The core quality of a documentary voice over is authority.
The voice over aims to convey truthful information while creating a mood which enhances the images on the screen. There are many ways to achieve authority in a documentary voice over.
We’ve spoken elsewhere on this site about Bill Nichols’s six categories of documentary voice over, and this work is well worth reading.
At Voquent we divide the documentary style into categories including: authoritative, eloquent, inspiring, informing, and nurturing — though of course these overlap. Let’s look at a few of these ideas.
The Voice of God
The most notorious style of documentary voice over expresses authority in its most blatant and direct form, like a voice echoing down from a mountain top. This is sometimes known as the “Voice of God”. As the academic Charles Wolfe put it in an article for Film History:
Disembodied, this voice is construed as fundamentally unrepresentable in human form, connoting a position of absolute mastery and knowledge outside the spatial and temporal boundaries of the social world the film depicts, […] stentorian, aggressive, assuming a power to speak the truth of the filmic text, to hold captive through verbal caption what the spectator sees. (Wolfe 1997, p. 149)
The Voice of God has become so ingrained in our cultural life that it is difficult to think of it as the creation of a voice over artist. Yet in fact it was developed in the 1930s by the American narrator Westbrook Van Hooris, for the long-running documentary serial The March of Time.
Based on the cadences of radio documentary, this unique vocal creation, with its “eccentric syntax, odd inflections, teletype cadence and often ironic tone”, as Wolfe puts it, became known as Timespeak.
The Voice of God soon became an object of ridicule, such as in Monty Python’s International Communism cartoon (although Monty Python’s impersonation of the Voice of God is nowhere near as striking as the voice itself, which underlines the brilliance of Van Hooris’s creation). Film makers quickly reacted against the ‘Voice of God’ approach to documentary and sought other ways to establish a relationship with the audience.
Today the Voice of God in its pure form, outside of a movie preview or an announcer, is virtually unusable, as audiences outside of these broadcast methods will likely respond to it with mirth.
Although Voquent has a category for documentary voice over we call ‘authoritative’, few of our artists seek to come anywhere near Van Hooris’s terrifying approach. These days, documentary makers must find other ways of establishing authority.
The author’s voice
The root of the term ‘authority’ is of course author, referring to the writer of the work, and having the writer read out their own script is one way documentary makers have established authority.
An early example was the American novelist Ernest Hemmingway’s voice over for a film about the Spanish civil war – The Spanish Earth.
Reading a script he had written himself, where he spoke in an involved and emotional tone, literally situating himself in the action by referring to ‘our’ victories and defeats.
Interestingly, the filmmakers originally asked Orson Welles to read the script, but decided the results were too much like the Voice of God. A reviewer at the time commented that “Hemmingway’s lack of a professional commentator’s smoothness helped you believe intensely in the experience on the film” (Wolfe p. 158) .
The author may not always be a good choice for documentary voice over, however.
As we said before in discussing voice over for education products, professors sometimes signal their expertise exactly through their poor diction and flat delivery, which would only rarely be suitable for a commercial product.
Seeing it with your your eyes
If we could imagine a diametric opposite of Van Hooris’s Voice of God, perhaps it would be the voice of David Attenborough.
Whereas Van Hooris speaks with disembodied and all-seeing authority, Attenborough’s gentle intimacy and soft but excitable delivery makes us feel as if we are beside him, quietly observing the natural world. In fact, the illusion goes even further than this: with his voice, Attenborough creates the sensation that the camera itself is his own eyes, and we hear his voice as if it were our own.
Make no mistake: this is also a form of authority.
But it is authority which gently persuades without the viewer even noticing. The brilliance of the Attenborough documentaries is that they create an illusion of presence. So much so that when the illusion slips, audiences have reacted with a sense of betrayal — such as the revelation that a certain scene in Frozen Planet was not filmed on location inside a polar bear’s den.
These negative reactions underscore how successfully Attenborough creates that sensation of presence.
The authority comes from his seducing us into thinking that we are directly experiencing the natural world, and that what we perceive on film has the veracity of something we are seeing with our own eyes.
The Attenborough style
What are the qualities of Attenborough’s voice that enable him to create this illusion of presence?
For a start, he writes his own scripts. Also, his intonation is highly musical: we can hear how he marks out a comma with a rising inflection, and drops down to signal a full stop.
This is similar to the official style of Francophone newsreaders, who use a rising tone to mark clauses. This regimented style limits the scope for changing the meaning in the way they inflect the sentence.
Emphasis can change the meaning in a sentence: consider the difference between:
“The Middle East is the birthplace of our civilisation” and…
“The Middle East is the birthplace of our civilisation”.
The first one implies the birthplace might be elsewhere, the second that Middle East might have been the birthplace of someone else’s civilisation. In a documentary, these nuances are crucial.
Although the Francophone style helps to avoid such confusions, the resulting voice over can be monotonous.
Anglophone newsreaders tend to pick out words at random for emphasis in order to avoid a monotone, which gives greater scope for alteration of meaning.
Attenborough’s artistic genius lies in his ability to combine the truthfulness of the Francophone style with the music of the Anglophone.
Attenborough’s documentary style spans several of the Voquent search categories. It is by turns eloquent, inspiring, informing, and nurturing.
It’s a powerful reminder that although the core element of a documentary voice over is authority, there are many ways to achieve this. Indeed, even authority itself may be up for grabs in some projects: there is a long history of ‘unreliable narrators’ in film and literature, and perhaps that is indeed what you are looking for.
At Voquent we understand the subtlety and creativity that goes into effective voice over for documentary, and we give you the capability to search and select the options, you need to bring your documentary to life.