “War” seems to have touched people deeply. Not long ago, he was at Union Station in Washington, D.C., and a veteran approached him. Weeping, the veteran told Mr. Burns that the documentary had told his story, one that he had been unable to express for 60 years.

“That’s what we are looking for, some indescribable something,” Mr. Burns said, adding that attaining that goal calls for conducting “emotional archaeology.”

“I have had many occasions where we are filming and someone breaks down,” he said. “It’s hard, but there is nothing lost, only a gain through warmth and emotion.”

Mr. Burns is finishing work on a six-part documentary on the history of America’s national parks, which will air next year on PBS. The concept of the national park originated with Abraham Lincoln.

Meanwhile, the OSV film Mr. Burns made in 1975 has been shown on a projector so many times it has become tattered and worn. He is reconstituting the film, an arduous and expensive undertaking. Mr. Burns said he is happy to do it for the museum that inspired him to develop “the greatest job on earth.”

Contact Pam  Sacks at