Ken Burns on the (1 + 1) = 3 Story Equation


There has been a lot of buzz in the last few weeks about a very short video where new-york based designer Stefan Sagmeister says that people who are not novelists or filmmakers and claim that they are storytellers are full of shit. It’s a provocative position that could have been interesting if Sagmeister has had time to explore the nuances behind his statement, but as is, it’s not very helpful, and if you are looking for useful inspiration from Sagmeister, I’d recommend you to watch his TED Talk instead. So when I watched Ken Burns slightly longer video On Story, I felt that I’d rather focus on that, seeing that we are here to learn and grow.

The video is two years old, but its content is ageless. Documentary is a genre that has exploded in terms of creativity, ambition and storytelling over the years. Probably the closest genre to the DIY spirit indie filmmakers with a love for narratives have, documentaries have the power to make both an impact on an emotional and personal level, and on a “real life level“. (I can’t recommend enough the masterclass with brilliant documentarians Lucy Walker and Steve James on the spirit and drive behind documentary making).

Ken Burns shares the belief that we’ve been building a practical world where we constantly try to prove that 1 + 1 = 2, but when it comes to picking what stories are worth telling, he looks for the one that have a 1 + 1 = 3 factor, a story that opens to something bigger, that has this “other thing where the whole is bigger than the sum of its parts”. To tell these harder to grasp at first sight stories, manipulation is required, even in documentaries, because of the thousand of choices that have to be made, from the narrative order to the editing pace, from the music to the P.O.V.

And in that regard, you could argue that yes, you do tell a story each time you combine separate elements -whatever the medium- to create something that didn’t exist before. You make a statement, for better or worse, and being aware of that might help you decide to pick your battles wisely in terms of what you want -and have- to say.

Watch the full video below:

[thanks to Blue Cats Screenplay]

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