Burns was born on July 29, 1953, in Brooklyn, New York, the son of Lyla Smith (née Tupper) Burns, a biotechnician, and Robert Kyle Burns, at the time a graduate student in cultural anthropology at Columbia University in Manhattan. The documentary filmmaker Ric Burns is his younger brother. He is a distant relative of Scottish poet Robert Burns.
Burns is a descendant of Johannes de Peyster Sr. through Dr. Gerardus Clarkson, an American Revolutionary War physician from Philadelphia.
Burns' academic family moved frequently. Among places they called home were Saint-Véran, France; Newark, Delaware; and Ann Arbor where his father taught at the University of Michigan. Burns' mother was found to have breast cancer when he was three and she died when he was 11, a circumstance that he said helped shape his career; he credited his father-in-law, a psychologist, with a significant insight: "He told me that my whole work was an attempt to make people long gone come back alive." Well-read as a child, he absorbed the family encyclopedia, preferring history to fiction. Upon receiving an 8 mm film movie camera for his 17th birthday, he shot a documentary about an Ann Arbor factory. He graduated from Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor in 1971. Turning down reduced tuition at the University of Michigan, he attended Hampshire College, an alternative school in Amherst, Massachusetts, where students are graded through narrative evaluations rather than letter grades and where students create self-directed academic concentrations instead of choosing a traditional major. He worked in a record store to pay his tuition.
Studying under photographers Jerome Liebling, Elaine Mayes and others, Burns earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in film studies and design in 1975.
Upon graduation, he, Mayes and college classmate Roger Sherman founded Florentine Films in Walpole, New Hampshire. The company's name was borrowed from Mayes' hometown of Florence, Massachusetts. Another Hampshire College graduate Buddy Squires subsequently succeeded Mayes one year later in 1976. Burns worked as a cinematographer for the BBC, Italian television, and others, and in 1977, having completed some documentary short films, he began work on adapting David McCullough's book The Great Bridge, about the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. Developing a signature style of documentary filmmaking in which he "adopted the technique of cutting rapidly from one still picture to another in a fluid, linear fashion [and] then pepped up the visuals with 'first hand' narration gleaned from contemporary writings and recited by top stage and screen actors", he made the feature documentary Brooklyn Bridge (1981), which earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary and ran on PBS in the United States.
Following another documentary, The Shakers: Hands to Work, Hearts to God (1984), Burns was Oscar-nominated again for The Statue of Liberty (1985). Burns frequently collaborates with author and historian Geoffrey Ward, notably on documentaries such as The Civil War, Jazz, Baseball, and the upcoming 18 part TV series The Vietnam War (airing in September 2017).
Burns has gone on to a long, successful career directing and producing well-received television documentaries and documentary miniseries on subjects as diverse as arts and letters (Thomas Hart Benton, 1988); mass media (Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio, 1991); sports (Baseball, 1994, updated with 10th Inning, 2010); politicians (Thomas Jefferson, 1997); music (Jazz, 2001); literature (Mark Twain, 2001); war (the 15-hour World War II documentary The War, 2007); environmentalism (The National Parks, 2009); and the Civil War (the 11-hour The Civil War, 1990, which All Media Guide says "many consider his 'chef d'oeuvre'").
In 1982, Burns married Amy Stechler, with whom he had two daughters, Sarah and Lily; the marriage ended in divorce in 1993. As of 2017, Burns resides in Walpole, New Hampshire, with his second wife, Julie Deborah Brown, whom he married on October 18, 2003. They have two daughters, Olivia and Willa Burns.
In 2014 Burns appeared in Henry Louis Gates's Finding Your Roots where he discovered startling news that he is a descendant of a slave owner from the Deep South, in addition to having a lineage which traces back to Colonial Americans of Loyalist allegiance during the American Revolution.
Burns is a longtime supporter of the Democratic Party, with almost $40,000 in political donations. In 2008, the Democratic National Committee chose Burns to produce the introductory video for Senator Edward Kennedy's August 2008 speech to the Democratic National Convention, a video described by Politico as a "Burns-crafted tribute casting him [Kennedy] as the modern Ulysses bringing his party home to port." In August 2009, Kennedy died, and Burns produced a short eulogy video at his funeral. In endorsing Barack Obama for the U.S. presidency in December 2007, Burns compared Obama to Abraham Lincoln. He said he had planned to be a regular contributor to Countdown with Keith Olbermann on Current TV.1982 nomination, Academy Award for Documentary Feature: Brooklyn Bridge (1981);
1986 nomination, Academy Award for Documentary Feature: The Statue of Liberty (1985);
1995 Emmy Award for Outstanding Informational Series: Baseball (1994);
2010 Emmy Award for Outstanding Non-fiction Series: The National Parks: America's Best Idea (2009).
The Civil War received more than 40 major film and television awards, including two Emmy Awards, two Grammy Awards (one for Best Traditional Folk Album), the Producer of the Year Award from the Producers Guild of America, a People's Choice Award, a Peabody Award, a duPont-Columbia Award, a D. W. Griffith Award, and the $50,000 Lincoln Prize.
In 2004, Burns received the S. Roger Horchow Award for Greatest Public Service by a Private Citizen, an award given out annually by Jefferson Awards.
As of 2010, there is a Ken Burns Wing at the Jerome Liebling Center for Film, Photography and Video at Hampshire College.
In 2012, Burns received the Washington University International Humanities Medal. The medal, awarded biennially and accompanied by a cash prize of $25,000, is given to honor a person whose humanistic endeavors in scholarship, journalism, literature, or the arts have made a difference in the world. Past winners include Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk in 2006, journalist Michael Pollan in 2008, and novelist and nonfiction writer Francine Prose in 2010.
In 2013, Burns received the John Steinbeck Award, an award presented annually by Steinbeck's eldest son, Thomas, in collaboration with the John Steinbeck Family Foundation, San Jose State University, and The National Steinbeck Center.
Burns was the Grand Marshal for the 2016 Pasadena Tournament of Roses' Rose Parade on New Year's Day in Pasadena, California. The National Endowment for the Humanities selected Burns to deliver the 2016 Jefferson Lecture, the U.S. federal government's highest honor for achievement in the humanities, on the topic of race in America. In 2016, he also gave a commencement speech for Stanford University criticizing Donald Trump. He was the 2017 recipient of The Nichols-Chancellor's Medal at Vanderbilt University.
Burns frequently incorporates simple musical leitmotifs or melodies. For example, The Civil War features a distinctive violin melody throughout, "Ashokan Farewell", which was performed for the film by its composer, fiddler Jay Ungar. One critic noted, "One of the most memorable things about The Civil War was its haunting, repeated violin melody, whose thin, yearning notes seemed somehow to sum up all the pathos of that great struggle."
Burns often gives life to still photographs by slowly zooming in on subjects of interest and panning from one subject to another. For example, in a photograph of a baseball team, he might slowly pan across the faces of the players and come to rest on the player who is the subject of the narrator. This technique, possible in many professional and home software applications, is termed "The Ken Burns effect" in Apple's iPhoto, iMovie and Final Cut Pro X software applications. Burns stated in a 2009 interview that he initially declined to have his name associated with the software because of his stance to refuse commercial endorsements. However, Apple chief Steve Jobs negotiated to give Burns Apple equipment, which Burns donated to nonprofit organizations.
As a museum retrospective noted, "His PBS specials [are] strikingly out of step with the visual pyrotechnics and frenetic pacing of most reality-based TV programming, relying instead on techniques that are literally decades old, although Burns reintegrates these constituent elements into a wholly new and highly complex textual arrangement."
In a 2011 interview, Burns stated that he admires and is influenced by filmmaker Errol Morris.Brooklyn Bridge (1981)
The Shakers: Hands to Work, Hearts to God (1984)
The Statue of Liberty (1985)
Huey Long (1985)
The Congress (1988)
Thomas Hart Benton (1988)
The Civil War (1990)
Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio (1991)
Baseball (1994), updated with The Tenth Inning (2010)
The West (1996)
Thomas Jefferson (1997)
Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery (1997)
Frank Lloyd Wright, with Lynn Novick (1998)
Not For Ourselves Alone: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony (1999)
Mark Twain (2001)
Horatio's Drive: America's First Road Trip (2003)
Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson (2005)
The War (2007)
The National Parks: America's Best Idea (2009)
Prohibition, with Lynn Novick (2011)
The Dust Bowl (2012)
The Central Park Five (2012)
Yosemite: A Gathering of Spirit (2013)
The Address (2014)
The Roosevelts: An Intimate History (2014)
Jackie Robinson (2016)
Defying the Nazis: The Sharps' War (2016)
The Vietnam War (2017) (with Lynn Novick)
Country Music (2019)
Ernest Hemingway (2019)
Stand-up Comedy (TBA)
Ken Burns – Executive producer
The West (1996) (directed by Stephen Ives)
Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies (2015) (directed by Barak Goodman)
William Segal (1992)
In the Marketplace (2000)
Gettysburg (1993)—Hancock's staff officer