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Voice over film uses abound; some filmmakers use them as a creative device to provide audiences with exposition; animated features use them as a way to give characters a voice, same as video games; documentaries generally have offscreen narration supplementing onscreen events; companies benefit from in-house short films to make workers aware of policies or to promote company culture.
I hope you’ve had a hearty breakfast/lunch/dinner because I’m about to take you on a small tour. We’re going to go through some key concepts and examples of voice over in film. If you’re thinking about using voice overs for your film, short, animated feature, or video game, it can’t hurt to go over some awesome examples!
Even if you haven’t thought particularly about what kind of voice over you’re looking for, examples always attract inspiration! Although the origin of the maxim is not known, “Good artists copy; great artists steal” remains as true as ever.
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This post has been updated in September 2021.
What is a voice over for movies?
Before we get into the realm of voice over in film, let’s revisit some concepts to remain in a shared territory.
Voice overs are a production technique for recording the human voice. These recordings can then be overlaid onto other mediums like movies, movie trailers, video games, etc; it’s frequent to use voice overs to portray characters in animation, for example. But still, the original actor remains off-camera for their performance. That’s the difference between voice acting (part of a voice over) and full-bodied acting performance. It doesn’t mean that actors and actresses don’t put their whole being into it, though!
Voice overs also include the realms of dubbing and Automatic Dialogue Replacement (ADR). Even if the intent is to make it as if the audio were recorded on the spot, they are part of the same production style and technique. So, all dubbing is voice over, but not all voice overs are dubs. Easy, right?
Just remember: voice narration (or what’s commonly known as voice over film) is just one type among many voice overs. It’s also just going to be one of the examples that I’ll be presenting you with today.
Some voice over film theory: Narration
So, I hope you’re not holding onto any confusion at the voice over as a production technique, vs the narrative voice over in movies. We’ll just call this second type narration and move on.
Narration is a technique used by filmmakers to supplement on-screen visual information. They, of course, can be used sloppily or skillfully, depending on the filmmaker; bad ones generally go against the “Show, don’t tell” rule, the idea that action beats exposition.
New Yorker film critic Matt Seitz elucidates the difference between good and bad narration in this passage:
“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?’”
So, the idea of a good narration is that it doesn’t go against what’s being portrayed visually in the film. Let’s get started with some narration examples for our first run!
I hope that everyone reading this has seen this beloved classic. It’s the quintessential example of a well-meaning, good-natured protagonist conquering all odds through a pure heart. The voice narration in the film not only reinforces this notion but also serves as a framing device.
As Forrest Gump goes through decades of American history, inadvertently causing or collaborating with many watershed events, he shares his take through narration. This serves as both a humorous, ironic counterpoint (his innocence about what happens around him), and to understand that he’s talking about past events from a later point in his journey. The down-home, honest feeling of his interpretations only connects the viewer further to the innate goodness of his character. This produces both hilarity (at knowing what really went on in each scenario) and empathy for his simple-minded ability to see the best in each person he comes across.
This movie perfectly illustrates the trope of the unreliable narrator. As far as voiceover film examples, it’s textbook. Edward Norton narrates the life of the unnamed protagonist as a constant struggle against the ennui of modern, materialistic life. As the movie continues, he gets involved with the charismatic, boisterous Tyler Durden, played by Brad Pitt. As the two unlikely friends start their violent pastime for disenfranchised men, things start to unravel.
In the third act of the story, it becomes increasingly clear that the story Norton’s character has been telling us has not hewed as closely to the truth as we thought. In fact, he’s been suffering from a prolonged delusion, probably as a result of multiple personality disorder. Fight Club becomes, then, an excellent example of the small untruths and delusions we sometimes become entangled with.
Another example of an unreliable narrator. We join Guy Pearce’s (also unnamed, apparently it’s a thing) character as he tries to solve the mystery of his wife’s murder. The only difficulty is that he suffers from anterograde amnesia, a rare condition in which he can’t form any new memories. As he keeps forgetting what’s happened to him, the movie portrays his journey in short, disjointed segments that mirror his memory limitations.
In the movie’s climax, we learn that Pearce’s character has not been telling himself the true story. In fact, he’s been willingly taking himself along for a ride in order to have a sense of purpose in life. As the film morphs from a detective story into something far more twisted, it also becomes a meditation on who we are vs who we tell ourselves we are.
Voice over film styles: animation and video games
Animation and video games are two realms where voice over performers get a chance to shine. Even though video games aren’t technically films, they still employ many of the same techniques and conventions; I thought it, then, a good idea to include an example of a particularly film-like video game.
Robin Williams in Aladdin
If you haven’t seen this Disney classic, you should recheck your priorities. It’s a fantastic rags-to-riches tale that also speaks sensitively about being our honest, authentic selves. Robin Williams gives as an outstanding performance as the genie, combining his trademark ad-libbed wit with an animated version of his physical humor. He churns out so many nuggets of gold that I think it’s best you just watch some highlights to get you in an Aladdin-watching mood.
Notice something about the way he performs? That’s right! Even if you’re playing a voice-over film character, there is a physical aspect to performing that cannot be overlooked. Different voices come from different ways of breathing, moving your body, emotional states, and postures. It’s not as easy as just speaking into a microphone, which is an oft-overlooked aspect of playing characters. It gives you a different outlook into how much hard work voice actors and actresses put into their craft, doesn’t it?
Life is Strange
Life is Strange is a wonderful little video game gem. It seemed like it came out of nowhere in 2015, as it took the video game world by storm. French developer DONTNOD delivered a surprising, slice-of-life take on the challenges of growing up, finding one’s identity, and letting go of the past. It succeeded in doing this while introducing some decidedly video game-y powers and situations, but keeping everything grounded in character relationships and relatable problems.
None of this would have been possible without the collaboration of a truly stellar voice cast, which is also notable for many female main roles. Even as the situations in the game got farther and farther from normalcy, the affability of main characters Max and Chloe made players feel connected to their plights. The fact that you’d gotten to know their routines, families, and personal issues only made you want them to succeed all the more.
That’s the kind of storytelling involvement that only interactivity can make a reality. Interactivity breeds an increased empathy with the character players are controlling, and they cannot help but connect with them in an even more urgent, intense way than just by watching.
It’s exciting to wonder about what the medium of video games will bring when it comes to future interactive storytelling opportunities. Both Holywood-style stories and slower, more measured tales that take time to unfold have already found a place in gaming. Undoubtedly, new subversions and ideas will come out from creatives minds to tickle our senses and tug at our heartstrings. I will stay tuned with great interest to see where the intersection of voice over film and video games take us next.
Voice over film is a diverse, prolific culture that mixes work and play. I hope you’ve become inspired by some of these examples, and are thinking about moving full-steam ahead with your project. Remember, there are many voice actors out there who would love nothing but to participate, enrich, and enliven your new creative dream.
If you want quality, there is a vast pool of voice over talent at Bunny studio. Time to get out there, find that voice you’ve been dreaming about, and make your new project a reality!