History of The War: my conversation with Ken Burns

THE WAR, part 1

Tonight I talked with Ken Burns, who you know for his award winning documentaries including The Civil War, Baseball, and JAZZ. I had the privilege of sharing with him two questions, after he presented a preview of his new documentary coming out in Fall of 2007, about World War II called simply The War. This presentation took place at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. We got to see 7 or 8 clips, or about an hour and a quarter of his 7-part, 14.5 hour series that he has been working on for some 6 years. He’s previewing this documentary at military academies around the country.

I’ll tell you more about it in my next article, but now I’ll share the two questions.

1) I asked:

Mr. Burns, in terms of the power of pictures, the “Ken Burn Effect” is so renowned, that Apple computer includes it in their iPhoto desktop application. Can you share with us where this came from?

Ken Burns’ answer:

I am the son of a photographer, and I started in photography long before I ever hoped to do film making. But photos should not be static, they should move and suggest action. So I used common techniques like inserts, pans, zooms, fades, and dissolves… in my first work on the Brooklyn Bridge in 1981, and then in The Civil War, which of course, only had still pictures.

Several years ago, Steve Jobs said “Come see what we’re working on.” He showed me a rudimentary application of these techniques in a program he was working on that he wanted to label the “Ken Burns Effect.” He and three other geeks were talking in technological terms way above my head. I said “Steve, I don’t do commercial endorsements.” Eventually we worked out a deal where he donated some gear to a charity that my wife is involved in, and he got to use the term.

2) I continued:

My second question relating to the power of pictures is about a question that was asked of me when I was visiting the Dachau Concentration Camp memorial years ago, and I mentioned to those who worked there that my father had liberated Dachau some 48 years before. They asked me a question, and what is remarkable is that they all asked the same question. The question was “Do you have any pictures?” I shared with them the website I created as a tribute to my father that had the pictures my father had brought back and his story. Since then there have been over 30,000 visitors to the site. And I still get phone calls and email from men who tell me, “I went on leave in Paris with your father,” or “I was with him when we liberated Dachau,” or “I was with him after the war in Austria.” Such is the power of pictures.

Ken Burns replied:

We deal with the holocaust at the end of the series, a particularly difficult section of the documentary.

Ms. Lynn Novick, his co-producer on many of his documentaries, added that when they started the research on the documentary they began at the National Archives with photos of the Holocaust. After having made so many films, it was easy to believe that they were somewhat inured to grueling scenes, but she noted that one of her interns — whose responsibility it was to collect and record the images that would later be used for this documentary — had to stop, as he could no longer take in all these images.

Such is the power of pictures.

To be continued…

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
www.billpetro.com

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