Ken Burns goes digital — and promises many more films

Last modified: Friday, March 28, 2014
From the Civil War to the history of baseball and jazz, to the story of seminal figures like Mark Twain and Thomas Jefferson, filmmaker Ken Burns has been chronicling American history for more than 30 years. And he hasn’t skimped on the details — by one measurement, it would take about 136 hours, or over five-and-a-half days, to watch his two dozen documentaries straight through.

Now Burns, arguably Hampshire College’s most famous graduate, has offered a new approach to accessing information from his catalog, in shorter segments that tie stories from different films together thematically. The “Ken Burns” iTunes app for iPads represents the filmmaker’s first big foray into the digital age, one that he plans to update regularly as he produces new documentaries.

In a phone call from his office in Walpole, N.H., Burns said the new program, launched in collaboration with digital agency Big Spaceship, features six “mix tapes,” up to an hour long, that offer many small clips he’s culled from his documentaries. The clips are arranged under six overarching themes in U.S. history — art, hard times, innovation, politics, race and war — and the overall program includes a timeline that pulls the information together.

Click on a year during the 1860s, for instance, and you can see selections from “The Civil War,” “The West,” and “The National Parks.” In the 1930s, you’ll see how scenes from “Jazz,” “Baseball,” “The Dust Bowl,” “Prohibition” and other films relate to one another.

Meanwhile, a topic like race can be examined from the early days of slavery (“Thomas Jefferson”) to emancipation (“The Civil War”) to racism’s lingering effects in the 20th century (“Unforgivable Blackness” and “The Central Park Five”).

“I just felt this was a way to take a new look at my work, to find a digital platform for it that addresses new media, and reach out to a new generation of viewers,” Burns said. “It’s a way to complement my films, not to replace them, but I really like the way this brings the images together and puts history in context ... and we’ll be adding new clips continuously in the future.”

The app has been produced by Don MacKinnon, a good friend of Burns who worked with him on 2001’s “Jazz,” and Sarah Botstein, a longtime producer and advisor for Burns’ company, Florentine Films. The company formed in the Valley in 1976; today its founders — Burns, Larry Hott, Roger Sherman and Buddy Squires — work separately but continue to share the name or an association with it.

Burns gives particular credit to MacKinnon, one of the founders of Starbucks’ “Hear Music” record label, for pushing him in the new direction for his app. “Both Sarah and Don did a wonderful job in making this happen,” he said.

Burns also narrates introductions to the clips — the first time he’s done that for any of his work — that were filmed over the course of two days in the renovated barn on his property where he works. One playlist (around the theme of Innovation) is included free with download. Access to five additional playlists costs $9.99; the fee is discounted for educators.

To coincide with the launch of the app in February a new website, Ken Burns America, was created in partnership with PBS and a number of other organizations; the website, (pbs.org/kenburns) includes information on all of Burns’ films as well as photographs, primary source materials, essays and interviews with Burns and members of his production team.

“We’re looking at this as a really good resource for teachers — we have integrated lesson plans they can draw on,” said Burns. “They’ll find the real meat and potatoes of my films here.”

A century of Roosevelts

When it comes to producing more of that meat and potatoes, Burns has plenty on the way. In April, he airs his newest film, “The Address,” a 90-minute feature on a small school in Putney, Vt., where students learn to recite the Gettysburg Address. The documentary looks both at the academic challenges faced by a diverse group of students as well as the history and context of President Lincoln’s famous speech.

And in the fall, Burns will roll out “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History,” a 14-hour series that chronicles the lives of Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt — the first time, Burns says, that the cousins’ stories have been interwoven in a major documentary TV series. The program covers more than a century of what’s likely America’s most famous political family, beginning with Theodore Roosevelt’s birth in 1858 and concluding with Eleanor Roosevelt’s death in 1962.

Burns notes that chief scriptwriter and key researcher Geoffrey Ward has uncovered correspondence between FDR and Daisy Suckley, a distant cousin and close friend of the president, that sheds new light on his famously enigmatic and elusive personal side. And he says the film will highlight Eleanor Roosevelt’s continued achievements after her husband died in 1945, such as championing civil rights and serving as a United Nations delegate.

“She’s very much got her own chops,” he said.

“The Roosevelts” also uses three pretty fair actors to help narrate the film: Meryl Streep provides the voice of Eleanor Roosevelt, Paul Giamatti handles Teddy Roosevelt, and Edward Hermann does Franklin Roosevelt. Hermann was nominated for two Emmy Awards for Best Actor for his portrayal of Franklin Roosevelt in the mid-1970s TV movies “Eleanor and Franklin” and “Eleanor and Franklin: The White House Years.”

Burns has the next few years booked solid with upcoming films as well — a biography of baseball legend and racial pioneer Jackie Robinson, a study of cancer and the long search for its cure, a history of the Vietnam War, and the story of country music.

In between all this work, Burns, who graduated from Hampshire in 1975, says he finds himself in the Valley on a pretty regular basis. He spoke and screened a preview of “The Roosevelts” last month in Shelburne Falls at a fundraising event for the town library, and he says he’s also been getting his hair cut for years in Northampton, at Best Heads In Town, on Damon Road.

The Valley “is where I went to school and made my start in filmmaking,” Burns said. “I still have a lot of friends and connections there — it’s a special place for me.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

The “Ken Burns” app for iPads can be found at itunes.apple.com/us/app/ken-burns/id723854283?mt=8.