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Spotlight: Ken Burns, Director, 'The Dust Bowl'

11/14/2012 8:01 AM Eastern

The Dust Bowl is a two-part documentary by legendary filmmaker Ken Burns that chronicles the manmade environmental catastrophe that destroyed farmlands of the Great Plains in the 1930s, turning prairies into deserts. With lasting repercussions across the country, it is also a story of heroic perseverance. The documentary is in part an oral history featuring interviews with 26 survivors of those hard times thanks to public invitations from Burns himself.

How did you decide to take on this project?
Ken Burns: I did it on the recommendation of one of my closest producing partners, Dayton Duncan, who is the writer and co-producer of this project. We both had read Timothy Egan’s extraordinary book, The Worst Hard Time, and we were anxious to tell the story.

How similar is the original concept to how it turned out?
I think it’s pretty similar, but it has one extraordinary feature that we didn’t expect. We had just finished a film on World War II where the participants were at the end of their lives and they were describing times in the 1940s, so we were worried about finding living witnesses to the 1930s [for The Dust Bowl]. But we did. We found more than two dozen of them. They formed this extraordinary backbone of the film—a kind of oral history at the heart of the story we’re telling.

I don’t want to sell it any other way. The Dust Bowl was a 10-year, man-made apocalypse; it was the worst environmental disaster in all of American history. That’s a story that people don’t understand. These people we spoke with help you understand exactly what it was.

What challenges did you face in the production process?
It’s finding a personal, photographic record of the Dust Bowl in an area that was one of the most poverty-stricken and least populated areas of the country. In New York City you can count on somebody taking pictures all the time. You can’t count on someone taking snapshots when you’re a subsistence farmer trying to get along in the midst of the worst environmental crisis. Those were some incredibly potent challenges.

I also think it was important to resist proselytizing in this film and to try to connect to modern issues. There are many environmental issues that resonate with us today, but we prefer the audience to make the connection, not us. We don’t have an agenda. What we want to do is tell a good story. We think that in telling this story well, we have initiated in the brains and hearts of our viewers a lot of questions that will inevitably connect with environmental issues of today, but we’re not pointing red signs at it.

What did you shoot the interviews on?
We shot the interviews on a combination of film and digital video. We shot all of our live cinematography in the area on film, Super 16, and we collected media in all sorts of formats.

Was there a certain look you were going for?
We have always been wedded to film and enjoy that. We also understand that quite often circumstances warrant a quicker in and out than film sometimes provides. That’s why we sometimes made the decision to shoot interviews digitally. But the cameras are such that you can barely tell the difference.

Where was the postproduction and editing done?
We do all of the editing on Avid systems in our studios in Walpole, NH. We do the mixing at Sound One in New York City and we do the online, final masters at Gold Crest, also in New York City.

Watch The Dust Bowl Preview on PBS. See more from The Dust Bowl.


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