The voice over is a film technique that is utilized in virtually every film genre. Filmmakers use voice overs to provide quick exposition, tell stories, narrate, and provide an intimate look into the mind of a character. This essay will explore how voice overs are used in the context of several films. Filmmakers are always looking to challenge the status quo and create innovative films, so it is impossible to come up with rules that are true for all movies. Nevertheless, there are certain conventions that remain fairly consistent in their usage from film to film, and I will work to explain how voice overs influence the structure and function of a film. This essay will explore how voice overs are used in nonfiction as well as fiction films, the main differences between voice overs and breaking the fourth wall, how visual aids and voice overs can be used in tandem for greater impact, and the subjective nature of a character-provided narrator. This essay will then provide arguments as to why the voice over is not a cheap, easy storytelling mechanism, but rather a significant tool that can be used to create truly great films. The voice over is not a cheap gimmick, but instead is an important tool to any filmmaker, which gives them a range of abilities in storytelling that they would not have otherwise.
Voice overs have a spotty reputation in the film criticism community because they are often used poorly and without much creative insight. The command “Show, don’t tell” is generally regarded as a worthwhile pursuit for a filmmaker. A beautifully composed sequence or a spectacular performance by a character actor should be easily interpreted by any audience. If the film is confusing to audiences because of shoddy editing or unclear narration, it is entirely on the shoulders of the filmmaker to remedy the situation. However, the voice over flies directly in the face of the command, “Show, don’t tell.” Matt Seitz, editor-in-chief of rogerebert.com and television critic for New York Magazine, has this to say about how the voice over can be used skillfully in order to enhance the film’s narration:
“Other films use narration matter-of-factly and rather aggressively throughout the story, and when they do it well, nobody hauls out, ‘Show, don’t tell.’ But even when they don’t do it well, heavily-narrated films often get a pass from viewers because the voice-over is simple to understand and doesn’t ask the audience to hold more than one thought in its head at the same time. There’s one narrator, usually, and he or she is giving us information that the scenes themselves might not convey, but without contradicting them, or making us doubt what we’re seeing, or ask ‘Why is the main character telling me this? Why is it important?’ ” (Seitz)
What Seitz is getting at here is that, while the voice over may seem lazy and even uninspired, the basic function of the voice over is the same for brilliant and simple films alike: to clearly convey information to the audience. The information presented through the voice over should supplement the information being presented on the screen. A skillfully executed narration “occurs adjacent to the story” (Seitz) rather than in opposition to it.
While this essay focuses mainly on voice over’s use in fictional narrative, it is important not to forget that voice overs are also used extensively in nonfiction works as well. The inclusion of a voice over allows a filmmaker to efficiently provide information to the audience in a way that is easy to understand. Documentaries often use a voice over to provide the viewer with relevant information through the film’s soundtrack. Often, this is paired with important visual aids (ie, battle footage, photographs, or images of artifacts relevant to the subject matter). A commentary concerning the War on Drugs could be played over muted news footage of cartel battles and police in “Planet Earth”, a voice over narrates the activity of hundreds of animals from around the globe as they go about their lives. In nonfiction film especially, the voice over acts as a liaison between the action on screen and the audience. In nonfiction film, the voice over comes from a real person, rather than a character in a story. Because of this, voice overs in nonfiction narratives are more personal. There is a greater weight to a documentary’s message than that of a fictional narrative, and the documentary’s voice over originates from a living, breathing person who is trying to get their message heard. Without the use of the voice over, the filmmaker would be hard-pressed to establish such a direct connection between the audience and the film.
It can be confusing trying to distinguish between when characters provide a voice over and when characters break the fourth wall. While both techniques can be utilized to achieve the same end, they are not one and the same. A character breaks the fourth wall when he or she addresses the audience directly, and often this is paired with the character looking directly at the camera in order to provide the illusion that he or she is making eye contact with the viewer. The character addresses the viewer at the same time the action is taking place. Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) breaks the fourth wall in Netflix’s “House of Cards” in the pilot episode’s first scene. Underwood, keeping eye contact with the viewer, delivers a monologue on power as he prepares to strangle an injured dog. The cold, hard words from Underwood pair with his violent actions to leave the viewer scared and enthralled. Breaking the fourth wall provides an intimacy that a voice over struggles to match. In “House of Cards”, that intimacy is used to quickly and effectively characterize Underwood as a cold, calculating character. Breaking the fourth wall can be used for comedic purposes as well, as seen in “Deadpool” (2016). By breaking the fourth wall, Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) includes the audience in on the joke as he progresses through the story. Both “House of Cards” and “Deadpool” use the fourth wall very differently from each other, but the same effect is achieved by both–to quickly rope the viewer into the action and tone of the story.
The voice over, on the other hand, is a completely different convention than breaking the fourth wall. A voice over can still be issued by a character in the story, address the viewer directly, and talk about events as they happen on screen. Usually when the fourth wall is broken, there is a pause in the action between characters while the character breaks the fourth wall. There is no such pause when a voice over is provided. Additionally, a voice over does not have to take time to set up eye contact between the character speaking and the audience. Instead, the voice over plays whenever it is convenient, and the audience knows that it is being spoken to and by whom. The usage of the voice over allows the filmmaker to more easily address the audience, since there is no need for the character to take a break from the action to address the audience.
The pairing of a voice over with visual aids carries over into the realm of fictional narrative. A voice over is made up of only audio information and–though the filmmaker is not required to include a visual counterpart–visual aids are often employed to better convey the message that the filmmaker is trying to push. Two popular ways that voice overs and visuals are used in collaboration are when characters are relaying information about events in the past (the introduction sequence to “The Fellowship of the Ring” explains the origin and history of the One Ring in order to give the audience historical context before the action of the film begins) or while a character is narrating his or her inner thoughts (“Mean Girls”). As showcased in “The Fellowship of the Ring,” providing visual aids to accompany the voice over helps the audience to better envision the action as it takes place. As showcased in “Mean Girls,” a voice over can be paired with images from inside the narrator’s head to put the audience completely inside the mind of the character. Since film is a medium of both sound and images, the filmmaker must be careful about how he presents information to his audience. A voice over provides a direct line between the characters and the audience, which can be used to better tell the story that the filmmaker wants told.
If a voice over comes from a character, the voice over is inherently subjective and provides a skewed perspective on the story events. Sometimes, a voice over may come from an older, wizened version of the same character as he looks back on past experiences. In “The Sandlot”, an adult Scottie Smalls (Arliss Howard) narrates stories from his childhood. Despite his age or broader range of knowledge, the narration he provides is still subjective. Similarly, in “Mean Girls,” Cady Heron (Lindsay Lohan) provides a commentary to the audience as things happen between characters. Sometimes these scenes are paired with scenes from animals in the Savannah to parallel how high school girls bicker amongst themselves. The visuals, paired with the voice over, break down the barrier between Cady and the audience. The audience sees things exactly as Cady subjectively sees them. After Cady’s daydreaming is over, the action resumes in the cafeteria, and all other characters are oblivious to Cady’s inner thoughts and feelings. When a voice over originates from a character, it is impossible to give the audience a completely objective view of the situation. Often, the filmmaker wants a subjective view on his film in order to tell a more compelling narrative or drive the suspense of the film. By using a voice over, the filmmaker is able to better situate the audience inside the mind of the characters, and therefore more completely draw the audience into the action of the story.
Voice overs provide filmmakers with a range of abilities in storytelling that they otherwise would not have. The real power of a voice over is its ability to communicate directly with the audience. Because there are so few tools available to the filmmaker that allows him to speak directly to the audience, the voice over is an invaluable asset to anyone who wants to establish a direct connection with the audience. In nonfictional and fictional narrative, the voice over acts as a liaison between the action on screen and the viewer, giving the filmmaker an opportunity to directly address the viewer, bypassing the usual conventions of dialogue, staging, costume, and the like to convey a meaning. A direct link between the audience and the characters in a film brings the audience closer to the action of the story. The viewer is no longer a casual observer, but rather an active participant in the story. The use of the voice over can save valuable screen time because the filmmaker does not have to spend extra time showing the audience information, and can leave the audience to infer the real meaning. The filmmaker is able to explicitly tell the audience what they need to know in order to move the story along. When a voice over is used skillfully, it can transform from a cheap gimmick into a valuable tool.
“Chapter One.” House of Cards. Netflix. 2013. Streaming.
Deadpool. Dir. Tim Miller. Perf. Ryan Reynolds, Morena Baccarin, T.J. Miller. Twentieth Century Fox, 2016. Film.
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Dir. Peter Jackson. Perf. Ian McKellen, Elijah
Wood, Orlando Bloom. New Line Cinema, 2001. DVD.
Mean Girls. Dir. Mark Waters. Perf. Lindsay Lohan, Jonathan Bennett, Rachel McAdams. Paramount Pictures, 2004. DVD.
Planet Earth. BBC, 2007. DVD.
The Sandlot. Dir. David M. Evans. Perf. Tom Guiry, Mike Vitar, Patrick Renna. Twentieth Century Fox, 1993. DVD.
Seitz, Matt Zoller. “Whispered Thoughts: The Evolution of Terrence Malick’s Voice-over | MZS | Roger Ebert.” All Content. N.p., 17 Aug. 2013. Web. 07 Apr. 2016.
Citation Style: MLA