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Documentary Maker Draws Comparisons Between Film & Mayo Clinic


This news story was published on February 26, 2011.
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ROCHESTER, MN—If acclaimed documentary maker Ken Burns is pondering the Mayo Clinic as a possible future subject he may have dropped at least one subtle hint at a Thursday night appearance in Rochester.

Mayo President and CEO Dr. John Noseworthy invited Burns to visit Mayo and he spent the better part of two days meeting with people and getting a better look at the Mayo Campus.

Dr. Noseworthy revealed he’d had several conversations with Burns and found him to be “remarkable.”

During “An Evening with Ken Burns” on the Mayo campus the award winning filmmaker discussed his career in film and answered questions from an audience after it watched a highlight reel of his work.

When asked about his impressions of Mayo, Burns said “this is the finest hospital and health care” facility I’ve ever been to.

Burns drew a comparison between Mayo and the passion and collaboration required to make a documentary film.

“I am a conductor of an extraordinary orchestra, much the same way you work together here,” said Burns as he credited the many creative people he works with for his success.

He talked about “the whole being greater than the parts.”

“It’s as close as I’ve come to a perpetual motion machine,” said Burns as he described his impressions about Mayo.

“I come to you as a grateful son of Jerome Liebling, to thank you for all you did to save his life.”

Along with being treated by Mayo, Liebling’s ties to Minnesota include his time as a professor of film and photography at the University of Minnesota.

Liebling was also a professor and mentor to Burns when he attended Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts.

Turning to how to he has created films like The National Parks, Baseball, Jazz, Mark Twain and the Civil War, Burns described the process as a “voyage of discovery.”

In trying to explain the camera panning and zooming technique for bringing photographs to life, which has been dubbed “The Ken Burns Effect” by Apple Computer, the filmmaker said, “the single image has the ability to convey complex information.”

Burns said he “can in fact find an emotional basis in a photo” by shooting it at least ten different ways and combing those images with sound effects and music.

He cited his film the Civil War as an example. He said the story of several skirmishes between Northern and Southern forces was told without a single photo from a battlefield.

“We were completely flabbergasted by the response,” said Burns, “Because it touched a cord, it was America’s most significant event.”

Burns also talked about what has drawn him to document historical American events and subjects for nearly 30 years.

“We’re ice on a Minnesota Lake in March, it can be done but it’s not wise,” said Burns. “We believe in exceptionalism, we (Americans) believe we are like no other place in the world.”

“We were the first democracy and the first to set aside public land, what we now called National Parks,” said Burns. “Lincoln called us the last best hope of earth.”

He noted that nearly every subject he documents deals with the issues of freedom of race.

As far as the process that is entailed in making his films, at first Burns said he did everything. He photographed, interviewed, edited and co-wrote most everything he produced.

He does less of that today and lets his team members do more of the work because he discovered “if you don’t delegate, you lose them and you lose your way.” It’s like what your people do here at Mayo said Burns who noted his collaborators are very important to the creation of his award winning films.

Burns also said the word “slow” is important to him in the process of making films and a reminder about some important people in his personal life.
The first name of each one of his daughters is derived from a letter in the word.

Burns was also asked about his view on the rise of social media. “All real meaning in this world comes from sustained attention,” said Burns who alluded to fact that Twitter messages are limited to 140 characters at a time.

“Eventually someone has to draw attentions together, we like to think that somewhere there’s a hunger for a longer form.”

When asked about what is next on his agenda, Burns said he and his team are working on a 10-year plan of film subjects.

This fall the Public Broadcasting System is expected to air a six-hour history of the Prohibition Era.
Next year Burns is preparing an oral history of the Dust Bowl era during the 1930’s, which Burns called “the biggest man-made ecological disaster in U-S history.”

In 2013, he and his daughter are working on a film about the Central Park Rape case. They have interviewed most of the five teens who were accused of raping a jogger in New York City’s Central Park. They were wrongly convicted and imprisoned said Burns, “race trumped rape.”

In 2014, He will profile America’s three famous Roosevelts.

In 2015, Burns plans a profile of baseball great Jackie Robinson who integrated the sport in 1947. “He carried on his shoulders the hopes of an entire race,” said Burns. “It’s the first significant event in race relations since the Civil War.”

In 2016, he will offer a look at the Vietnam War to compliment his series on the Civil War.

In 2018, he will produce a multi-part series on the history of country music.

In 2019, Burns is planning what he is calling a “biography to be named later. “I’m not a betting man, but it might be about Ernest Hemingway, it will begin and end with a gunshot,” said Burns.

Dr. Noseworthy thanked the filmmaker for his visit and your “countless contributions to our culture, your work is beautiful, it is truly timeless in my opinion and I think in everyone’s opinion,” he said.

“Thank you for studying and examining and expressing at least your answer of what interpretation to that question of who we are because by doing that it causes all of us to ask that question over and over again, every time we look at your work. “

Burns ended the evening with laughter when he answered, “In the immortal words of the ex-Governor of California, “I’ll be back.”|

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