Hearing Voices

Is there a place for voice-over narration? ☛

Robert McKee, waiting to strike

Once upon a time there was a debate about whether voice-over narration was a valid technique for the screenwriter to use. Mighty armies lead by the great gurus Robert McKee and Syd Field took opposing sides: Field praised voice-over and condemned the flashback as heresy, while McKee considered voiceover a sin…

The majority of screenwriters these days side with McKee: voice-over is seen as lazy writing. Usually it is. It comes down to one simple, and probably familiar phrase: show, don’t tell. Voice-over narration all too often involves the audience being told the story, sometimes because the screenwriter can’t think of a visual way of delivering necessary information. I’ve written about exposition before, and voice-over can be pretty much the laziest way of explaining stuff to the viewer. It’s not a purist thing or the protestant work ethic: giving information to an audience too easily can cause them to disengage. They relax, knowing that they’re going to be spoon-fed and watch the story from a detached distance. It robs them of the pleasure of working out what’s happening for themselves.

Voice-over can certainly be the curse of the cutting room. While it can be used as a last resort to try to fix a broken story, more often voice-over is added during the edit to clarify something that we never even wanted to understand. The worst instance I’ve seen was on a feature on which I assisted. The filming had been dogged with difficulties, leaving many scenes unshot. The script already had voice-over built in, so the understandable decision was made to add more voice-over lines, to make up for the missing scenes. Very soon, however, everyone lost sight of the important beats of the story, and voice-over was being added to explain pretty much everything. The result, apart from being a hell of a lot of words, was a confusing mess. The audience was bombarded with often useless and irrelevant information and quickly zoned out. Had we accepted that certain elements of the story needed to be sacrificed for the good of the whole, we might have had something. As it was, the film was a flop.

So voice-over can kill your film, but I’m not going to say that it should always be avoided. It has its uses, beyond simply feeding the audience information. It can, for example, confirm the identity of the protagonist and focuses the story more clearly around them.

Morgan Freeman in “The Shawshank Redemption” lining up a lucrative career in voiceover work

Not that the voice-over narrator has to be the protagonist. Sometimes it can be useful to have a narrator who is at one remove from the central character. This was very effective in The Shawshank Redemption, where we see the character of Andy Duphresne through the eyes of Red (Morgan Freeman). This does a number of jobs; most importantly it makes Andy more sympathetic. He’s a banker who lead a privileged life before prison, he’s naturally intellectual and emotionally cool. In many ways, not naturally sympathetic. However, if wise, salt-of-the-earth type Morgan Freeman likes him, he can’t be that bad. Red’s opinion of Andy we get via voice-over.

The Shawshank Redemption demonstrates another characteristic of voice-over. It’s important that Red gets the voice-over, rather than Andy, so that when we’re asked to worry that Andy might have died, we believe that possibility. While a couple of films have had voice-over be delivered from beyond the grave, we naturally assume that the narrator will survive the story, so putting them in peril rarely works.

The voice-over doesn’t even have to come from one person. In Martin Scorsese’s Casino, the DeNiro and Pesci characters get to give us competing viewpoints on the story and what it means. We even have a third narrator who jumps in a bit later down the line. This technique is common in documentaries, where interviewees from different sides of an issue are often played off-camera. It not only gives us a choice of perspectives and opinions, but it also adds conflict.

Multiple narrators are used in a very different way in Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line. Here there’s a broadly similar perspective shared by the many narrators, thoughts on the nature of war from the soldiers fighting. Many of the voices even have similar accents, making them difficult to tell apart. One narrator muses “Maybe all men got one big soul everybody’s a part of, all faces are the same man” and the use of multiple narrators echoes that thought.

This more poetic use of voice-over can often be much more enriching to a film than using your narrator to Fedex information. The Thin Red Line never gives us any plot information in the voice-over. The same is true in Withnail and I, where the broad comedy of the film is given an edge of melancholy by voice-over musings, not always directly connected to the action. The camera wanders the flat as the narrator tells us “Even a stopped clock is right twice a day”. This voice-over is like musical counterpoint, adding a more internal mood to the external action.

Sissy Spacek looking for inspiration in “Badlands”

You can push non-expositional voice-over further by making it ironic. The best example comes again from Terrence Malick, this time in Badlands. Sissy Spacek’s character is a naïve and withdrawn teenager who takes up with a violent young psychopath played by Martin Sheen – a killing spree ensues. While that could be played like Natural Born Killers, seeing the story through the eyes of Spacek changes the tone. Her narration presents the events of the story as if she and her lover were living a romantic adventure in a women’s magazine. This both lightens the tone of he film and gives us a vital insight on her character. A cinematic unreliable narrator.

But voice-over doesn’t have to give us character; it can also give us genre. Think of a cliché movie voice-over. You’re probably thinking of hard-boiled film noir narration. The street-wise, world-weary tone of this style tells us something about the character (although little that we don’t expect), but it has come to be seen as a defining characteristic of the genre. It was a factor that helped to sell the genre of Blade Runner on its initial release: this wasn’t just sci-fi, it was future noir. If, however, the voice at the start of your movie is that of a wise-cracking New Yorker rhapsodizing about his city, we know that we’re in a different genre.

While voice-over usually comes from a character that’s not always the case. There are not many movies that have an omniscient narrator these days, a voice like that of the novelist : all-knowing of the characters’ thoughts and feelings. This was not uncommon in the 40s, when movies were happy to speak with a bit more authority, and address their audience directly in the voice of a storyteller – I particularly like the quirky narrator at the start of A Matter of Life and Death. More recently 500 Days of Summer has an omniscient narrator, so maybe the style’s due a comeback.

Post-war Vienna, full of hidden exposition

One of the most assured uses of voice-over comes in The Third Man. The film opens to a montage: Vienna directly after World War II. A narrator with a confident, cynical manner tells us about the place and hints at his relationship to it, he sounds like a black marketeer. Suddenly he stops himself “Oh, I was gonna tell you, wait, I was gonna tell you about Holly Martins…” and goes on to set up the story for us. This voice-over does lots of different jobs: it gives us a sense of place while sneaking in a bit of exposition, a few facts that we’ll need later down the line. It sets the genre of the film – clearly the speaker is a film noir sort of character – and prepares us to sympathize with amoral characters further down the line. It also downplays the story, making it seem like something throwaway, that might almost have been forgotten. We know that this is a movie, and that little that hits the big screen is inconsequential, so we see through the screenwriter’s double bluff. What we don’t anticipate is that the character who has been so neatly set up in these introductory lines will not be heard from again and never even enters the story (the lines are in fact read by director Carol Reed). This absent character is just the first decoy in a film that’s all about decoys. The very nature of the voice-over feeds into the theme.

There are a dozen other voice-over tricks and tropes that I’ve not mentioned, but most of them share one golden rule: don’t keep it going too long. Unless voice-over is clearly driving your film, like with Badlands, it’s best to say goodbye to it as early as you can. Whatever else voice-over can do, it never brings us into the drama of a scene. Watch a film with too much voice-over and you feel like you’re soaring above the action, getting a great birds-eye view of what’s going on, but rarely getting close enough to get involved. But then, of course, there’s internal stream-of-consciousness… but that’s another story and must be told another time.

Copyright © Guy Ducker 2012

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Comments
4 Responses to “Hearing Voices”
  1. Scott Squires says:

    Christmas Story uses voice over effectively for the inner turmoil of the main character and as a reflection.

  2. This was a very insightful post, thank you!

  3. Ivan Noel says:

    I think Malick took narration one more interesting step (I am reminded in this post quite how often he uses them) in ‘Days of Heaven’ where the young girl’s amazingly frank and natural voice seems to infuse the film with a specific and endearing style. It was certainly my favourite character of the film, more so than the actual acting girl herself. I remember this film mostly for its narration, which is something new I guess.

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