Movies offer a quintessentially visual and aural experience. But, in some ways, they don’t bring forth the same imaginative power that books do. So, how do scriptwriters and film auteurs sidestep this limitation? They bring in a little voice-over movie magic, that’s how! Movies with narration allow us to peek into the inner lives and thought processes of characters in a way akin to the written word. Let’s dive a little bit deeper.
But wait! Don’t voice-overs in movies destroy some of their credibility? After all, you’ve probably read many a refined critic write long screeds against them in some rarefied magazine or another. Truth be told, narration is just one technique in a filmmaker’s arsenal. There are many ways in which they can deploy it, either good or bad. A bad narration can be a ham-fisted attempt to over-explain; in a way calling the audience dumb-dumbs.
Conversely, a great narration can complement the events on the screen. It can grant them a deeper meaning, convey exposition, or relay information about the character’s feelings that would otherwise remain unknown.
“But what about show, not tell?” Frankly, that’s a rule of thumb more than one of the Ten Movie Commandments, an idea more than a stricture. Moviemakers always try to employ techniques that speak to their medium’s strong points. A great economy of visual language is necessary for a movie to be good. It does need to say as much as possible with just visuals, including clueing us into the nature of the world (either physical or metaphysical/emotional) we’re watching.
As some of the best voice-overs in movies will show us, there’s plenty to enjoy about this technique. Let’s take a look.
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What is a “Voice-over Movie”?
First, let’s define our terms.
A voice-over is a production technique whereby we produce a recording of a human voice. We then use that recording in a variety of media, by overlaying it onto images, or by using ut as a part of a narrative or communicative purpose. Voice overs are not just for narration in movies, they’re as integrated into our everyday lives as having a smartphone. Think about all of the voices in commercials, the PA announcements you hear on your daily commute, that PSA on buses asking us to “Stay at home”, etc.
There’s a vast sea of voice-overs and a shockingly huge market behind recording them. Last I checked, the global voice-over market was bringing in around $4.4 billion per year, give or take a few cents. A big chunk (around 53%) of these go to animation, and then documentaries, movies, etc, get lumped into a “meager” 8.5%. That is a lot of money, signaling an extremely active and growing market.
If you want to take a look, check out a partial list of voice-over related subcategories (from our article “What is Voice Over?“):
- Voice over films
- Dubbed foreign language films
- Animation shorts or films
- TV programs
- Radio or audio dramas
- Video games
- Live events
- Awards shows
- Toys and games
- Vehicle and transportation
- Phone messages and IVR
- Training / E-learning
A “voice-over movie,” then, is any movie in which filmmakers use voice-overs to enhance the clarity, flow, and intelligibility of a story. They may also deploy them for other artistic or creative reasons, as we will see below. Movies have been around for so long that not even voice-overs and narration are immune to attempts at deconstruction.
A Small Voice-over Movie History
Many people believe that voice-overs started with 1928’s Walt Disney classic “Steamboat Willie.” That little factoid has even survived the age of the internet. Somehow, it continues being passed along. But, before we got voice-overs in movies, we had the weather report.
That’s right; check out this little piece of historical trivia from Voiceovervoiceactor:
It is commonly believed that the first voiceover was from Walt Disney, as Mickey Mouse in “Steamboat Willie.” And although this was a long time ago, in 1928, in actual fact the first voice over was in 1900! This historical achievement belongs to Reginald Fessenden, a Canadian inventor. He was thrilled with Alexander Graham Bell’s new device, the telephone, and set out to create a way to remotely communicate without wires. The beginning of “Wireless!” In 1900, working for the United States Weather Bureau, Fessenden recorded the very first voice over: a test he made reporting the weather.
He was also the first voice of radio. In Boston, in 1906, during the Christmas season, he recorded an entire program of music, Bible texts, and Christmas messages to ships out at sea.
I’ve started to develop my own pretty reliable rule from learning such historical trivia. Stuff is always, always older than we think.
Moving On To Movies With Narration
It’s decidedly hard to pinpoint what the first movie with narration was. Sequential, or narrative films were already a thing back in the 1890s. But, it wasn’t until the late 1920s or early 1930s that voice-over movie became a thing that was synonymous with cinema.
One thing that helped cement narration as a film device was hard-boiled noir films. You know the type, yeah. The grizzled, “seen-it-all” detective pitted against the ominous, unbeatable machinery of corruption and decadence. Their gritty, frazzled delivery cutting through a thick haze of cigarette smoke and whiskey vapor. It’s a trope so well-trod that as we go on, it requires more and more deftness to deploy.
I’m not going to go all historical here, don’t worry. This isn’t going to be a review of Film Noir from 1930-1950, as much as I’d like. But, we can start with attempts to deconstruct and utilize those noir tropes in movies with narration.
Memento is a 2000 masterpiece by modern film master Christopher Nolan. It’s based on a short story by his brother Jonathan (I guess creativity and a love for the off-kilter runs in the family). The plot has Leonard Shelby, an insurance investigator, attempt to figure out the identity of his wife’s murder. The only issue is that the man suffers from anterograde amnesia — he can’t form any new memories. This leads to some very interesting structural playfulness, as we follow the action from Lenny’s POV; he keeps forgetting things, thus making the movie into a puzzle of short sequences that mirror his spasms of forgetfulness.
It’s not long before we understand that these chopped-up engrams are out of sequence.
Also, we can encounter some very smart attempts to deconstruct the figure of the detective as the moral center of the story. If there’s something that we’ve come to expect, is for protagonists to be:
b) Morally justified in their actions.
Memento plays with everything. It plays with our sense of time, our sense of memory, and lays on a layer of moral ambiguity to the protagonist. We’ve become so reliant on movie main characters being virtuous and reliable that unreliable narrators still throw us for a loop.
Just check out the ending narration as Lenny walks us through his rationale for continuing his never-ending quest. I get chills every time. If that doesn’t say something poignant about the human condition, I don’t know what does. Spoilers ahead, obviously.
The Big Lebowski
Another one of the voice-over movie greats. The Coen-brothers-helmed wacky distillation of Americana, surrealism, and their perennial wit just never gets old. But what is it about it that’s kept fans coming back for more year after year?
Part of The Big Lewbowski’s charm is in subverting the expectations of the audience. One of the great things that it does is using well-established character actors in ways that play both and against type. You’d never expect a gavel-mouthed cowboy like Sam Elliott to narrate a story like the Dude’s. But that’s part of the intelligence in the Coen’s screenplay. Eliott is an imposing presence imbued with a natural gravitas. By narrating a story that is both a parody of the heroic and a homage to the mundane and senseless, he elevates the material in a way that’s simultaneously meta-level sarcastic and sweet.
Just check out his opening narration set to a fitting montage of a tumbleweed rolling through Los Angeles to see what I mean. I bet the Coens were laughing every step of the way, and so was everyone else involved in the making of this gem.
By the time the Dude steps into frame, he’s both a farcical figure and heroic in his utter laid-backness. It doesn’t get any better than that.
The Royal Tenenbaums
There’s plenty to love about Wes Anderson movies. But, besides their charming love for the twee, they always tend to have great narrators in the classical sense. There is no place for deconstruction here; Anderson’s narrators tend to have this droll, folksy style that makes you love characters even before they’ve uttered a single word. A good voice-over movie just evokes this sort of implicit trust in the narrator that elevates the material beyond mere exposition.
I don’t think this was ever more evident than in The Royal Tenenbaums.
Final Thoughts About Movies With Narration
I could go on all day about great voice-over movie examples. If I haven’t managed to satiate your curiosity a bit, then I recommend you check out this awesome article by Indiewire. There’s so much to play with when it comes to movie narration that we could write a book and we’d still only scratch the surface.
Suffice it to say that if you ever need someone to narrate for your film, you want them to be consummate professionals. If you ever find yourself in the need for one, we might not be able to get Sam Elliott, but you’d do well to check out our other 28,000 voice-over pros at Bunny Studio. After all, even the best script is nothing without the right narrator to bring it to life. The great thing is that we’ll give you plenty of opportunities to fall in love with that unique voice. The one that says “here” and makes you call of the search.
Meanwhile, let’s keep on watching movies, learning what we can, and striving to make the next big masterpiece that’ll be talked about for years to come.