Film Director and Producer, Ken Burns was selected to give the 154th Commencement address at Washington University in St. Louis in 2015
Ken Burns has been making films for more than 35 years. Since his Academy Award-nominated Brooklyn Bridge in 1981, Mr. Burns has gone on to direct and produce some of the most acclaimed historical documentaries ever made.
Referred to as “the most accomplished documentary filmmaker of his generation” by The New York Times, Mr. Burns has explored such compelling topics in American history as the Civil War, the Dust Bowl, Prohibition and World War II.
In his most recent documentary, he takes on the complex topic of cancer. Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies is a six-hour, three-part series that covers cancer’s first documented appearance thousands of years ago in an ancient Egyptian scroll through today’s battles to cure, control and conquer it. The documentary premiered on the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) in March 2015.
Mr. Burns’ personal experience with cancer — losing his mother to breast cancer at the age of 11 — is one of the reasons he is a filmmaker today.
“From the age of three, I watched her suffer and struggle with this awful disease, forever creating for me a desire to explore the past and to listen deeply to the stories that we all have to tell, in a way, waking the dead,” Mr. Burns said.
“Burns is not only the greatest documentarian of the day, but also the most influential filmmaker period,” said David Zurawik, PhD, television critic of The Baltimore Sun, in 2009. “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.”
A native of Brooklyn, New York, Mr. Burns earned a bachelor’s degree in film studies and design from Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, in 1975. At the age of 22, he co-founded his production company, Florentine Films, and has been making documentary films ever since.
Mr. Burns’ films are made for and are aired on PBS and incorporate a filmmaking technique credited to him. The technique involves slowly panning from one subject to another or zooming in or out over still photographs, as if making history come alive. It is known as the “Ken Burns effect.”
His documentaries are also known for the use of archival film footage, period music, first-person narration and authentic sound effects. Among his most widely known films are three epic documentaries: The Civil War, Baseball and Jazz.
The Civil War, for which he was the director, producer, co-writer, chief cinematographer, music director and executive producer, was the highest rated series in the history of American public television and attracted an audience of 40 million during its premiere in September 1990.
The series received more than 40 major film and television awards, including two Emmy Awards and two Grammy Awards.
Baseball, which is more than 18 hours long and took four-and-a-half years to make, became the most watched series in PBS history, attracting more than 45 million viewers when it first aired in September 1994.
Jazz, broadcast on PBS in January 2001, is a 19-hour, 10-part film that explores in detail the culture, politics and dreams that gave birth to jazz music, and follows the American art form from its origins in blues and ragtime through swing, bebop and fusion.
‘A privilege to work with him’
American culture critic Gerald Early, PhD, the Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, has collaborated with Mr. Burns on five of his films, including Baseball and Jazz.
Dr. Early also served as a consultant on Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson; The War; and The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, appearing in the documentaries on baseball, jazz and Jack Johnson as an on-air analyst.
“Burns has made some of the most extraordinary documentaries ever, intellectually rich yet lyrical and even poetic,” Dr. Early said. “No one has defined the United States in film with such depth of texture or with such sweeping grace. His America is both epic and intimate, stark yet mythical. It has been a privilege to work with him.”
Mr. Burns has delivered two talks at Washington University. He was last on campus in November 2012 when he received the university’s International Humanities Medal.
Among his many other honors, he has received more than 25 honorary degrees and the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Lifetime Achievement Award.
His projects currently in production include films on Jackie Robinson, the Vietnam War, the history of country music, Ernest Hemingway and the history of stand-up comedy.
He lives in Walpole, New Hampshire, with his wife, Julie. He has four daughters and two grandchildren.