Burns was born on July 29, 1953, in Brooklyn, New York, the son of Lyla Smith (née Tupper) Burns, a biotechnician, and Robert Kyle Burns, at the time a graduate student in cultural anthropology at Columbia University in Manhattan. The documentary filmmaker Ric Burns is his younger brother.
Burns's academic family moved frequently. Among places they called home were Saint-Véran, France; Newark, Delaware; and Ann Arbor, Michigan, where his father taught at the University of Michigan. Burns's mother was found to have breast cancer when he was three, and she died when he was 11, a circumstance that he said helped shape his career; he credited his father-in-law, a psychologist, with a significant insight: "He told me that my whole work was an attempt to make people long gone come back alive." Well-read as a child, he absorbed the family encyclopedia, preferring history to fiction.
Upon receiving an 8 mm film movie camera for his 17th birthday, he shot a documentary about an Ann Arbor factory. He graduated from Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor in 1971. Turning down reduced tuition at the University of Michigan, he attended Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, where students are graded through narrative evaluations rather than letter grades and where students create self-directed academic concentrations instead of choosing a traditional major.
In 1976, Burns, Elaine Mayes, and college classmate Roger Sherman founded a production company called Florentine Films in Walpole, New Hampshire. The company's name was borrowed from Mayes's hometown of Florence, Massachusetts. Another Hampshire College student, Buddy Squires, was invited to succeed Mayes as a founding member one year later. The trio were later joined by a fourth member, Lawrence "Larry" Hott. Hott did not actually matriculate at Hampshire, but worked on films there. Hott had begun his career as an attorney, having attended nearby Western New England Law School.
Each member works independently, but releases content under the shared name of Florentine Films. As such, their individual "subsidiary" companies include Ken Burns Media, Sherman Pictures, and Hott Productions. Burns's oldest child, Sarah, is also an employee of the company as of 2020.
Burns initially worked as a cinematographer for the BBC, Italian television, and others. In 1977, having completed some documentary short films, he began work on adapting David McCullough's book The Great Bridge, about the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. Developing a signature style of documentary filmmaking in which he "adopted the technique of cutting rapidly from one still picture to another in a fluid, linear fashion [and] then pepped up the visuals with 'first hand' narration gleaned from contemporary writings and recited by top stage and screen actors", Burns made the feature documentary Brooklyn Bridge (1981), which was narrated by David McCullough, and earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary and ran on PBS in the United States.
In 1982, Burns married Amy Stechler. The couple had two daughters, Sarah and Lilly. Their marriage ended in divorce in 1993.
As of 2017[update], Burns was residing in Walpole, New Hampshire, with his second wife, Julie Deborah Brown, whom he married on October 18, 2003. She is the founder of the non-profit Room to Grow which aids soon-to-be parents living in poverty. They have two daughters, Olivia and Willa Burns.
Burns is an avid quilt collector. About one-third of the quilts from his personal collection were displayed at The International Quilt Study Center & Museum at the University of Nebraska from January 19 to May 13, 2018.
When asked if he would ever make a film regarding his mother Lyla, Burns responded: "All of my films are about her. I don't think I could do it directly, because of how intensely painful it is."
In 2010, the National Parks Conservation Association honored him and Dayton Duncan with the Robin W. Winks Award for Enhancing Public Understanding of National Parks. The award recognizes an individual or organization that has effectively communicated the values of the National Park System to the American public.
As of 2010[update], there is a Ken Burns Wing at the Jerome Liebling Center for Film, Photography and Video at Hampshire College.
In 2012, Burns received the Washington University International Humanities Medal. The medal, awarded biennially and accompanied by a cash prize of $25,000, is given to honor a person whose humanistic endeavors in scholarship, journalism, literature, or the arts have made a difference in the world. Past winners include Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk in 2006, journalist Michael Pollan in 2008, and novelist and nonfiction writer Francine Prose in 2010.
Burns frequently incorporates simple musical leitmotifs or melodies. For example, The Civil War features a distinctive violin melody throughout, "Ashokan Farewell", which was performed for the film by its composer, fiddler Jay Ungar. One critic noted, "One of the most memorable things about The Civil War was its haunting, repeated violin melody, whose thin, yearning notes seemed somehow to sum up all the pathos of that great struggle."
Burns often gives life to still photographs by slowly zooming out subjects of interest and panning from one subject to another. It has long been used in film production where it is known as the "rostrum camera"; notably, it was used decades prior to Burns's work in the Canadian documentary short "City of Gold (1957 film)." An example of the technique as deployed by Burns: in a photograph of a baseball team, he might slowly pan across the faces of the players and come to rest on the player who is the subject of the narrator. This technique, possible in many professional and home software applications, is now termed the "Ken Burns effect" in Apple's iPhoto, iMovie, and Final Cut Pro X software applications.
Burns stated in a 2009 interview that he initially declined to have his name associated with the software because of his stance to refuse commercial endorsements. However, Apple chief Steve Jobs negotiated to give Burns Apple equipment, which Burns donated to nonprofit organizations.
As a museum retrospective noted, "His PBS specials [are] strikingly out of step with the visual pyrotechnics and frenetic pacing of most reality-based TV programming, relying instead on techniques that are literally decades old, although Burns reintegrates these constituent elements into a wholly new and highly complex textual arrangement."
In a 2011 interview, Burns stated that he admires and is influenced by filmmaker Errol Morris.