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Making TV: The Long Road To Prohibition

Ken Burns has been called the greatest documentarian of our day. Here’s how his company, Florentine Films, makes documentaries.

By Michael Fickes

Prohibition co-directors Ken Burns and Lynn Novick.
Prohibition co-directors Ken Burns and Lynn Novick.

Walpole, N.H.-based Florentine Films worked for more than three years to produce Prohibition, the five-and-one-half hour Ken Burns’ documentary about the 18th amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The program aired on PBS in early October.

Why the long lead-time? “We always take time to reflect on the material, which helps us make better decisions about the story,” says Buddy Squires, an Oscar-nominated filmmaker, Emmy-winning director of photography, and founding member of Florentine.

Having worked on most major Ken Burns’ projects, Squires knows the process. Unlike most theatrical and television programming, Florentine Films documentaries begin with research and unscripted cinematography. Only after the lion’s share of photography, newsreels, filmed interviews and live film sequences come together is a script developed. Then comes a company-wide collaboration among the researchers, producers, editors and directors – Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, in the case of Prohibition – as the story is shaped, refined and knit together.

Researching Prohibition

In researching the project, Florentine Producer Sara Botstein and her team collected archival photographs, newsreel footage, diaries, letters, music and other primary research dating from the early 19th century through the first third of the 20th century. Sources included commercial and public archives, historical societies, libraries, personal collections and experts who were interviewed on camera.

Botstein’s team logged each item individually in a FileMaker Pro database along with key search words to enable searching and retrieving. Then the materials were digitized and stored.

Shooting Prohibition

“I shoot without a script,” says Squires, who lensed Prohibition, along with Allen Moore and Stephen McCarthy. He shot the interviews – also unscripted – and collected live footage.

He shot with an Aaton XTR super-16 film camera with Kodak 7212 and 7219 film. For interviews, he used Canon 8-64 and 11-165 zoom lenses. For other material, he used the zooms, as well as a Canon 300 mm f/2.8 and Zeiss super speed primes.

Live footage in Prohibition includes period speakeasies such as Manhattan’s 21 Club and Old Town Bar. Squires also shot bourbon distilleries, breweries and restored 19th century towns, such as Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts, which helped establish one of the locations.
Squires used to shoot archival photography in the signature Ken Burns’ style –slow pans, push-ins and pullbacks – using an animation stand. “We discovered that a zoom lens distorted the edges of the photographs,” says Squires. Using the animation stand, Squires would aim the camera down at a photo positioned on the bed. The camera moved up and down to create push-ins and pullbacks. For pans, the bed moved north, south, east, and west. Today, the editorial team handles the camera moves on the photographs with a software application.

As the research on Prohibition approached completion, Geoffrey C. Ward developed the script, which the editorial team used to create the rough cut.

Editing Prohibition

Prohibition research materials included thousands of digitized photos and dozens of hours of newsreels. “We spent days looking everything over,” says Tricia Reidy, who edited the program along with Erik Ewers and Ryan Gifford. While the editors studied, apprentices assembled a 5.5-hour outline that included the narrator’s audio plus the audio and footage from the interviews.

The rough cut filled in the blanks. “We use Avid [Media Composers] to tell the story,” says Reidy. “Illustrating the narration is the jumping off point, but we also look for opportunities. For instance, we found newsreel footage of men removing a saloon sign and loading it into a cart along with photos labeled ‘last day before Prohibition’ showing men clinking glasses.”

In another happy accident, Wynton Marsalis was recording some music for the show and decided to whistle “Hard Times.” Reidy pounced on the tune and put it together with the montage. “It was a lovely opportunity,” she says.

Once completed, the EDL of the rough cut went to Goldcrest Post in New York City for finishing – more than three years after research into on the project got underway.

November 26, 2012