Ken Burns

American filmmaker Ken Burns makes documentary films. Many of them have aired on PBS such as The Civil War, Baseball and Jazz.


Ken Burns was born on July 29, 1953, in Brooklyn, New York. He founded a production company called Florentine Films and began making documentary films. In 1981, his film Brooklyn Bridge earned him an Academy Award nomination for best documentary. He has gone on to make many other films that have aired on PBS such as The Civil War, Baseball and Jazz. His recent projects include 2014's The Roosevelts: An Intimate History.

Early Life and Career

Born on July 29, 1953, in Brooklyn, New York, Ken Burns is the creator of such acclaimed documentaries as The Civil War, Baseball and Jazz. He is considered one of the most influential filmmakers of our time. Burns grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, with his younger brother Ric. Their father, Robert Lyle Burns, was an anthropologist, a photography enthusiast and a World War II veteran. With encouragement from his father, Burns developed an interest in film early on. He told Print magazine that "my father took me to the Cinema Guild and allowed me to stay up late and watch movies on TV until two in the morning. I was set on becoming the next John Ford."

Burns lost his mother, Lyla, to cancer when he was 11 years old. After graduating from Pioneer High School in 1971, he went to Hampshire College where he earned a bachelor's degree in 1975. Before long, Burns launched his own production company, Florentine Films. His first documentary to attract wide acclaim was 1981's Brooklyn Bridge, which earned him an Academy Award nomination. It was in making this film that he started developing his now trademark style. As he explained to Print, he realized "that you could make the story come alive through photographs and first-person quotes." A few years later, his next major project The Statue of Liberty brought him a second Academy Award nod.

'The Civil War' and 'Baseball'

Burns became nationally known with his epic 1990 documentary The Civil War. When it aired on public television, this 11-hour-long opus on the battle between the North and the South drew roughly 40 million viewers. Critics raved about the program, which went on to earn two Emmy Awards.

According to the Baltimore Sun, Burns describes The Civil War as "the epitome of the emotional archaeology that we had been attempting in all our films—excavating not just the dry dates events and facts of the past, but something more durable, more serviceable, something with a higher emotional import."

Four years later, Burns explored America's favorite pastime with Baseball. The 18-hour program followed the sport from its beginnings to the present day. And like The Civil War, Baseball proved to be a hit with viewers and critics. More than 45 million people watched the documentary when it first aired. Burns remained fascinated by America, making such documentaries as The West, Lewis and Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery and Thomas Jefferson.

'Jazz' and Other Projects

Burns continued to thrive as a documentarian with 2001's Jazz. Over the course of 19 hours, he took his viewers through a journey into this beloved musical genre—not only its history but the cultural and political influences that helped shape it. Burns soon focused his lens on one of America's legendary writers in Mark Twain, which aired in 2002.

Burns turned another famous military conflict with 2007's The War. This documentary explores World War II through the personal stories of a group of men and women from four different communities. In 2009, Burns brought viewers some of the country's most breathtaking vistas with The National Parks: America's Best Idea.

In Recent Years

Burns remains an active and engaging filmmaker, producing projects on an array of American experiences and figures. He delved into epic struggle over alcohol in 2011's Prohibition and examined the ecological problems that plagued the country in 2012's The Dust Bowl. Moving on to more contemporary times, Burns worked on a documentary about one of infamous criminal cases of the 1980s in The Central Park Five.

In 2014, Burns brought together of the three of the most influential people in American life in The Roosevelts: An Intimate History. The documentary explores the lives of President Theodore Roosevelt, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Several leading actors, such as Paul Giamatti, Peter Coyote and Meryl Streep, lent their voices to the project, reading quotes by these famous figures.   

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