The lights dim in the theater. People turn off their cellphones and slow down their popcorn consumption. They wait with bated breath for the credits to roll. And then, a husky, deep voice breaks the silence. It’s Marv from Sin City; Sarah Connor from Terminator; it’s Morgan Freeman. Whoever made an impact of you, they did it through the power of the movie voice.
Some dramatic techniques get so ingrained in our cultural tapestry that they become normalized. That’s what happens with voiceovers, or movie narration. This go-to moviemaking device simply works. And that’s the reason we’re going to be talking about it today.
If you are thinking about making a feature film, animated movie, video game, or commercial, you may need a movie voice. But, before we get into the how and the why, let’s define what it is, and how to get the most out of it. Movie history is filled with perfect examples of how to do narration right, with professional, empathetic performances. You’re looking to make an impact on your audience, not lose them.
Let’s take a ride and get crackin’!
But if you prefer to watch a video instead, click here:
Narration: movie voice extraordinaire
Narration is an off-screen vocal performance that conveys information to the audience. It can be talking about onscreen events or giving additional knowledge about a character’s inner life; maybe it’s the main character recounting the events of the movie; it could be a secondary character talking about the story in the third-person; perhaps it’s an omniscient narrator giving the audience information they would not have inferred otherwise.
Whatever the usage and reason, the movie voice has been a staple in films for as long as they’ve had sound. Narration plays such a key part in so many movies that it would be hard to think about them without it. Just try thinking about The Shawshank Redemption, or any noir film without narration. It ain’t happenin’!
Movie voice as part of the voiceover process
So, how do vocal performances for movies get recorded? That entails the usage of a voiceover, a production technique in which the vocal performance is recorded. Producers mix and edit this recording, and they overlay it on top of the images. That creates the illusion of the images and words happening concurrently.
The voiceover nomenclature, though, can be a little confusing. For example, voiceovers refer to this production technique, which can be used in movies, or across a variety of mediums, not only film. Just think about the monumental amount of voiced work you listen to every day; from PA announcements to radio ads, GPS voices, explainer videos, etc.! Voice over artists are recording material constantly!
But, voiceovers are also a way in which film buffs refer to the act of narrating, or providing an offscreen performance. This is when the voiceover can be equated to the movie voice. And, it could also be cause for confusion among those who are new to these definitions. That’s why for the duration of this article, we will be referring just to the movie side of the voiceover trade. If you want to know more about recording, or about setting up a voiceover career, check out this article!
How does narration (or voiceover) overcome ‘Show, don’t tell’?
“Show, don’t tell” is one of those rote, clichéd expressions we’ve all seen making the rounds. It refers to the principle of economy in storytelling. Especially for highly visual mediums like film, you’re supposed to take advantage of the innate characteristics afforded by the screen. That’s why the movie voice, while accepted, has its detractors.
To some, film narration can be seen as a lazy shortcut to storytelling. If you wanted long paragraphs describing a scene, you’d read a book, not watch a movie, right? The idea behind having a film is conveying information through literal, active means, not exposition. That’s why naysayers consider most narration attempts “exposition dumps” that dumb down the watcher and are uncreative. If showing information is a challenge, then telling is seen as a lazy solution.
But others consider the movie voice to be valid. A crossover between literary and visual sensibilities. It’s effectively having storytelling devices that are common to books but in another medium. Narration can be in-keeping with the character’s voices. But it can also be a way to inject a more authorial, omniscient voice into the proceedings. If it’s done well, it’s like having a book or story read aloud to you.
But, does narration sidestep ‘Show, don’t tell’ entirely? It depends.
Experts chime in
I think it’s always a good idea to rely on authoritative voices when dealing with thorny issues. For example, I’ve turned to Matt Seitz, editor or rogerebert.com, who shares his insight below:
Other films use narration matter-of-factly and rather aggressively throughout the story, and when they do it well, nobody hauls out, ‘Show, don’t tell.’ But even when they don’t do it well, heavily-narrated films often get a pass from viewers because the voice-over is simple to understand and doesn’t ask the audience to hold more than one thought in its head at the same time. There’s one narrator, usually, and he or she is giving us information that the scenes themselves might not convey, but without contradicting them, or making us doubt what we’re seeing, or ask ‘Why is the main character telling me this? Why is it important?’
And that strikes at the heart of what makes a good movie voice stand out. It can supplement — rather than go against or overexplain — the events that take place on the screen. It can lead audiences on a trip that makes them question their assumptions, get to know the main characters better, or even deceive them! There are many ways to use film narration which with or against the grain, and I believe we haven’t seen everything it has to offer yet.
In sum, if the narration is done well, it earns its place as a valid storytelling technique that supplements images.
Some examples of good movie voice work
Ever seen Fight Club? That movie hinges on the main character’s detached, unreliable narration. The same happens with Memento, where we automatically believe the main character is the most authorized voice to tell the story. Both of these narrations went against our expectations. By relying on our implicit trust in whoever’s telling the story, filmmakers pulled a fast one and introduced twist endings. If you haven’t seen either of these movies, I won’t spoil them. I should only say that you should do yourself a favor and watch them.
Another great example of a movie voice is seen during film noir. Come on, you know you’ve parodied the hard-boiled detective voice in your time, right? It’s such a well-established trope that it was even parodied on Whose Line is it Anyway? And you know, there’s a reason why things become clichés; audiences got used to narrations in the first place mostly through this film genre! And it was expertly-executed examples that made these a part of the film canon.
If you want to learn more about narration (or voice over in film), I´ve written two other articles in our content library that I think you should look into.
Finding professionals for your project
This is probably the easiest part of all this. You can hold auditions, go on freelancing sites or voice-centric hubs and agencies. Each of them has its own characteristics, advantages, and disadvantages.
Freelancing sites will allow you to access a large pool of professionals. This can make your life easier or harder depending on how much you know about what you want. If this is your first time hiring a pro, it might be hard to sort the wheat from the chaff. It’s always advisable to go for professionals that have an extensive portfolio and plenty of reviews. This is no slight against people who are just starting out. But, the more sensitive your project is, the more you’re going to want with people who have some experience under their belt. That’s just the way it is.
Another thing to pay attention to is rates. While you may be tempted to go with artists who have very low rates and a million reviews, you should check whether they’re right for you. Some people are great at doing impressions, others can do a mean announcer voice. What’s true is that not everyone can do everything. Some people get by on these platforms doing very similar work over and over at very low rates. They prioritize quantity over quality, so maybe they’re not the best fit, depending on your needs.
Another option, which I personally recommend, is to go with a site that offers a curated selection. This will also be the case with agencies. They’ll offer a larger selection, and their websites are voice-centric, so you won’t have to go through the hassle of trying to find pros by categories. You also very likely won’t have to hold auditions or to post a job that people will apply for. In fact, what’s most likely is that you’ll just go for the easy selection.
It’s normally like this:
- You go on the site
- Then, you select your pro’s category (gender, age, language, accent)
- After. you check out that they’ve got a portfolio that fits your needs
- If you want, you can quote how much they would charge depending on your script length.
- You set a turnaround time (typically between 1-3 business days, depending on the project)
- You send them the script
- They send back the work.
- If necessary, you can ask for revisions.
So, the movie voice is a great way to bridge the gap between the literary and the cinematic. It’s also a fantastic way (when done right) to convey information to your audience — exposition, inner dialogue, even a monologue! Nothing’s off-limits for narration!
So, what are you waiting to get your foot in the door and hire a pro to liven up your next project? Maybe you’ve got the next great narration on your hands!