Posts Tagged ‘Ken Burns’

Jackie Robinson made my success possible. Without him, I would never have been able to do what I did.”
—Martin Luther King Jr.
(King was a student at Moorehouse College in 1947 when Robinson became the first black player to play Major League Baseball)

“A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”
—Hall of Fame baseball player Jackie Robinson

To learn more about Jackie Robinson read his autobiography I Never Had it Made and check out the documentary Jackie Robinson by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns & David McMahon. Then there’s the movie 42 starring Chadwick Boseman as Robinson.

P.S. The following scene from Spike Lee’s unproduced script Jackie Robinson takes place at Sanford Memorial Stadium. A stadium I played many games as a high school baseball player. It’s where Hall of Fame baseball player Tim Raines played his high school games. And it’s also just a few miles from where Trayvon Martin was killed. Gives that scene a little more punch doesn’t it?

Related posts:
Martin Luther King Jr. and Writing Strong-Willed Characters
“Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream”
Marlon Brando & Johnny Carson After the Death of Martin Luther King Jr.
Chadwick Boseman, Jackie Robinson, and the Struggle for a More Perfect Union
Spike Lee on Why You Have To Make Your Own Movies
Filmmaking in New Hampshire (Ken Burns Style)

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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“Sometimes you need to get knocked down before you can really figure out what your fight is, and how you need to fight it. . . . The struggles along the way are only meant to shape you for your purpose.”
—Actor Chadwick Boseman
2018 Howard University Commencement Speech

Legacy. What is a legacy?
It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see
I wrote some notes at the beginning of a song someone will sing for me
”The World Was Wide Enough” from Hamilton

This morning I woke up and heard that actor Chadwick Boseman died of cancer at age 43. Known for his lead role in the Black Panther and as Jackie Robinson in 42. 

Here’s a scene from 42 with Boseman and Harrison Ford as (Branch Rickey) dealing with the struggles of being the first black baseball player in Major League Baseball. Followed by an old Jackie Robinson interview (from the 1970s shortly before he died).

Earlier this week I was editing a video project on Renaissance art for a humanities professor. It was a talk that connected in my mind a few dots. Dot that went all the way back to ancient Greece and extended into our present times.

At the same time I was editing, and only about 10 miles away here in Central Florida the Milwaukee Bucks  boycotted playing a basketball game against the Orlando Magic. They were protesting a shooting by police of Jacob Blake (a 29-year-old black man) a few days ago in Kenosha, Wisconsin,

By the end of the day several teams in the NBA, WNBA, Major League Baseball, and Major League Soccer joined the boycott. I don’t think anything of that magnitude has ever happened in professional sports.

On Wednesday of this week I finished the last episode of the Ken Burns documentary The Civil War which I hadn’t seen in entirety since it first aired on PBS 30 years ago. It also connected a lot of dots. In some ways, The Civil War doc plays better in 2020 than it even did in 1990. It’s not hard to connect the dots back a few hundred years to when the first slaves were brought to the new world in 1619, and connect them to our present time.

Much has changed for the good, and much has not changed. What led me to rewatching The Civil War was watching Hamilton on Disney+.  A musical that not only was unique for telling the story of the founding fathers with a multi-multi-rational cast, but one that touched on how dealing with slavery was a part of the debate in 1776 of what it meant for “all men created equal.” It would take almost another 100 years—and the loss of 600,000+ soldiers in the Civil War—for the freeing of slaves.

Now here we are almost 160 years after President Abraham Lincoln issued The Emancipation Proclamation. And  still, as The Constitution if the U.S.A.states,, working on forming “a more perfect union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility.”

In a year that has brought about more than its share of struggles, here’s some encouraging words from 2018 commencement speech by Chadwick Boseman as he received and honorary doctorate from his alma mater Howard University. (Keep in mind that he was already diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer when he gave this talk.)

Book update: I’ll have some news here on Tuesday, September 1 about finally releasing my book Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles into the world in a couple of weeks.

Scott W. Smith

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People all over the world,
It’s time to get down
TSOP The Sound of Philadelphia
(Known as the Soul Train theme song)

Screen Shot 2020-08-03 at 8.52.18 PM

Before Hamilton my knowledge of Alexander Hamilton was as thin as a $10 bill.  Where was Lin-Manuel Miranda when I was struggling through American History my junior year of high school? Oh, that’s right, he wasn’t born yet.

Back in 1979 I was much more interested in movies, music, playing football and baseball, and girls than learning about The Founding Fathers of the United States. The cherry tree, wooden teeth, powdered wigs— yeah, yeah, yeah.

At least I was fascinated by the American west of the 1800s and did my final report on that and was able to pass the class. The following year Lin-Manuel Miranda was born. But I really wish I’d seen Hamilton before I took that 5th grade field trip to Disney World where they made us sit through the Hall of President exhibit. (Hamilton is now on Disney+ with a PG13 rating and I’d suggest you watch it first and decide what age is appropriate if you‘re watching it with them. But Miranda leading 5th graders on a tour of Disney’s Hall of Presidents would be interesting.)

In school I couldn’t connect past history with my future.  Even in college, I dropped the first film history I took because I did not find the topic engaging. Writing, shooting, directing and editing my first 8mm film (set to Michael Jackson’s “She’s Out of My Life”) that semester was exciting. Sitting in a class with over 100 people listening to lectures about black and white movies was less than exciting.

Two years later a passionate film professor walked the class through A Place in the Sun and a light shined in the darkness. By him walking through choices George Stevens made through his directorial choices I had a new appreciation for what I could learn from the past. (Film school sidebar. Watch how George Stevens takes just a few second and a few words to establish chemistry between Montgomery Cliff and Elizabeth Taylor. And her line “I see you had a misspent youth” replaces about 100 pages of exposition from the novel.)

And watching The Civil War, A Film By Ken Burns in 1990 awakened my desire to know more about American history. Better 10 years after high school than never. Then in 1998, Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan gave me a hunger to know more about world history.

In 1999 I backpacked across nine countries in Europe which was like walking through history. Twenty years ago you could still see bombed out churches that were remnants of World War II. After that trip I appreciated Casablanca on a whole different level.

All that set the stage to finally experience Hamilton just two weeks ago. I won’t be the last one to get on the Hamilton train, but getting on in 2020 (five years after its Broadway debut) is pretty much jumping on at the caboose.

Actually the analogy of a train fits well. Back in 1979 when I was avoiding studying for my American history class, a Saturday tradition for me was watching Soul Train and American Graffiti back to back. That was one hour featuring the hit music of the day and young people dancing (the leaders of the future).

Disco was at the end of its run then, and the first time I remember hearing rap music was 1981. It was in the locker room at the University of Miami where I was a walk-on football player. I don’t remember any of the songs, but I remember asking what kind of music it was and thought someone said it was  “rat music.” (To my defense, the music was loud.) They clarified that it was “rap music.”

Lin-Manuel Miranda was born into a world where rap and hip hop emerged and then matured. And along the way its given voice to many artists who Miranda not only pays homage to in Hamilton, but Miranda has the stroke of genius to give that voice to men and women circa 1776. And he has the talent to pull it off. With the twist of using less powdered wigs and more people of color.

Within the first few beats of the opening song I was hooked. More on that in tomorrow’s post.

P.S. And speaking of Soul Train, a little shout-out to the composers Kenneth Gamble and Leon A. Huff  for writing what is known as the theme song for Soul Train technically called “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia).” It was a number one hit in 1974. It was recorded by MFSB (a team of musicians in Philly) and featured the vocals of The Three Degrees (perhaps best known for their hit song When Will I See You Again).

P.P.S. If Lin-Manuel Miranda is looking for another unusual story to transform, I’d suggest the ESPN/Billy Corben film The U (on the Miami Hurricane football team). Somehow I think he’d make it a fine musical.

Scott W. Smith 










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“Look, I don’t have the vision or the voice of Martin Luther King or James Baldwin or Jesse Jackson or even of Jackie Robinson. I’m just an old ballplayer. But I learned a lot as a ballplayer. Among other things, I learned that if you manage to make a name for yourself—and if you’re black, believe me, it has to be a big name—then people will start listening to what you have to say. That was why it was so important for me to break the home run record.”
—Hank Aaron
I Had a Hammer

Tomorrow I’ll return with more Coronavirus Writers’ Room posts, but today I thought I’d share something special. Like a lot of people on lockdown during this pandemic, I’ve been spending some time sorting through my stuff. Call it a forced spring cleaning.

This was my recent find—a signed photo of baseball Hall of Famer Hank Aaron. I was 13 years old when he broke Babe Ruth’s all time home run record.  Even though I was a Cincinnati Reds fan, I was a baseball fan that loved the whole build up to Aaron’s historic achievement.

At some point, I remember writing a letter to Aaron via the Braves organization. And some time later the signed photo below came in the mail. I was young and naive enough to think that life was always going to go as smooth.

This was also back in the day long before autographs were a big business and forgery was the issue it is today. Aaron has a distinct signature and it lines up well with others I’ve seen online, so I’m going to believe it’s 100% authentic. Thank you Mr. Aaron and the Atlanta Braves for the cherished memento.

I’ve kept it in safe keeping in a filed sleeve all these years, but in the spirit of Marie Kondo’s concept of sparking joy—I’m now going to get it framed and have it on display.

It was many decades after Aaron retired when I fully understood his accomplishment. He not only became the home run king, but he did it under immense pressure of hate mail and death threats. One letter was a blunt as “Retire or die.” He did eventually retire after a great career playing baseball and today is a senior vice president with the Braves.


This is what the home run looked like on April 8, 1974.

If you’re unfamiliar with Aaron, read his autobiography I had a Hammer, and check out the video below.

P.S. And since the start of  MLB has been delayed with the coronavirus, Ken Burns has made his Baseball series (produced with Lynn Novick) available on PBS for free.  

Scott W. Smith 

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“I wanted to move to a place where I could live for nothing, and I moved to New Hampshire . . . The best professional decision I have made was deciding to stay here once [Brooklyn Bridge] was nominated for an Oscar.”
Filmmaker Ken Burns (on leaving New York City)
After the Fact podcast interview


Covered bridge in Gilford, NH

One of the shots that I saw as a film school student that influenced my photographic aesthetic was the tilt-up shot of the sunrise in the On Golden Pond (1981) title sequence.  They shot that enduring movie at Squam Lake, New Hampshire. I was in that area of the White Mountains over the weekend and delighted in the scenery even though it was winter, and the temperature was zero degrees (and my app said “feels like -20”) on Sunday morning.

On Saturday, I briefly stopped at the Omni Mt. Washington Resort, visited  America’s oldest ski shopLahouts, ate lobster at Gordi’s Fish & Steak House (whose two owners were both on the U.S. Ski team), and stayed the night in the Waterville Valley (not far from where they shot On Golden Pond).  I took the above photo of the covered bridge near Gunstock Ski resort, a day after taking the photos below in Bretton Woods and Lincoln.


Omni Mt. Washington, “#1 Best Ski Resort on the East Coast”
—Condé Nast Traveler


Gordi’s—The perfect place for lobster at Loon Mountain

I didn’t have time to make it two hours southeast to Walpole, New Hampshire where one of the most accomplished modern filmmakers has lived and worked for the past four decades.

“I thought I had just taken a vow of anonymity and poverty, if I was going to be a documentary filmmaker concentrating in American history for PBS.”
Ken Burns (who ironically became rich and famous making historical docs)
New York Times 

One hundred years from now documentary filmmaker Ken Burns (along with Steven Spielberg) will be remember as one of two giant American filmmakers of this era that will not only be well revered—but whose films will still be watched and appreciated. His films have covered a wide range of topics, including the Civil War, Jazz music, baseball, and his most recent 8-part PBS series on country music.

I don’t know the overall extent of filmmaking in New Hampshire, but just On Golden Pond being filmed there, and Ken Burns (and his team)—and filmmaker Dayton Duncan— living there is a rich enough history to impress me.  Here’s an illustration—with roots in New Hampshire— about the subtractive nature of filmmaking:

We live in New Hampshire. We make maple syrup here, and it takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup. And it’s very much like our process of 40- to 50- to 60- to 75-to-1 shooting ratio. So, it’s distillation. It’s subtraction. It’s what doesn’t fit. At the same time, you are also not trying to simplify it to the place where it no longer resonates with the complexities that the thing has. Now, filmmakers are notorious for saying, ‘Well, that’s a good scene. Let’s not touch it. It’s working. That scene’s working.’ And I’ve got a neon sign in my editing room that says, ‘It’s complicated.’”
Ken Burns

I’m going through Burns’ Masterclass on documentary filmmaking now and will write some posts on it later this month. But here’s one last quote from Burns about rejection that everyone needs to understand.

“There’s never been a moment where I haven’t, on any given day of the year, been actively pursuing the raising of money to pay for these [films]. It didn’t get any easier as my success grew or the popularity of the films grew.”
Ken Burns
The Art of the Documentary by Megan Cunningham

And next time I go to New Hampshire, I hope to make it to Walpole where Burns happens to owns a restaurant—Burdick’s— and grocery store . (Read about it in Travel + Leisure.)  And I hope to one day stay at The Manor Inn On Golden Pond that is linked to the classic movie which starred Henry Fonda,  Katharine Hepburn,  Jane Fonda…and the loons.

Lastly, here are some creative people from New Hampshire; Writer/director Robert Eggers (The Lighthouse), his screenwriter brother Max,  and National Geographic VP of Production Matt Renner (The Cave) all grew up in the Oyster River area of New Hampshire. Novelist and screenwriter John Irving (The Hotel New Hampshire) grew up in Essex, NH. Actress/writer Sarah Silverman was born and raised in New Hampshire.

P.S. Ken’s daughter, Sarah Burns—who was raised in Walpole and now lives in Brooklyn—and her filmmaker husband, David McMahon, co-wrote & directed  East Lake Meadows: A Public Housing Story, that will begin airing on PBS March 24, 2020.

P.P.S. I drove through New Hampshire after my weeklong class on Writing and Directing the Documentary at the Maine Workshops in Rockport, Maine. Until today (when I found the below video) I didn’t know that cinematographer Billy Williams—who was the director of photography for On Golden Pond) taught workshops in Maine in the past. Williams won an Oscar for Gandhi (1982) and is 91 years old. One of his workshop students was DP Sean Bobbitt (12 Years a Slave).

Filmmaking nitpick: On that sunrise (sunset?) tilt up shot from On Golden Pond they should have cut about 30 frames out to avoid the shake at the end of the shot. (It’s at the 1:13 mark of the video at the top of the post.) Always bugs me. I’m sure it bugs whoever was operating camera that it was left in.

Related quotes:
Emotional Archaeology
Filmmaking Quote #33 (Ken Burns) 
Ken Burns on 1+1=3
Burns, Baseball, and Character Flaws

Related links:
The Cabin from On Golden Pond 
Florentine Films/Sherman Pictures 
Film in New Hampshire 

Scott W. Smith

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 “If I were given a thousand years to live, I wouldn’t run out of topics in American history.”
Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns

“In the country of baseball, men rise to glory in their twenties and their early thirties—a garland briefer than a girl’s, or at least briefer than a young woman’s—with an abrupt rise, like scaling a cliff, and then the long meadow slopes downward.”
Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball by Donald Hall with Dock Ellis

When I heard filmmaker Ken Burns speak Monday night at Rollins College he used a phrase I’d never heard before—”emotional archaeology.” He said that’s what he aims for in his work which includes the documentaries The Civil War, Jazz, and Baseball.

Burns added that “Who are we?” and “Where are we going?”are key questions he tries to answer in his work. Others words that he said his work often addresses is “race,”  “space,” and the shared experience of life as a struggle.

And just when you thought I wasn’t going to write about baseball anymore I have at least one more baseball-themed post to sneak in—the new documentary No, No: A Dockumentary (2014) on Major League pitcher Dock Ellis who in 1970 threw a no-hitter while on LSD.

Jeff Radice directed the film and I hope to catch it tomorrow night (4/10/14) at the Florida Film Festival. Judging from the trailer the doc seems to cover race, space, and life as a struggle. You know, emotional archaeology.

Related post: 40 Days of Emotions 

Scott W. Smith 

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“In the United States words are medicine.”
Filmmaker Ken Burns

“Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of American had better learn baseball, the rules and realities of the game and do it by watching first some high-school or small town teams.”
French-born American historian Jacques Barzun

Tonight I’m going to go hear filmmaker Ken Burns speak at Rollins College. So while I’m on a string of  writing about baseball and filmmaking this seems like a good time to touch on the PBS doc Baseball; A Film by Ken Burns (1994), and his 2010 follow-up with Lynn Novick, Baseball; The Tenth Inning.

One of the things that’s addressed in those docs is baseball heroes and their flaws. Gambling and drug use being two of the the flaws that haunt some of baseball’s greatest legends.

“Loving contradictions is saying you love life. All our heroes have dark sides. Only in modern media culture would heroism mean perfection. The Greeks have told us heroism is a negotiation between strength and weakness. That defines heroism.”
Ken Burns
Orlando Sentinel article by Hal Boedekker

P.S. While I’ve read that the patron saint(s) of baseball are Saint Sebastian and/or Saint Rita, I think Robert Clemente could be considered the modern-day saint of baseball. He was an National League, MVP and the first Latino baseball player inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame. He died in 1972—just a year after being voted World Series MVP—when a plane he was in taking that was taking relief aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua crashed. Each year Major League Baseball picks a winner of the Roberto Clemente Award to the player “who demonstrates the values Clemente displayed in his commitment to community and understanding the value of helping others.”

Related posts:
Character Flaws 101 (Tip #30)
Ken Burns on 1+1=3
Filmmaking Quote #33 (Ken Burns)

Scott W. Smith

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‘Anonymity and Poverty’

“I thought I had just taken a vow of anonymity and poverty, if I was going to be a documentary filmmaker concentrating in American history for PBS.”
Ken Burns
New York Times 2013

There’s no doubt that my personal project Tinker Field: A Love Letter  was influenced by filmmaker Kens Burns’ PBS film Baseball.   (I’m looking forward to hearing Burns speak in a few weeks Rollins College.)

It could almost be said that when Burns set out early in his career to be a documentary filmmaker that he was aiming for no demarcation between his professional work and his personal work. And despite thinking he’d “taken a vow of anonymity and poverty,” Burns has become quite well-known, been nominated for two Oscars and won multiple Emmys, and I’m guessing doing fairly well financially.

Burns is a great example of someone finding wide success by choosing a narrow path.

Filmmaking Quote #33 (Ken Burns)
Ken Burns 1+1=3

Scott W. Smith

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David Mamet 

“Storytelling without dialogue. It’s the purest form of cinematic storytelling. It’s the most inclusive approach you can take. It confirmed something I really had a hunch on, is that the audience actually wants to work for their meal. They just don’t want to know that they’re doing that. That’s your job as a storyteller, is to hide the fact that you’re making them work for their meal. We’re born problem solvers. We’re compelled to deduce and to deduct,because that’s what we do in real life. It’s this well-organized absence of information that draws us in. There’s a reason that we’re all attracted to an infant or a puppy. It’s not just that they’re damn cute; it’s because they can’t completely express what they’re thinking and what their intentions are. And it’s like a magnet. We can’t stop ourselves from wanting to complete the sentence and fill it in.

I first started really understanding this storytelling device when I was writing with Bob Peterson on Finding Nemo. And we would call this the unifying theory of two plus two.Make the audience put things together. Don’t give them four, give them two plus two. The elements you provide and the order you place them in is crucial to whether you succeed or fail at engaging the audience. Editors and screenwriters have known this all along. It’s the invisible application that holds our attention to story. I don’t mean to make it sound like this is an actual exact science, it’s not. That’s what’s so special about stories, they’re not a widget, they aren’t exact. Stories are inevitable, if they’re good, but they’re not predictable.”
Two time Oscar-winning writer/director Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, WALL-E)
TED talk The Clues to a Great Story

P.S. I think I first read that 2+2 story concept in an interview with Billy Wilder or Ernst Lubitsch. (I’ll try to track it down.)

Related Posts:
Mr. Silent Films
Emotionally Silent Dialogue
Writing “The Artist” (Part 1) “I thought making a silent film would be a magnificent challenge.”
Show, Don’t Tell (Tip #46) “One of the cardinal sins for a scriptwriter, when he runs into some difficulty, is to say ‘We can cover that by a line of dialogue.”—Hitchcock
Garry Marshall’s Directing Tips (Part 7) “The reaction to the action is critical.”—Blake Edwards via Marshall
Directing Tips from Peter Bogdanovich  “Silent looks between people—to me, that’s what movies are about.”—Peter Bogdanovich
Ken Burns on 1+1=3

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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“I think filmmaking is obstacles. In fact, every film is a set of millions, literally—no exaggeration—millions of problems. But I use the word problems not so much pejoratively as if it’s just resistances, friction that you have to overcome. I’m fifty-six right now and have been making films for over 30 years—I don’t look fifty-six— you can imagine what I looked like when I started off. The first film I wanted to do was tell the story of the Brooklyn Bridge. So people would slam the door and say, ‘This child is trying to sell me the Brooklyn Bridge. No.’ And for many years I kept two thick binders, three-ring binders of literally hundreds of rejections. So I guess the biggest sort of outer resistance was just finding the money to be able to produce these films I wanted to produce.
Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns (The Dust Bowl, The Civil War, Baseball)
Big Think Interview

Scott W. Smith

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