Barry Garron for Current, April 7, 2015

There’s serendipity to Ric Burns’s method for choosing topics for his films.

Whether it’s his acclaimed history of New York City, his 2010 documentary on the American whaling industry or his latest PBS film, American Ballet Theatre: A History, Burns often pursues subjects and stories pitched to him by others.

This tendency started with his biography of Ansel Adams, a co-production with the Sierra Club that debuted in 2002 on the 100th anniversary of the famed photographer and conservationist’s birth. Years later, historian David McCullough suggested a film about America and the sea; Burns’s idea for Into the Deep, his film on whaling, took form. A conversation at the Algonquin Club with architect and author James Sanders blossomed into the epic documentary series on New York, which Sanders co-wrote.

By pursuing film projects proposed by others, Burns said, he’s intentionally avoided getting locked into a specific style of filmmaking. He recognized long ago that if he relied only on his own ideas, he’d risk “deadening the impact” of his own style.

“If you begin to let projects pick you rather than you pick the project, you’re going to go out of your comfort zone,” he said. “You’re going to do things you hadn’t thought of before.”
Series producers who have collaborated with Burns described him as a meticulous craftsman. “Like all great filmmakers, he’s trying to create a form that suits the content,” said Michael Kantor, e.p. of American Masters. “Form follows function. He’s trying to find a form for each film that matches the story.”

Any decision to make a film rests on what Burns calls “a thermonuclear transformative power at the center of the topic.” In the case of American Ballet Theatre, debuting on American Masters May 15, that power was “a human form communicating need, desire, beauty and power” in movement that, though classically defined, still comes from the individual performer.

Burns credits Madeline Eckett Oden, an interior designer and an ABT patron, for suggesting that he make a film about the company, and providing inspiration by taking him to several performances. “It wasn’t as if I hadn’t been to the ballet before, but there was something about the timing,” Burns said.

Watching from the balcony and then from the wings, Burns became excited about filming the ballet company. It would be new territory beyond his historical documentaries and biographies, primarily produced for American Experience.

American Ballet Theatre allowed Burns to do the kind of creative stretching that inspires him as a filmmaker. He worked on the documentary for over a decade. “We discovered that funding for art films about dance are about as difficult as funding dance itself,” he said.

He used the time to conceive a way to tell the story of the theatre company as part of the rise of dance as an art form in the U.S. He shot hundreds of hours of rehearsals, performances and interviews, and scanned hundreds of still photos and hours of archival footage.

The stylistic highlight of this film, however, is its cinematographic technique. Using a Phantom Flex camera capable of shooting up to 2,500 frames a second, Burns and cinematographer Buddy Squires were able to solve the production’s central creative dilemma: How do you make dance, which is so ephemeral, come alive on film, with its sense of permanence?

The Phantom Flex allowed Burns to break down ballet movement to its smallest components. That, Burns said, added to the drama and the emotional power of the film. It’s showing “what it is to be a human being in motion.”

The visual aesthetic of American Ballet Theatre goes “somewhere the Burns brothers haven’t been before,” said Beth Hoppe, PBS chief program executive, referring to the sibling relationship that shaped two filmmakers’ careers. Ric Burns’s collaboration with older brother, Ken, on The Civil War, a landmark historical documentary series, propelled both to new opportunities.

Mark Samels, e.p. of American Experience, has observed how Ric Burns has challenged himself creatively over decades. “Ric never settles for low-hanging fruit,” Samels said. “He’s always reaching way up into the tree. He’s always trying to get a level of ideas and insight and craft that’s up there.”
“He’s just a master at interviewing people and getting them up to their game,” Samels added. “You’ll see someone you’ve seen before in films, but now he appears to be more insightful and passionate.”

Defying a brother’s expectations

Burns learned filmmaking at what he calls the best possible school — the editing room of Ken Burns’s Florentine Films. That’s where Ric (short for Eric) decided to forego a life as an academic in favor of a career making documentaries.

In the early 1980s, Ric began helping Ken out with his film scripts and proposals. Ric was a professor of English when his brother asked him to work on The Civil War, the 1990 documentary series that popularized the Burns’ documentary filmmaking style. “I was coming into the home stretch of my Ph.D., and I said, ‘Well, OK, I’ll do this and come back to that.’ Of course, I never went back.”

But Ric did strike out on his own, producing through his own company, Steeplechase Films, and experimenting with different techniques.

Ken Burns’s company, Florentine Films, has recently expanded to produce documentaries on contemporary themes, such as this month’s Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies, produced by Barak Goodman with Ken Burns as e.p. Ken Burns described his brother’s filmmaking as “hugely brave.”

“He has been willing to embrace re-enactments and re-creations in an exquisitely artful way,” Ken Burns said. “He’s really done some extraordinary stuff which, if he had told me in advance, I’d have said, ‘Oh no, Ric. Don’t do that. It’s not going to work.’ And it works magnificently.”

In The Donner Party, one of Ric Burns’s first films for American Experience, the professor-turned-filmmaker surprised orthodox documentarians by using actors in re-enactments, albeit in an oblique way. “Film works through images,” Burns explained, “but only when those images withhold as much as they disclose.”

Looking ahead to American Experience’s fall 2015 season, Burns will deliver The Pilgrims, a new take on America’s time-honored settlers as a radical religious cult.

Burns also is finishing a two-hour ninth episode to his masterpiece on the history of New York, originally broadcast on American Experience in 1999. “It’s about New York since 9/11,” he said. “It doesn’t really focus on the rebuilding of Ground Zero. It’s about the themes that were driving the film through the preceding 17 and a half hours.” That is, how the city has continued to be a “unique laboratory of culture and transformation created out of a ferociously capitalistic culture.”