Meet Ken Burns, the award-winning documentary filmmaker who will deliver Penn’s 2022 Commencement speech on May 16.
1. He has won a slew of awards and honorary degrees.
Burns’ work has won him several prestigious awards, including two Oscar nominations, two Grammy Awards, and 15 Emmy Awards.
Additionally, Burns has received three Erik Barnouw Awards from the Organization of American Historians, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, three Peabody Awards, and 30 honorary degrees.
At Penn’s 2022 Commencement ceremony, the University will present Burns with an honorary Doctor of Arts degree.
2. He has an effect named after him on iMovie.
The "Ken Burns effect" on iMovie is named after Burns’ iconic panning and zooming on still images in his films.
When the late Apple CEO Steve Jobs approached Burns and asked for his permission to use his name in the video editing software, Burns initially responded, “I don’t do commercial endorsements.” Burns later agreed to this proposition, exchanging the "Ken Burns effect" for hundreds of thousands of dollars in Apple software and hardware, which he donated to nonprofits.
3. He is passionate about United States history.
Since childhood, Burns has always preferred non-fiction to fictitious stories. In an interview with Weber Studies, Burns said that “by understanding history, perhaps you could abolish its merciless outcomes.”
Many of Burns’ most well-known documentaries tell the story of prominent figures and events in U.S. history, including “The Civil War,” “The Dust Bowl,” “Thomas Jefferson,” and “Mark Twain.”
Burns’ most recent release, “Benjamin Franklin,” is a four-hour, two-part film about the founding father. The documentary, released last month on PBS, explores Franklin’s legacy and impacts on Philadelphia.
4. He enjoys connecting his work to his charitable donations.
In 2019, Burns collaborated with philanthropists Jeannie and Jonathan Lavine to create The Library of Congress Lavine/Ken Burns Prize for Film. This $200,000 award, presented annually until 2029, will give grants to filmmakers to complete their productions.
Additionally, Burns is the honorary national chair for the National Willa Cather Center in Red Cloud, Neb. The facility, consisting of a museum, archive, and arts and cultural center, is dedicated to the writer’s contributions to Western American culture.
Burns, an enthusiast of Cather’s works, assisted in the 2017 opening of the Center, which he describes as a “permanent home to some of Willa Cather’s most personal treasures, items made famous in her stories, and artwork inspired by her vision of the prairie.”
5. He is also an avid quilt collector.
Burns has been collecting American quilts since the mid-1970s, amassing about 75 quilts by 2018.
According to Burns, his quilts represent “an essential building block of the culture that’s making them.”
After 40 years of collecting, Burns revealed his hobby to the public. In 2018, he gave permission to the International Quilt Study Center and Museum in Lincoln, Neb. to put almost 30 of his quilts in an exhibition titled “Uncovered: The Ken Burns Collection.”