Ric Burns is an internationally recognized documentary filmmaker and writer, best known for his epic series New York, a documentary film which premiered nationally on PBS to wide public and critical acclaim. The eight-part, seventeen and a half hour film chronicles the city’s rise from a tiny Dutch trading post down through its continuing preeminence as the undisputed economic and cultural capital of the world.
The first five episodes of New York were broadcast in November 1999; the sixth and seventh episodes in the fall of 2001; and the eighth and final episode in September 2003. The first episodes earned the prestigious Alfred I. duPont Columbia University award for excellence in broadcast journalism, an Emmy for outstanding achievement in non-fiction editing, and two other Emmy nominations, for outstanding non-fiction special and achievement in cinematography. The Daily News described the series as “A masterpiece, ... necessarily sprawling yet extraordinarily disciplined.” Variety called it “nothing short of gripping...a monumental documentary series that raises the bar for this kind of work and in the process elevates our knowledge and understanding of a metropolis that is still evolving.” The sixth and seventh episodes, aired three weeks after 9/11, were also broadcast to wide acclaim. “Two illuminating episodes that…can stand on their own as documentary filmmaking at its best,” wrote the Wall Street Journal. ”This is a story of resilience, a lucid reminder of how often New York City has rebuilt itself,” said the New York Times. “A rousing informative triumph that succeeds by focusing on the grand, Shakespearean personalities that shaped the swelling metropolis, and on the drama of a city battered by frequent hardships,” The Toronto Globe and Mail said. In the spring of 2002, Episode Seven of the series, “The City and the World” was awarded the American Cinema Editors award for best edited documentary, as well the Cine Golden Eagle Award.
When the eighth and final episode of New York – a three-hour film portrait of the rise and fall of the World Trade Center, called The Center of the World – aired nationally on PBS in September 2003, it was greeted with extraordinary praise. “Aiming as high as the iconic towers it celebrates, criticizes and mourns,” Matt Roush wrote in TV GUIDE, “The Center of the World is a majestically composed eulogy, a rhapsody in steel. The sweep may be epic, but the storytelling is personal and intimate, making for an often exhilarating – though ultimately terribly sad – viewing experience.” Mike McDaniel, writing in the Houston Chronicle, called it “the most in-depth and mesmerizing report about the World Trade Center I’ve seen, breathtaking in its scope and execution.” Among other awards, the film received an Emmy and an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award.
Burns has been writing, directing and producing historical documentaries for nearly twenty years, since his collaboration on the celebrated PBS series The Civil War (1990), which he produced with his brother Ken, and wrote with Geoffrey C. Ward. He received numerous awards for his work on the series, including two Emmys (for producing and for writing), the Christopher Award, the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award, and the Producer of the Year Award from the Producer's Guild of America.
Since founding Steeplechase Films in 1989, he has directed some of the most distinguished programs in the award-winning public television series, American Experience, including Coney Island (1991), an hour-long study of the amusement empire, which the Chicago Tribune called “one of the best documentaries you will ever see,” and which TIME magazine included on its list of the ten best television programs of 1991. The film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, went on to receive the Erik Barnouw prize of the Organization of American Historians. Burns also wrote and directed The Donner Party (1992), a ninety-minute history of the ill-fated pioneer group, which premiered at the Telluride Film Festival and aired nationally on public television that October. Critically acclaimed across the country — TIME magazine again named the film one of the top ten television programs of 1992 -- the film received a Peabody Broadcasting Award from the University of Georgia; a Writers Guild of America Award for Outstanding Achievement of 1993; the D.W. Griffith Award of the National Board of Review for the best television program of 1992.
In 1995, Burns wrote, directed, and co-produced The Way West (1995), a six-hour, four-part film on the history of the American West from 1845 to 1893, which received the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University award, the Writer’s Guild of America Award for outstanding achievement, and the National Educational Media Network’s Gold Apple award. Newsweek called The Way West “a masterly piece of nonfiction, less a documentary than a tragedy in four 90-minute acts.” The Los Angeles Times called it “simply a breathtaking masterpiece of history television.”
In April 2002, Burns completed Ansel Adams, a ninety-minute film biography of the great American photographer. Variety called it “A technical marvel as studied and refined as Adams’ images.” The New York Times called the film “... a portrait of a less-than-perfect man who left a portfolio of nearly perfect photographs, images that helped generations of his countrymen feel a connection to the vanishing wilderness. Through its mixture of vintage photos and movies and breathtaking new scenes of Adams’s California, the documentary captures the region’s magic grandeur.” A co-production of Steeplechase Films and Sierra Club Productions, the film premiered nationally on PBS in the spring of 2002 as a presentation of American Experience. It received both an Emmy for Outstanding Cultural Programming and an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award.
Burns’ Eugene O’Neill, a two-hour documentary film broadcast nationally on PBS in March 2006, tells the story of the life and work of America’s greatest and only Nobel Prize-winning playwright – set within the context of the harrowing family dramas and personal upheavals that shaped him, and that he in turn struggled to give form to in his art. More than a biography of the greatest literary genius the American theater has produced, the film is a meditation on loss and redemption, family and memory, the high cost of being an artist – and the redemptive quality of art. It is also an in-depth exploration of the extraordinary masterpieces O’Neill created at the very end of his career – The Iceman Cometh and Long Day’s Journey Into Night pre-eminent among them – brought to life in scenes performed especially for the production by some of the most gifted actors working in theater today, including Al Pacino, Zoe Caldwell, Christopher Plummer, Robert Sean Leonard, Liam Neeson, and Vanessa Redgrave.
In the fall of 2006, PBS aired Andy Warhol, Burns’ portrait of arguably the most important and resoundingly influential American artist of the second half of the twentieth century. Combining unique and penetrating on-camera interviews and never-before-seen still and archival motion picture footage with the testimony of Warhol’s bewilderingly vast body of work – including paintings, drawings, photographs, films, television shows, magazines, books, songs, musical performances and more – Burns’ film is the first to exploit in depth the immense Warhol archives at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. It is also the first to explore the complete spectrum of Warhol’s astonishing artistic output, stretching across five decades from the late 1940's to his untimely death in the 1980's. In a rave review, Entertainment Weekly gave Burns’ “splendid, searching” documentary an “A”.
We Shall Remain: Tecumseh's Vision, part two of a five-part PBS American Experience series on the history of Native America, was released in May 2009. Currently Burns is finishing the historical documentary, Into the Deep: America Whaling & The World, which will tell the extraordinary story of the American whaling industry from its 17th century origins through the golden age of deep ocean whaling in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and on to the industry's decline in the decades following the American Civil War. This film aired in May of 2010. His most recent documentary Nantucket, showcases the region's natural beauty and its significant role in global history, and was released in Summer 2011.
Coinciding with the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War, he is currently working on a two-hour film for national broadcast on PBS in 2012 on the transforming impact of the staggering death toll of the Civil War – and the enduring legacy of that trauma on the nation, the government, and the psyche of the American people. He is also at work on a documentary about the American Ballet Theatre and a documentary about The New York Times for national broadcast on public television. The film will provide an in-depth, and richly detailed portrait of the rise and repeated transformation of the most influential news gathering organization in the history of journalism.
Burns is co-author, with James Sanders and Lisa Ades, of New York: An Illustrated History, the companion book to the New York series, as well as co-author, with Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns, of the companion book to The Civil War. Both books are published by Alfred A. Knopf.
Burns was educated at Columbia University and Cambridge University. He lives in New York City with his wife and two young sons.