In drama filmmaking the script editor’s services are used all the time to make film scripts better. The equivalent in documentary filmmaking is the Documentary Consultant who comes in at ideas stage (or sometimes during post-production) in order to help film-makers’ documentaries get better. However for some reason documentary consultants are used less frequently than drama script editors are. This is baffling to me. I have made three dozen documentaries myself, and consulted on countless others.  Every single person I’ve consulted with have raved about how their session with me has transformed their film and made it better and more importantly more saleable.

Instead of proselytizing about the merits of a Skype session with a good documentary consultant I’ve instead decided to come up with 5 reasons NOT to use a documentary consultant. If you can check each of these off, then you have no reason to call me!

1. No documentary consultant can help you if you’ve already achieved commercial and critical success

If you have already managed to sell your documentaries to a broadcaster or got them shown theatrically in the cinema you obviously know what you’re doing and don’t need to bring in someone to help you. God Bless.

2.You make experimental films or films for an art gallery

For these type of films I really don’t believe that you need to learn rules or study anything. You can just shoot from the hip and follow your heart. It’s just hit or miss whether your films get accepted or exhibited.

3.You have had a proper documentary filmmaking education

If you really know how to identify whether your idea for a film has the potential to emotionally engage with an audience AND you know how to translate that idea into a living, breathing film then you may very well not need to hire the services of a documentary consultant.

To be able to do the aforementioned you need to learn from people who have a tried and tested track record and are able to communicate that knowledge in a clear and effective way. I personally know of very few institutions that teach that – and many that certainly don’t.

In my experience most documentary film schools are offering less a structured education and more a glorified film studies programme. My evidence for this are the amount film-makers who have told me that they’ve learned more about documentary-making over three hours working with me than over their entire MA or BA at film school or university.

On the education front I teach a 5-evening Documentary Foundation Certificate at Raindance. We explore the basics of documentary filmmaking and develop ideas.

4.You are wealthy and have money to spare

If you have a lot of spare cash and can afford to just go out and keep shooting “films” without learning from a proper educator or consultant then you could just try to learn on the job, film after film, until you get your films shown by festivals or sold to broadcasters. Though I should warn you that the chances of that happening are slim.  And in the process you may very well waste special opportunities and serendipitous moments – as well as squandering potentially great film ideas.

5.You don’t believe that there are rules to learn about documentary filmmaking

If you’re one of those people who believe that you don’t need to learn the proper rules of documentary filmmaking and that instead you should just go out and start shooting films then good luck to you. As a consultant I‘ve seen many “films” directed by people who just picked up a camera and spent thousands of pounds shooting them. They start off believing that they’ll find their film in the edit or that a fully formed film with a great dramatic arc will miraculously appear to them. I passionately believe that you need to know the rules of documentary-making. You must have an understanding of how to appropriately direct them to know what your film is and how to direct it.

N.B. If none of the above apply to you could always book a consultation on Skype or in person with an inspired documentary consultant. It doesn’t have to be for very long – the average length of a session with me is around two to three hours.

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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.