Have you ever seen the videos where they change the music and the video itself has a completely different effect? The music can make the same piece funny or scary or suspenseful. That is the magic sound has when put to video. Voice over narration does the same thing. The voice over in a documentary can create the whole mood. When choosing the right voice over for your documentary, you’ve got quite a few things to consider, but the voice over documentary you finalize with just the right voice can be perfection.
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This post was updated in April 2021
The Role of Voice Over in Documentaries
A documentary is a film that captures or documents some aspect of the nonfiction world. These films cover real life, whether it’s a nature film about great white sharks or a historical documentary about Abraham Lincoln’s wife. One characteristic of documentaries is that they often cover little known topics. Maybe only the tip of the iceberg has been covered before, and the documentary will delve deeper. Often a new angle is taken with a popular topic. The producer of a documentary usually feels a deep passion and connection to the topic.
Desktop Documentaries shares this definition of documentaries
Documentaries bring viewers into new worlds and experiences through the presentation of factual information about real people, places, and events, generally — but not always — portrayed through the use of actual images and artifacts. But factuality alone does not define documentary films; it’s what the filmmaker does with those factual elements, weaving them into an overall narrative that strives to be as compelling as it is truthful and is often greater than the sum of its parts.
–Sheila Curran Bernard, Author of Documentary Storytelling
With all the passion and thought that goes into the creation of documentaries, the voice over is a vital component. Voice over documentary is an art, and the role of the voice over is critical to the success of the film. A voice over in a documentary film conveys the mood, sets the tone, and engages the audience. All the visuals can be perfect and the right voice can complement it to make it even more so. However, the wrong voice can set the wrong tone and hurt the film.
With all the voice over documentary actors, it is important to choose the one that matches the film. The voice of the documentary will set the tone and beckon the viewers into the film. The voice creates an intimate connection with the viewers, bringing them directly into the world of the film. A voice over documentary can share things viewers may never otherwise know about or ever see. That voice is the tour guide, the leader, the spirit of the film.
The Effect a Voice Over Can Make in a Documentary
One of the most important factors in a voice over documentary is that the narration must match the documentary’s tone. It also has to match the audience. For instance, a nature film could be narrated by a soothing, slower, wise voice to match the visuals and be successful, but if the audience is elementary school students, the voice should probably be a younger, more vibrant one.
The voice actor should also be versatile. Let’s stick with the nature documentary. There will be those calm and soothing parts, perhaps animals resting or mothers snuggling their babies. However, the voice will have to change it up to narrate a more fierce or powerful scene. So even though it’s the same voice actor, the tone will need to be versatile. If the tone stayed the same throughout the film, it may get boring and hard for the audience to maintain interest.
The overall effect you are probably striving for in a voice over documentary is one that will captivate the audience while educating them on the topic. Regardless of the subject, the voice over will have a big part in doing this. Along with the film’s visuals, the voice over will set the mood and tone and maintain it throughout the documentary while bringing the audience along and conveying information.
Different Documentaries, Different Voices
Depending on the documentary you are producing, your voice overs will vary. Here are some examples of different voice attributes. You can use specific characteristics to match the topics and themes of the films to your desired voice actor:
- Gender – male, female, both, either
- Age – child, preteen, teenager, young adult, adult, senior
- Language and accent – native speaker, fluent voice actor, voice actor who can perform with accents
- Characteristics – informative, hip, raw, relaxing, trustworthy, upbeat, educational, and the list goes on
Knowing the characteristics that you are looking for will help narrow your search for the voice actor for your documentary. Maybe you need a North Midland voice overs or Older Southern American English voice overs. Do your best to match the actor to the topic and tone you wish to convey. Usually, a voice agency can help you with this if you aren’t exactly sure what you are looking for.
This article on voice selection shares some great tips on identifying the desired voice, including help in describing the general vibe you’re looking for along with describing pitch, intensity and other components of the voice. Just remember, the voice you choose for your voice over documentary will have a huge effect on it.
Think about how different our nature documentary would be if we had a young boy narrating it versus an older scientific researcher. Neither would be bad, but they would create a completely different feel and appeal to the documentary.
When you are creating your documentary script, you may already have your voice actor in mind. But you don’t have to. You can write the script and then find the actor to fit it. Either way will work. Most documentary producers/writers create a shooting script that they use while shooting, and then another script once they have footage.
Desktop Documentaries shares these tips for creating a great voice over documentary script:
- Transcribe the footage to put it all together.
- Review the big picture; find and note key moments.
- Create scenes, or individual stories, with your footage.
- Structure a rollercoaster. This will take your audience on an adventure through your documentary script.
- Determine a villain and a hero. Just like any story, there needs to be some conflict. The villain doesn’t have to be a real person, it could be a drought or opioid drugs.
- Make sure the documentary has a beginning, middle, and end and that it’s evident in your script.
- Some people like to work from the end. If you know the ending, begin there and build up to the script.
- Have a strong start with a clear message that creates interest.
- Keep moving forward and don’t get muddled in the middle.
Remember, your script tells the story. It is different than writing a movie script, but you still must keep the narrator in mind. Make sure you maintain credibility when writing your script and keep the integrity of the event, the time, the people, and the topic you are working on. Your documentary is here to inform, educate and share parts of the world others may not be familiar with. Write a script to reflect that and let your voice actor relay it.
Skills of a Good Voice Actor
More than one characteristic determines a good voice actor. We’ve talked about how different actors are suited for different films, but there are some universal positive traits of voice actors. One of the most important things when it comes to booking your voice actor is to use one with a pleasing voice. Your audience will be listening to this voice for possibly a few hours. You want someone they will enjoy listening to.
Voice over documentary actors are known for smooth, engaging voices that lack negative characteristics like shrillness or uneven tones. Their tone and voice should match the film so well that it becomes part of it, almost a background sound sharing information but not overwhelming or overriding the film.
Talented voice actors are also adaptable to work with you to complete your vision of the film. They should know how to be flexible and deliver what you want. Make sure your expectations are clear and understandable. Voice actors should not only be able to voice your script, but they should be able to make it come alive and captivate your audience. They may be able to read your script in a creative way you didn’t envision which brings even more life to it.
Part of this is up to you. When you are working with your actor, make sure you give them time to read and understand the script. Let them live with it so they can make it come alive. Collaborate with them so they understand your vision.
Some well-known voice actors when it comes to documentaries are Morgan Freeman in March of the Penguins, Leonardo DiCaprio in Before the Flood, Tom Hanks in Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War, and Sigourney Weaver in Planet Earth. Maybe you can’t hire one of these big names, but think about what makes them so successful and use these characteristics to find your own star voice actor.
The Final Product
A producer’s documentary is their baby. They’ve put unknown hours of hard work into it with filming and editing and researching. The voice actor is the one to tie it all together and is one of the most important pieces of the finished product. The voice shares the facts of the documentary while enhancing the images on the screen.
When choosing the voice actor for your documentary, look for the actor to enhance it and make it come alive. You probably have a vision of your final piece, let your voice actor help you in making that come alive. Look for someone to match the tone and the audience who can follow your script in an engaging manner. You’ll end up with a beauty of a final piece.
If you’re looking for the best vocal talent around, at Bunny Studio we have an incredible team of over 100,000 voice pros at your disposal. Submit a project with us today to find the right voice for you!