Is there a difference between voice-over vs narration? At a cursory glance, many people would suggest these two are the same thing, along with dubbing.

While there are obviously a lot of similarities, there are some distinct differences. For the average person in the street, these differences really don’t matter at all. But if you are looking to record either a voice-over or a narration then it is crucial that you are aware of the best ways of creating each of these two things. Which is what we are going to look at a little more closely a little further down.

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This article was updated in April 2021

Voice-over vs Narration, What’s the Difference?

The difference between narration vs voice-over in form tends to be quite small. When it comes to function though, there is a huge difference between the two:

The voice-over is a production technique using an off-screen voice that is not part of the narrative as opposed to an actual character with dialogue. A narration tends to be the use of spoken commentary of the entire story to the audience. Either one of the lead characters or a disconnected third-person voice will provide this.

What can sometimes be confusing is that the two terms tend to be used interchangeably. Thus it is important that you clarify which one you are talking about.


The move away from voice-over

Voice-over was most traditionally known to be used in movie trailers.

A specialized voice-over actor would commentate on the action taking place on the screen, giving greater context and emotion to events taking place. The late Don Lafontaine, arguably the most well-known voice actor in Hollywood, was known for his husky “In a world…” trailer voice-overs.

But according to Stuart Thompson, the movie industry has almost completely moved away from using voice-overs in that way.

‘The voiceover artist held the limelight for decades, reaching their peak in 1994 – the last time when all top-10 films at the box office used a narrator in their trailer, from the critically praised The Lion King to the panned Dumb and Dumber.’ [Stuart A. Thompson article – In a world without voice-overs: What happened to the movie trailer voice?]

These days directors tend to use action or words on the screen to convey a similar feeling to that of the voice-over. Thus as far as movie trailers go using voice-over seems to be a mostly dying art. Today voice-overs are still used in radio advertising and theatrical productions.

The argument for narration

Narration has a lot to do with who is telling the story and how the story is being told.

Narration meanwhile, happens during a movie typically telling the story from a lead character’s point of view. The function of this narration is to help the movie to progress rapidly to the next scene by summarising key plot points to keep the audience informed as to what is going on.

A classic example would be Morgan Freeman’s telling of the story of The Shawshank Redemption through the voice of his Ellis Boyd ‘Red’ Redding character. While the movie focuses on Tim Robbins character, Andy Dufresne, it is Freeman’s external perspective and voice which help the story convey its powerful message of hope.

Another benefit of the narration in this story is that it made it easier for the director to tell a story over a 20-year time period. This would have been a lot more difficult without the external voice.

With Narration in mind, there are a number of techniques that assist in the telling of the story.  The most significant of these would be:

  • A Narrative point of view [whose perspective is being heard?],
  • The Narrative voice [the format]
  • Narrative tense [when is the story being told, in terms of past, present or future?].

Successful Hollywood filmmaker Billy Wilder once declared: “The thing about voice-overs – you have to be very careful there that you don’t show what they’re already seeing. Add to what they’re seeing.”

In this instance, Billy Wilder is referring to the purpose of narration in a movie [demonstrating how the two terms voice-over vs narration have often been interchanged].

The general idea being that the narration adds additional elements to the story.  Watching the action play out without the voice would not be able to achieve the same effect.


Some similarities in approach

Whether you are talking voice-over or narration, the audience is a key factor and has to be kept in mind at all times.

Ensure that the voice actor is speaking to them and not at them.

Consider age, gender, and accent with regards to the audience keeping those in mind when choosing your voice talent and make sure you choose appropriately. For example, consider whether you need a female voice over or female young voice over. Even if you need a neutral gender voice over.

The benefit of using skilled voice professionals from the country that you are targeting is that they will be able to not just translate the words, but also be able to include local nuance as well, which adds to the experience and authenticity of the project, making it more relatable and believable. At Bunny Studio you can find expert voice overs like Cantonese voice overs, Indian voice overs, Hebrew voice overs or Finnish voice overs, among other languages.

Some differences in approach

The main difference in approach with voice-over vs narration will be evident in your mic placement because you are wanting different kinds of sounds for the different expressions.

With a voice-over for a radio advertisement, for example, the actor will need to be close to the mic to take advantage of the proximity effect. The function of the voice-over, in this case, is more like that of an announcer and so you want to create that sense of power or God-sound. You will also want to make use of a ducking software that lowers everything except for the voice. This will ensure the voice stands out and becomes a strong focus.

Whereas for an animated or 3D movie, you want the voices to sound a lot more authentic and realistic so that the dialogue sounds a lot more natural. It must feel to the audience as if the characters are real and actually speaking to each other and so you want to move away from any kind of effect that removes that illusion or stands out in any way. The voice and visual must gel as completely as possible. To create this effect you will typically need a few mic placements which will be determined depending on the environment that you are in.

When trying to create a film’s natural-sounding dialogue you would likely use a good quality mic on a stand positioned where a boom microphone would be [about half a meter above the actor/actress, facing them at a 45-degree angle towards their chest]. This will help you create a more organic sound which is what you are seeking. This removes the proximity effect that you want when recording voice-overs and you will not capture the voice’s radiation pattern as cleanly as when the mic is directly in front of the actor’s mouth. This will also add some distance and early reflections and so another aspect to focus on is making sure that the room you have chosen to record in is creating the appropriate sound that you are looking for as well.

Concluding thoughts about voice-over vs narration

When considering these two aspects of voice work, the main thing to keep in mind is function. What am I trying to do here? Which of these two will be appropriate for the piece of media I am busy creating? Once you decide on that you can look more closely at the technical aspects. Remembering that in either case, understanding your audience is essential. Create in such a way that will speak directly to them and leave them satisfied with your work.

While voice-over in movies is largely a thing of the past, it still has a place in radio and stage. When requiring that specific function, it makes sense that you do it well.

For those of you working with narration, it is largely about holding the purpose of that technique in mind. Ensuring it has its own special purpose which elevates the whole piece.

If you do a lot of voice work you may also be interested in this post which looks at Dubbing.

Whether you need a voice-over or narration, we’ve got you. Just submit a project at Bunny Studio today!