How a Story Consultant Saved Me

Karen Everett August 4, 2009

When I was editing Women in Love, my fifth documentary, I found myself 18 months into the editing process staring at the computer screen, wondering if I needed another shot of caffeine. I felt tired, having culled 240 hours of footage that I was in love with down to about 20 hours of sequences. Although I had won awards for my films in the past, this film about the chaotic love lives of seven thirty-something lesbians was testing the limits of my ability to a craft a cohesive narrative arc. On top of that, it was a personal documentary. As I recut scene after scene, the little voice inside dictated, "You’re dragging your butt!" I knew the right thing to do was to turn the project over to an editor. Ego-wise, I was ready to do that. The problem was that I didn’t have the $45,000 a good editor would require. What to do?

That was five years ago. The idea of hiring a story consultant, someone to come in and "doctor" your ailing film, was just gaining popularity in the documentary world. (Hollywood producers have been using "story editors" for years on narrative films.) I decided to ask the editor I most respected and admired in the world, Deborah Hoffmann, to help me out. She was too busy. I asked again two months later and she said yes. We talked once a week, and she gave me feedback for my next cut. I quickly plowed through my assembly, rough cut, fine cut and locked picture. Within seven weeks, I was done. Women in Love got picked up for distribution, screened at more than 50 film festivals worldwide and is available on Netflix today. How much did the story consulting process cost me? About $4,000.

A recent post in the online forum Doculink entitled "Story Consultants Gone Wild" points to the growing popularity of using a "story editor" (that’s proper term in the narrative world) for structural advice. This trend has grown in tandem with the large number of filmmakers who are now editing their film themselves. While the practice of editing one’s own documentary is still frowned upon among seasoned pros, the reality of funding cuts and the large influx of people using affordable digital cameras have spawned a new, do-it-yourself generation of "one-man band" documentary filmmakers. While many of these filmmakers are intelligent and experienced, the majority can benefit enormously from the expertise of a story editor.

Of course, if you can afford an editor to cut your entire project, this is preferable. And if you are already working with an editor, hiring a story editor to augment your existing collaboration is a great idea. While some editors may fear being replaced by a story editor, this is rarely the case, unless the editor isn’t up to snuff to begin with. Even then, many editors moonlight as consultants, but they rarely want or have the time to usurp the editing role on a documentary project for which they are consulting. If your editor’s ego is threatened, reassure them, and hopefully they will be confident enough in their skills to welcome the perspective of an outside consultant.

You may be wondering why you need a story editor at all if you have a professional editor? There are three reasons. First, your editor will eventually lose perspective too, just as the director, or anyone who works with the material long enough, will. You’ll need a fresh eye, someone who can view the material anew, just as your viewers will see it. The second reason to hire a story editor is to help mediate the often volatile and creatively chaotic director-editor relationship. A story editor/consultant provides a valuable third opinion, and he or she can marry the best of two conflicting structural approaches—or provide a third approach that works even better. Finally, a story editor specializes at seeing the big picture and can quickly home in on structural issues that may blind an editor who has been busy cutting scenes at a micro-editing level.

Ideally you’ll hire a story editor for a day during pre-production, when you are determining the story potential or essay components of your film. They will be able to assess the story strength of the film you have in mind, and offer suggestions for the kinds of scenes and sound bites you need to capture during filming. Television acquisition executives and audiences want compelling stories. And story consultants understand what it takes to craft a story. They may even tell you that you don’t have a film—yet. Heed their advice and keep digging.

If you like their work, hire them again before cutting your first assembly, when you can show a bit of footage and communicate on paper what you actually ended up capturing on film. A good story editor can see plot points on paper, thus saving you the expense of hiring them to watch several hours of footage. You may decide to show them four hours of your best footage. If you have a film with multiple protagonists, I suggest cutting separate “character cuts," or 20-30 minute sequences of the best material for each character. Viewed separately, these clips will help your consultant evaluate the story arc of each protagonist.

For best results and continuity, I recommend hiring the same consultant periodically throughout post-production at assembly cut, rough cut, fine cut and locked picture stages. If you are stuck on a particular problem—for example, how to cut your film’s opening scene—ask for a quickie consultation. Remember that story editors are much more adept at troubleshooting structural pitfalls and generating storytelling solutions that will keep your viewers glued to the screen than are members of your advisory team, or participants at a rough-cut screening.

Rates vary widely, from $40/hour to $150/hour, and you usually get what you pay for. Many story editors have a day rate, which is cheaper than hiring them by the hour. If you don’t have a few thousand dollars to hire a good story consultant, check out my business link. The good news is that you are not hiring these professionals for weeks at a time. Budget for ten days of story consulting and you’ll be in great shape. You may not even need that much.

I recommend three methods for find a good story consultant: Inquire on an online forum such as D-word or Doculink; ask veteran documentary filmmakers and editors for referrals; find out who is teaching classes on documentary editing and structure at non-profit organizations such as the San Francisco Film Society (SFFS) or the Independent Documentary Association (IDA).

Keep in mind that since story editors don’t need to work with high-resolution footage, you don’t need to hire locally. In other words, you can upload or email low-resolution cuts anywhere on the planet. Many story editors use video streaming software that allows you to watch the cuts together, though you may be thousands of miles apart.

One of the great things about the independent documentary community is that colleagues are frequently willing to help one another. They’ll view a rough cut and offer advice at no cost. This community spirit is admirable. But realize that a colleague volunteering time will not give you the detailed story guidance that you need to edit your documentary over time. In my case, hiring a story consultant was the smartest move I made producing my film Women in Love.

Karen Everett, owner of New Doc Editing, has edited and consulted on dozens of award-winning documentaries, and during the past 15 years, she has taught editing at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. She has directed and produced five documentaries, including I Shall Not Be Removed: The Life of Marlon Riggs. She can be reached at her web site,

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