Ken Burns on The Dust Bowl — and “the Ken Burns effect”

Perhaps you think you’ve never heard of Ken Burns. But if you’ve ever been to a wedding, say, and watched a montage of photographs where the camera seems to pan in and around the still images, creating the illusion of movement, you’re watching what’s called “the Ken Burns effect”. And in every Apple computer for the past decade you’ll find the effect available in iMovie. “It’s saved countless millions of bar mitzvahs, vacations and weddings from descending into boredom,” Burns laughs as we talk on the phone. He’s in Boston and has agreed to speak to me at 6.30am — his time — so busy are this film-maker’s days. He says he knows what he’s doing pretty much every day up to 2019.

Burns, perhaps the greatest documentary film-maker who has ever lived, tells the story of “the Ken Burns effect” with great affection for his late friend, Steve Jobs, who contacted him a decade ago and asked him to come to California and see what his engineers had devised. When Jobs said the company would like to keep calling it “the Ken Burns effect”, Burns said: “Oh, I’m so sorry, I don’t do commercial endorsements. And his face fell — but we worked out a deal where he would give me (and now Apple gives me) thousands of dollars of equipment, which I give to non-profit organisations, educational institutions and the like.”

Burns claims he’d be “drummed out of the editing room” if he ever referred to his eponymous technique and is quick to credit the team effort that goes into his films. But there’s no denying the magic of that effect. His first documentary, released in 1981, tells the story of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge in the years just after the Civil War, long before any kind of film was widely available. He used a still photograph of workmen on the bridge: “I treated that old photograph like it was a feature film master shot, complete with a long shot, a medium shot, an extreme close-up, a tilt, a pan, a reveal. And, more importantly, I listened to it. So I wondered whether you could hear the workmen’s hammers and their shouts, the sound of a primitive steam engine, the gulls flying over the East River, the water lapping up against the bridge and the ambience of the city. So much so that at the premiere of the film, a woman said she was amazed that I had newsreels of the construction!”

Burns, who was born in New York in 1953, is best known for his epic trilogy of documentaries The Civil War (1990, ten hours); Baseball (1994, more than 18 hours) and Jazz (2001, 19 hours). Until December 17 all of them will be screened on PBS America, along with his latest work, The Dust Bowl, a two-part, four-hour documentary about what Burns calls “the greatest man-made ecological disaster in the history of the United States; a man-made apocalypse”.

The industrialisation of agriculture that, in part, brought about this catastrophe of the Thirties over great tracts of farmland, mainly in Texas and Oklahoma, has a great resonance today, he says. “We’ve just watched climate change give us three years of drought in that same area, magnifying weather cycles, just as we’ve watched a single-degree rise in temperature mid-Atlantic amplify a hurricane that devastated New York City .”

The survivors’ accounts are moving and terrifying: dust storms a mile and a half high and two hundred miles wide led Robert “Boots” McCoy from Texas to recall that the “middle of day was just like midnight. Midnight with no stars.”

Burns has won four Emmys, been Oscar-nominated twice and has 25 honorary degrees. It’s clear, however, that what animates him is not a search for fame or riches, but something much more personal. His determination to be a film-maker arose after his mother’s death when he was 11. Her illness had overshadowed his whole childhood, “there wasn’t a moment when I wasn’t aware of the impending tragedy”. His father, by the sounds of it, was pretty strict: but would let his son stay up to watch movies with him on TV. That’s when “I saw my father cry for the first time. At the age of 12 I got it — the power of film. It was the first time he cried, despite all this other tragedy. One could employ a bit of dime-store psychology and say look what I’ve done for my professional life: I wake the dead. Who do you think I’m really trying to wake?”

Of course, he wasn’t watching documentaries with his father, but features. “I wanted to be Alfred Hitchcock! I wanted to be John Ford! I wanted to be Howard Hawks!” But when he went to college his teachers were the great still documentary photographers of the era: over time he was sold on the idea that “there is more drama in what was, in what is, than in anything the human imagination can dream of”. This idea “completely rearranged my thinking, my molecules”.

That rearrangement has resulted in a body of work unmatched in film history and one that will keep growing. As we speak, a new film about “the Central Park Jogger” case of 1989, in which five young men were wrongly convicted for the rape of a woman in New York’s Central Park, is about to be aired. His teams are in Vietnam for a film about the war. His history of Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt will appear in 2014. He’s developing a film about Jackie Robinson, the first black major league baseball player and “graphing out” a big series on the history of country music. Burns’s passion for history is energising. “The reason so many people find history castor oil — something good for you but hardly good-tasting — is that they forget the difference between the past and history,” he says. History is the set of questions we in the present ask of the past. In a very strange and paradoxical but I think lovely way, the past becomes an agency of understanding the present, and ensures that we have a future — because it’s through the telling of stories that we achieve immortality.”