Documentaries are a learning experience for the viewer. Perhaps not in a traditional classroom sense, but as an immersive, entertaining, and cinematic experience. They explore people and places throughout the universe. While they might not be an advertisement or sales pitch as we think of them, they need to convey lots of information. The content needs to be delivered concisely, clearly, and with a passion and enthusiasm that draws the viewer into the story. In the past, voiceover in documentaries was primarily educational and included a textbook read to accompanying visuals. Today, we recognize them as a creative enterprise. Documentaries may seek to document reality and educate, but they also look to entertain and intrigue.
There are many types and styles of documentaries, and each comes with its own set of characteristics and structure:
Each of these styles has its pros and cons. Some lend themselves better to voiceover while others don’t. Exposition documentaries traditionally utilize VOG or Voice Of God. Participatory documentaries are highly subjective and include the filmmaker in the documentary, often providing their insights or ideas about what they are filming. A participatory documentary might have voiceover to force the filmmaker into the participant’s role or leave the narration to the people on the screen.
Voiceover in Documentaries – A Storytelling Device
Voiceover can make or break the effectiveness of a documentary. It provides structure understanding and helps transition from one scene to the next. Voiceover in a fictional Hollywood blockbuster helps introduce settings, provide exposition, and connect the characters. It provides insight into the inner workings of their minds.
Some might argue that something like a nature documentary doesn’t have characters; I would say it does. The first English reference to Mother Nature was as far back as 1266CE, so this isn’t new. We have given nature its persona for a long time and a good reason. Personification helps us relate and connect; it’s storytelling and humanity at its finest. People are at their best when we empathize and try to understand. And that’s a difficult thing to accomplish without a narrator. After all, you can’t do a sit-down interview with an animal or a tree, but you can use voiceover to make the audience think.
A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words
The more complex the subject matter, the more necessary and less optional documentary narration becomes. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but abstract concepts don’t have a physical form and aren’t easily conveyed through visuals. Ideas like freedom, cloud computing, or even human morals and cultures are all difficult to define. And even harder through a single picture without explaining context and meaning. A good script, engaging voiceover, and cinematic visuals all combine to communicate effectively with the audience.
Do Documentaries Have to Have Voiceover?
No, of course not. Documentaries don’t HAVE to have voiceover, but they benefit from voiceover. Plenty of documentaries have managed and even thrived without it. Particularly documentaries that focus on more specific subjects that lean on interviews. For more complex topics that get to the root of the world we live in, voiceover sure helps. And documentaries that simultaneously try to educate and inform without the voice to back it up can come across as devoid of actual content, without opinion or point of view.
When there is a lack of voiceover to explain the narrative and provide nuance, the audience has to lean on music and camera framing to follow along. Unlike a fictional movie, a documentarian can’t direct a talking head, and they can’t layer in emotion, exposition, or explanation through a script.
Is a Presenter Better Than a Voiceover?
Documentaries sometimes use presenters in tandem with narration, sometimes in place of it altogether. Like all things, whether its works or not depends on the project. Sometimes a presenter is a great choice, but sometimes it spoils the immersion. They can distract from visuals and limit the shots a cinematographer can capture. Sweeping landscape shots from the air or hard-to-reach locations can be challenging to integrate naturally if a presenter needs to be in the frame. Presenters have to be onsite; they can’t record from the comfort of their booth like us lucky voiceover artists.
Presenters can also come with other considerations that a voiceover artist doesn’t, like appearance. They need wardrobe, makeup artists, and continuity checks. All of this takes money and time. And it can still end up distracting or annoying your viewer. Reshoots can be expensive, and if the story takes an unexpected turn, a presenter isn’t as agile as a voiceover artist. It’s also more challenging to dub or re-voice a documentary with a presenter. And when the goal is to inform and educate, global dissemination should form part of a documentarians strategy.
Show Don’t Tell
The old rule, “Show, don’t tell,” is often misinterpreted because it’s more about writing and onscreen actors than voiceover. If we could only show and never tell, actors wouldn’t speak in movies, and we would go back to silent films. The literal interpretation had become visuals mean showing and voiceover means telling. A better interpretation might be, don’t tell the audience how to feel, show them. Voiceover that doesn’t tell the audience how to feel paired with information and visuals hits the sweet spot.
How to Use Voiceover in Documentaries Effectively
Voiceover should never take over, drown out the visuals or the story in a documentary. Instead, it should work to augment it. It’s the cherry on top, adding insight, tone, drama, and comedy. Beautiful visuals are much more impactful when the viewer knows what’s happening behind the facade. Here are some quick tips for getting the most out of your documentary voiceover:
- Give your narrator context
- A great script goes a long way
- Lean into good stereotypes and avoid bad ones
- Don’t do what everyone else is doing
- Get the voice that matches your content
- Timing is as crucial as tone and pitch
- Enthusiasm and passion are infectious; let yours shine
Documentaries weren’t always as popular as they are now. And perhaps one of the reasons is because they lacked that fundamental connection. They lacked the understanding and techniques to explain the feeling of war or the struggle of nature. They lacked connection and the ability to convey ideas, express the intangible in ways that make sense, and communicate with the viewer. A picture is worth a thousand words, but are those words the right ones? Are they the words the documentarian meant to convey? A picture can be misleading. Voiceover is the sound of reason, and it backs up claims made by a documentary, providing information and credibility.