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President's Lecture Series 2016

After the Conversation with Ken Burns
February 29, 2016

It really was a great event, wasn’t it?

Over 650 people showed up, braving Monday afternoon traffic and ignoring the beautiful weather, in order to listen in on the conversation between documentary filmmaker Ken Burns and TV critic David Bianculli. The discussion was structured loosely around questions suggested by students, faculty, staff, alumni, and friends. Three themes seemed to dominate the hour and a half of conversation rich in meanings and depth:

1. A career worth pursuing, having, and celebrating. It may be hard at times, or for long stretches of time, but making career choices based on integrity and internal motivation can work. The key word being, work.

2. The art and craft of making (documentary) movies. An hour-long finished product is the result of working through a million problems; a ten-hour series might mean having solved ten million problems. Every detail counts: in-depth research (forget Google and ignore Wikipedia), choosing the right voices (narrators, perspectives, accents), and the right music (which sometimes means writing a score that sounds like 17th century madrigals), just might lead you to telling a story the best way there is, at the time you are telling it.

3. It’s all about communication. Settling on a topic, or subject, or story; selling it to the right people in order to secure funding; estimating how much time, work, and support will be necessary; and scoring airtime with viewers—through the networks and, more recently, on-demand and downloads and purchasing of actual DVDs—is as much about the production of a great movie as it is about steady and effective promotion. It takes a lot of time, skill, and genuine dedication. There are no shortcuts.

I’d sum it up within the negative space metaphor, quite possibly the most important takeaway from this conversation: it takes 40 hours of good footage to end up with an hour-long excellent movie, just as it takes 40 gallons of raw tree sap in order to produce a gallon of maple syrup. You can’t call the 39 hours that got cut, wastage. They just didn’t tell the right story, the right way. Without them, you might end up with an excellent 5-min night-news story. The same way a sculptor starts with a block of marble and ends with a wonderful figurine—in essence, beauty is the result of all the negative space she created. This metaphor extends well outside the art sphere: in business, economics, and advertising, it is called the Pareto Principle, where 80% of the results can be attributed to 20% of the input (or clients, or projects, or resources). In engineering and science, it’s simply called attrition.

And that, my friends, is what a good conversation does: it helps you connect topics, people, and areas you didn’t think shared a direct link to your life, and world, and dreams. It is a good story you feel privileged to experience, without the benefit or safety net of a recording. You’re there, and you get it. You space out, and you missed the one zoom-and-pan that anchors the entire story. Also known as the Ken Burns effect.

Olga Vilceanu
Assistant Dean, College of Communication and Creative Arts

The lecture was sponsored by Rowan University’s Office of the President, Office of the Provost, and College of Communication and Creative Arts.