I work as a documentary consultant and and story editor for documentary filmmakers who are looking to dramatically improve the quality of their films – before, during and after shooting. I work with new filmmakers as well as seasoned documentary makers. I’m the equivalent of the Story Editor in drama films.

The reason why I’ve written this piece is that I’ve just watched yet another film that despite the filmmaker spending 18 months filming some extraordinary people doing some interesting stuff – the film has ended up an unwatchable, worthy mess and will never reach a sizeable audience – if any audience at all. And this film was not a one-off – as someone who is sometimes asked to help select films for film festivals – I see many films like this and often just want to cry as messes like this can be avoided.

This approach to making documentaries of shoot-now and think-later is a serious waste of time, opportunity and money for everyone involved. When I work with filmmakers my overarching goal is for them to translate their passion and ideas into unique, emotionally-engaging films that actually manage to connect with their intended audiences.

So here are my 5 reasons why you should hire a good documentary consultant as your story editor:

Story Telling Is The Most Important Thing In Documentaries.

When I teach documentary making I ask my students to list their favourite documentaries of all time, and then ask them what they love so much about these films. The number one thing is always Story. Telling a story that is as gripping as an edge-of-your-seat drama is not easy and takes some crafting. A great documentary consultant/editor will help you work out the best way to draw out the potential of the dramatic story in your film before you go out to shoot, whilst you’re shooting (and sometimes) after you’ve shot it. Although I have to say that it’s always better to work on this before the shoot. In the process of working with a documentary story editor you may be encouraged to change or re-shape some of the elements in your film until they’re likely to form a compelling narrative. Whilst doing this you will learn some incredibly useful story-telling techniques that you’ll be able to apply to every documentary that you ever make in the future.   

Help You Get Your Film Shown Where You Want It To Be Shown.

You say you want it shown on Netflix, on BBC3 website or get a theatrical release in cinemas? Well these are wonderful goals  and possible – but are statistically tricky. How many of the documentaries that are made each year really do achieve the success that was intended? An inspired and creative documentary consultant working as your story editor can help you before you go off to film, to check that your film really does have the potential to hit your target, and if it doesn’t they will help steer it in the best possible direction in order for it to be successful. I know from my own experience that many of the filmmakers that I’ve consulted with have had their films picked up by big festivals, been successfully shown on tv or been commissioned by broadcasters.

To Learn The Rules Of Making An Emotionally Engaging Film.

You might assume that film schools teach their documentary filmmakers some rules to help them make emotionally engaging films.  And yet in my experience as a film teacher I have student after student come up to me to say that they’ve learned far more about filmmaking from me over a couple of sessions than they did over three years at film school. Honestly, and I’m amazed. When you employ a consultant as your story editor you get to learn these basic rules that you’ll be able apply to all your future films.

You Can Piggy Back Off Their Success.

A good documentary consultant/story editor with decades of experience behind them should know what works and what doesn’t. Over, say, two hours you can just take their informed and creative ideas and apply them to your film – and still get the director credit! Seems to me to be rather good value for money.

To Help Turn A Documentary From Worthy and Unwatchable, to Entertaining and Sellable.

A smart documentary consultant working as your story editor will have the necessary distance from a film that might be needed to really think about how that film has the potential to truly connect with a paying audience – and what is needed to achieve that.  Sure, you might have found an “important” story to tell or it’s a film about a “crucial issue” but if you’re not thinking about how your film will entertain an audience (in the broadest sense of the word “entertain”) then you might once again just be pouring your money and opportunities away. For me the thrill of working as a documentary consultant and story editor is that moment at the end of a session when a filmmaker leaves the Skype call with a newfound joy for their film as they realise that they “now know how to make a real film”.

Learn all the foundational principles on how to make great docs at Raindance Documentary Foundation Certificate taught by Col Spector.

mm

About 

BA (Hons) Film & TV London College of Printing, Raindance MA in Film . Col is an award-winning writer/director who started in non-fiction at the BBC and now works primarily in fiction: writing and directing feature films for the cinema. He also runs his own documentary consultancy business.