Voice over narration has been here forever. While many attribute the first appearance of this technique to Walt Disney in Steamboat Willie, it actually dates from 1900! While that is not forever forever, it means that filmmakers and content creators have had a while to refine its uses.
But what about nowadays? What is there to gain from including voice overs in your short film, arthouse project, video game, or narrative project?
Well, as it turns out, audiences are listening more than ever. Content is increasingly becoming more audiovisual, and marketers, artists, and other creative geniuses are increasingly aware of this fact. Leveraging the combined powers of audio and video could be the secret ingredient you need to keep your audiences enthralled and coming back for more.
It’s all about finding the perfect voice! But, before we get to that, why don’t we explore some watershed moments in voice over narration? There’s a reason why the voice over industry is raking in over $4.4 billion annually, and it ain’t because voice actors are pretty! Well, it could be, but it’s probably not the main reason. After all, you can’t see them, all hidden away in their little home studios and recording booths.
But if you prefer to watch a video instead, click here:
Voice Over narration: the basics
When we get down to brass tacks, it’s all really simple, and you’ve heard it all before. Voice overs are a production technique in which a recording of the human voice is used in film, music, theater, video games, etc. Voice artists record their performances, which then get edited by an audio engineer (or the artists themselves). Then, they are matched to the appropriate visuals. Easy peasy, right?
Voice over narration, then, is even simpler, and I guarantee you’re well-acquainted with it. Remember all those times Morgan Freeman’s sweet, warm bass tones narrated a nature documentary or key parts of a film? How about all those times you’ve looked up one of those sweet cooking videos on YouTube? Yeah, it doesn’t matter that your first attempt at a casserole didn’t go that well.
What matters is that voice over narration is when a voice actor gives an offscreen performance that supplements the visual material. Usually, narrative voice overs are used to provide exposition and expand on what’s going on for clarity’s sake. The character or actor who’s speaking is also offscreen for these performances. Onscreen voice recordings are not voice overs.
If you need further clarification, check out this example from The Royal Tenenbaums. If you haven’t seen this Wes Anderson masterpiece, then maybe this little taste will get you in the mood!
They truly have been around forever
The first voiceover was recorded in 1900. Just let that sink in. It actually wasn’t even recorded for any film or artistic medium; Reginald Fessenden, a Canadian inventor, just recorded himself giving a weather report! Then, in 1906, he recorded a radio program that was sent out to ships at sea.
It took a little while longer for voice over narration to become a thing in movies. First, technology had to catch up to the existing possibilities. Then, creators had to wisen up. Once a few got going, narration and voice overs spread like a wildfire. Animation, movies, they were everywhere!
Types of narrators
Films, like books, frequently use the same devices when it comes to narration. They can roughly be divided into these two segments:
- Omniscient, or third-person narrators. The God-like entities that know everything about the characters and the world the story takes place in. Nothing escapes their sight, like Sauron’s searching eye. They have complete knowledge about the characters’ emotional states and refer to them in the third person. They don’t represent a character in the story, so they create a sense of detachment, but also of being read to by the author.
- First-person narrators. These are frequent characters in the story. It can be the main character, reflecting on past events from an undisclosed point in the future. Sometimes it’s another character in the story, recounting the tale. They can also be used to pull a fast one over the audience, as is the case with unreliable narrators.
- In some cases, they can be mixed. A character within the story can be recounting the whole thing, but still, have knowledge that the character could not have possibly had by normal means. In these cases, directors use these characters as de-facto omniscient narrators but adding the previous familiarity of their onscreen presence.
Voice Over Narration Examples
We often overlook how prevalent this style of narration is in movies. But, it has provided scriptwriters and filmmakers with innumerable opportunities to delight audiences. While exposition is usually the primary purpose, narration serves double duty; its literary roots often can make audiences feel like they’re being read aloud to. It’s another way to reel listeners/watchers in by telling them what’s going on, instead of just showing. While “Show, don’t tell” is supposedly a golden rule, it doesn’t quite apply to narration.
Voice over narration becomes a great way to bridge the gap between visual and literary language. It creates a sort of unofficial rulebreaker to film conventions; ideas, characters, scenes, and revelations can be conveyed as if directly from a page. Characters and omniscient narrators can wax poetic in ways that would sound clunky or unnatural in dialogue. This can work to a movie’s detriment or favor. Of course, there’s no point in delighting in bad voice overs. Maybe we’ll get to that in a future article. For now, it’s all about pure enjoyment.
We learn from the best and the worst, it’s true. But, if you’re going for inspiration, it’s best to go with good voice acting. We don’t need any more inspiration to mess up!
The Shawshank Redemption
This is probably the mother of all voice over narration examples. It’s pretty much a perfect storm of greatness. Between Stephen King’s prose and Morgan Freeman’s masterful cadence, audiences were in for an emotional gut-punch like few others.
With a narration that skillfully references the source material, and makes use of Freeman’s soulful cadence, there was no way but up. Frank Darabont, the director, and screenwriter was famously queasy about including narration in the film. In the end, he felt that Red — Freeman’s character — pulled characters into the world through his “amiable folksy feel”.
Ain’t that the truth!
Maybe one of the all-star cases of the unreliable narrator trope being brought to bear. Edward Norton’s character takes the viewers on a journey of self-discovery that ends up being a meditation on materialism, consumerism, and mental illness. Fight Club can be considered a postmodern masterpiece where typical story conventions can be brushed aside. The movie’s narration not only serves to up the thematic depth, making us privy to the character’s deeper thoughts but also exposes our innocence.
In a way, the voice over narration reminds us to not buy the product we’re being sold but to question the character’s motives. The fact that we’re being addressed directly by Norton also serves to reinforce the pitch-like quality of his seductive statements. By the end of the movie, before the big reveal, we’re following alone like mindless “Project Mayhem” cronies.
Good narration can be used to magnify a film’s scope and themes. It may be telling, but it’s also doing in a way that’s consistent with the grander ideas at play. And it can also be telling audiences counterfactual information, which opens up a new dimension in storytelling possibilities.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Many considered this movie unfilmable, and with great reason. It’s not only the misanthropic characters and settings. There would’ve been so much lost between page and film, were it not for Terry Gilliam’s boundless imagination. But, beyond that, it would’ve been a completely empty film if it could not incorporate Hunter S. Thompson’s Gonzo rantings.
If the voice over narration wasn’t there, the visual side of the story would be absolutely meaningless. And that’s because the movie often resorts to tripped-out imaginary to get us into the characters’ drug-addled minds. But it’s the voice over that conveys the Duke’s — Johnny Depp’s character, a thinly-veiled stand-in for Thompson — disillusionment and underlying cynicism.
If it weren’t for Thompson’s beguiling turn of phrases, the movie could’ve just been a visual masterpiece. With his critique of American culture and post-Vietnam exposé of the cul-de-sac of the hippie movement, the movie speaks volumes. And that’s what a good narration does: it supplements, augments, enriches, and maximizes visual information. It’s not there to treat audiences like fools but to enrich the whole experience.
What to do if you ain’t Hollywood
This is all well and dandy, yes. Edward Norton, Morgan Freeman, Johnny Depp — not precisely community-college level talent. But even if you don’t have the big bucks to call superstars to do your bidding, or host auditions in Tinseltown, not all is lost. In fact, there’s more to gain than ever!
If you have a project — of any kind, really — where voice actors would come in handy, you don’t have to think as big as movie studios. In fact, the advantages of the internet put us in a scenario where we’re totally spoiled for choice. Online platforms or voice-centric freelancing hubs are fast becoming the center of the scene.
If you’re thinking about augmenting your project with voice over narration, you’re in luck! There are so many types of talent, voices, accents, and specialties to choose from, the only question to ask is whether you’re game. If you have a script, or if you’ve already gotten started, then perhaps a narrator is just what your new idea needs to stand out from the pack.
Just take care of the creative part, and leave the performances to the pros. If you provide a good direction, there’s nowhere to go but up!