It’s not as if Ken Burns invented the long-form, multi-part documentary. What he did was to bring a sense of style to archive photography and video, a fresh historical context to his subject matter. He didn’t invent the form, but he’s just about perfected it.
Beginning in 1981, Burns made several traditional documentaries on topics ranging from the Brooklyn Bridge to Thomas Hart Benton. Then, in 1991, he created The Civil War, a documentary shown on PBS for five consecutive nights. It gave the network its largest audience ever at the time, and is still considered Burns’s masterpiece. It won two Emmy Awards, two Grammy Awards, and a People’s Choice Award.
Burns is known for using distinctive music, camera moves on still photos to give the feeling of motion, and interesting and recognizable voices to read letters and historical elements. In The Civil War, for example, Sam Waterston read Abraham Lincoln, Jason Robards read Ulysses Grant, Morgan Freeman read Frederick Douglass, and Garrison Keillor read Walt Whitman.
Since that initial success, Burns has brought his special touch to other subjects: Baseball (1994), Jazz (2001), World War II (The War, 2007), and National Parks (The National Parks, America’s Best Idea, 2009) being the most successful.
Burns next project? A follow-up to Baseball, The Tenth Inning details the story of baseball from 1990 on. It will run for two nights in September, 2010…