Voice-Over Narration as an Active Agent in Film

December 9, 2009

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I wrote this essay for my MHIS 429 Topics in Film/Video course this semester at the Emily Carr University of Art + Design. Special thanks to Sarah Wichlacz for her essay titled, “Issues of Narration: Voice-Over in Film” which definitely helped me in the writing of my own essay. You can see her very well written piece at http://sarahwichlacz.com/?p=74

– FlashAddict

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Voice-Over Narration as an Active Agent in Film

The use of voice-over narration can and has been used in film to help convey greater depth and meaning to the audience. Whereas on the one hand, there are some who see it as a crutch when the director or writer is unable to move along the storyline effectively within a given scene; yet on the other however, when it is used effectively, voice-over narration can be inserted as an active agent to help provide greater impact and understanding to the audience in a way that a complex actor’s performance or scenery cannot convey. It is within this context that this essay will explore individual examples of voice-over narration from select films in which both sides of the issue will be explored; by not simply analyzing each voice-over narration example as either good or bad, but looking deeper at how the context and overall delivery affect the films, scenes and actors within.

To begin with, a proper definition of voice-over narration in film must be established, “Narration, or voice-over, is used in both documentary and fiction. It may be used to deliver information, provide the point of view of an unseen character, or allow an onscreen character to comment on the action.”(Ascher and Pincus 493) Put more simply, “A narrative text is a text in which an agent relates (‘tells’) a story in a particular medium, such as language, imagery, sound, buildings, or a combination thereof.” (Bal 5) By using this standard, multiple methods of providing voice-over narration in film can be utilized to help tell their respective stories, “In documentary filmmaking some of the key stylistic questions relate to how much the filmmaker attempts to control or interact with the subjects, and to the way information is conveyed in the movie.” (Ascher and Pincus 332)

The style adopted by U.K. documentarians such as John Grierson in the 1930s and 1940s is a kind of hybrid that can involve staged events and real people (non-actors)…Many of these films use a ‘voice of God’ narration-the authoritative male voice that provides factual information and often spells out the message intended for the viewer to take from the film. (Ascher and Pincus 333)

On the other side of the spectrum, Ascher & Pincus further explain:

Cinema vérité (also called just vérité or direct cinema) films attempt to spontaneously react to events and capture life as it is lived…Many of these films use no narration or interviews and attempt to minimize the sense that the material has been influenced or interpreted by the filmmaker. (Ascher and Pincus 333)

Within this context, one of the most notable examples of the use of voice-over narration can be seen in the opening of the film, Citizen Kane (1941), “The film’s plot sets another purveyor of knowledge, the ‘News on the March’ short. We’ve already seen the crucial functions of the newsreel in introducing us both to Kane’s story and to its plot construction, with the newsreel’s sections previewing the parts of the film as a whole.” (Bordwell and Thompson 105) In essence, this scene of paramount importance was purposely written by Orson Welles in order to allow the principal characters follow-up with further details later on in the film in their own flashback narrations.

The reinforcement of the scenes, characters and events detailed in this brief montage showcasing Kane’s life over the span of only a few minutes is accentuated, as referenced earlier by Ascher and Pincus, via the deep authoritative voice in which the booming male narrator speaks, which was quite representative on the actual newsreel footage of the era. In other words, by creating a fictionalized representation of a factually based newsreel within a film and having a similar sounding voice actor provide the narration within it, Welles provided the audience with further reinforcement of the importance of Charles Foster Kane on a global scale, in which he truly was within his own Xanadu.

Further evidence of life imitating art and vice versa comes from the voice-over narration within the film, Little Children (2006) which featured the deep resonating male voice of Will Lyman as the film’s narrator. Lyman’s voice was already recognizable, even his face wasn’t, for the 125 episodes of the PBS documentary television show Frontline (1982-2009) that he has narrated. With such various titles as, A Death in Tehran (2009), Breaking the Bank (2009), and Black Money (2009), Lyman has narrated multiple episodes for the series, while remaining unseen to the audience, in which investigative journalists scour the globe looking for corruption, abuse of power and instances of government, humanitarian and ecological tragedies.

To that end, Little Children (2006) director Todd Field must have realized the impact that Lyman’s voice would have on the film’s audience as an implied and trusted broker of knowledge and wisdom. “In the history of the documentary, this voice has been for the most part that of the male, and its power resides in the possession of knowledge and in the privileged, unquestioned activity of interpretation.” (Doane 369)

One scene of particular note from the film is where the character of the husband, Richard Pierce, shows the length to which he will go in order to satiate his obsession. The scene opens up with him in his work office as his secretary heads home for the night and now suddenly alone, Richard decides to indulge his favorite pastime of late, masturbating to pictures of the internet sensation that is Slutty Kay. In comes the booming, authoritative and faceless voice of narrator Will Lyman, as the audience begins to realize the level of Richard’s obsession at not being able to truly connect with her.

Lately, Slutty Kay had become a problem. He thought about her far too often and spent hours studying the thousands of photographs available to him…Though as close as Richard sometimes felt to Slutty Kay, as much as he believed that he knew her, he could never get past the uncomfortable fact she existed for him solely as a digital image. The panties were an attempt to solve this problem, maybe a sniff or two would hurry things along so he could get back downstairs to his real life, where his wife was waiting for him; her impatience increasing by the minute…(Little Children)

To that end, the scene changes to his home office as he now tries to put on her soiled panties over his head in order to accentuate the experience, as the frame changes yet again to show Richard’s wife coming upstairs as Lyman explains her growing impatience and finds him masturbating while breathing deeply into the soiled panties. Lyman’s matter of fact and monotonous voice-over breathes, for lack of a better term, immense irony into the scene and provides a very functional backdrop in order to place such an absurd setting as a woman walking into her husband’s office and finding him masturbating to a Polaroid of a naked woman while gasping into a pair of soiled woman’s panties. “The different components of the cinematic narrator as diagramed usually work in consort, but sometimes the implied author creates an ironic tension between two of them.” (Chatman 484)

An additional aspect of voice-over narration is when the director or creative vision behind the film as a whole provides the narration themselves. Take for instance the case from the film, A River Runs Through It (1992), in which director Robert Redford took on the persona of the book’s original author, Norman MacLean, and provided the film’s flashback voice-overs.

…films often create the sense of character-narration so strongly that one accepts the voice-over narrator as if he of she were the mouthpiece of the image-maker either for the whole film or for the duration of his or her embedded story. We put our faith in the voice not created but as creator. (Kozloff 45)

After auditioning several different prominent voice-over actors, Redford was not happy with any of the takes and as a result, he decided to try it out himself. Given Redford’s long standing stature within the film industry and recognizable voice, what followed was that he was able to further personify the essence of what the author and main character experienced while growing up in small-town Montana, the trials he went through with his younger brother Paul and how the quiet and serene beauty of glacier fed streams full of trout could help heal the soul. This was especially evident in the final scene of the film in which the viewer sees what is now an elderly and frail looking Norman MacLean fishing the river alone, with Redford’s voice-over providing the full meaning as Paul reflects on his life.

Now nearly all those I loved and did not understand when I was young are dead, but I still reach out to them.  Of course, now I am too old to be much of a fisherman, and now of course I usually fish the big waters alone, although some friends think I shouldn’t. Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise.

Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.

I am haunted by waters. (A River Runs Through It)

The next logical focus to explore is whether or not to use voice-over narration at all and how the format is different from written media for example, “Unlike in literature, in film the distinction between telling a story through verbal narration and showing it on the screen through images and action is not so easily discountable.” (Kozloff 13) A case in point for this argument comes from the multiple versions of the film, Blade Runner (1982), in which it has gone from its original theatrical release to being re-edited seven times to its most recent ‘Final Cut’. The most obvious change that was made from the original film was the removal of Deckard’s voice-over and while this had already been removed from an earlier 1992 ‘Director’s Cut,’ this final version of the film was also the only version that director Ridley Scott had complete artistic control over.

The climactic scene of the film in which the removal of the voice-over warranted greatest scrutiny was the scene near the end of the film, where on the original inception of Deckard’s monotonous voice-over was further evidence, although somewhat ambiguous, of him being a replicant (a humanoid looking robot who cannot show or feel emotion), from a viewer’s perspective, the use of the voice-over caused more controversy than it was worth according to prolific filmmaker, Frank Darabont:

There’s one area where I thought the voice-over was so clunky; it landed with such a hollow thud, was the ‘Tears in Rain.’ I remember when I first saw the movie, I’m in the theatre and I am so drawn in by what Rutger Hauer is doing and I am so drawn in by what the theme of the movie has brought us to, this magnificent moment where he is letting go of life…‘I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe, all these moments will be lost, in time, like Tears in Rain. Time to die.’

And right as I am just…it’s like having sex and someone dumps cold water on you. Right at that moment where I am at my most emotional crescendo as a viewer, here comes this thudding, dunderheaded voice-over, ‘I don’t know why he saved my life, maybe in those last moments, he loved life more than he ever had before.’ Yes, I know that, thank you. Thank you for kicking this beautiful, delicate, emotional note that we were achieving right in the nuts. (Dangerous Days: Making Blade Runner)

Conversely, in the subsequent versions of the film in which Deckard’s monologue has been removed, greater emphasis has been placed on Rutger Hauer’s performance of Roy when he releases the dove as he dies and it flies up to the dark and stormy clouds above. Layered over all of this is the minimalist orchestration by the film’s composer, Vangelis and the slightest of crescendo booming sound as Deckard slowly closes his eyes and deeply inhales as he bears witness to his former foe’s final testimony; all of which is realized without the use of the voice-over.

At the end of the shooting cycle and on the bottom of the cutting room floor, directors, editors and screenplay writers have debated the merits of inserting or removing voice-over narration in film for decades now. In some instances, overall theme, plot and character development or simply personal taste can dictate whether or not to use voice-overs to help provide the audience with a greater understanding of what they are seeing on the screen. To that end however, and when it is an active agent in the storytelling process and manufactured to cater to the targeted audience in subtle and imperceptible ways, then voice-over narration can help bridge the gap between what can and cannot be shown on film. But if it is used in a contrived and convoluted manner, then the opposite can occur and further alienate the audience from being able to fully appreciate the level of understanding that the filmmakers are trying to achieve.

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Works Cited

A River Runs Through It. Dir. Robert Redford. Allied Filmmakers, 1992

Ascher, Steven, and Pincus, Edward. The Filmmaker’s Handbook. New York: PLUME, 2007

Bal, Mieke. Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1985.

Bordwell, David, and Thompson, Kirstin. FILM ART: An Introduction. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008.

Braudy, Leo and Marshall Cohen, eds. Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Chatman, Seymour. “The Cinematic Narrator.” Braudy and Cohen, 473-86.

Dangerous Days: Making Blade Runner. Dir. Charles de Lauzirika, Frank Darabont, 2007. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V_nsSxblpoI

Doane, Mary Ann. The Voice in the Cinema: The Articulation of Body and Space. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980

Kozloff, Barbara. Invisible Storytellers: Voice-Over Narration in American Fiction Film. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

Little Children. Dir. Todd Field. New Line Cinema, Bona Fide Productions, Standard Film Company, 2006.

Wichlacz, Sarah. 27 May 2006. Issues of Narration: Voice-Over Film. http://sarahwichlacz.com/?p=74

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A day in the life of an Emily Carr Film student…

September 15, 2008

Here are my notes from Friday’s Reading for the Screen course at Emily Carr – I will be uploading my daily class notes to the blog to allow readers to follow along with me and my studies here at ECIAD – Enjoy!

Off-Topic
The following video clip was shown within the context of the class itself, but I found it while searching for clips for the films we discusses in class, The Player, Shadow of a Doubt, Rope, Touch of Evil.

“This short segment from Orson Welles’ cinematic essay, F for Fake, may be the profoundest moment in cinema history. It is both uniquely moving, as well as stunningly deep philosophically—a truly rare cinematic combination. This clip should be required viewing, not only for every student of cinema, but for everyone who seeks an antidote to the world’s increasing descent into cruelty and darkness. Here, Welles achieves the miraculous with amazingly simple means (note the lack of music as an emotional “guide”, for example). God created Orson Welles…then broke the mold. Introduced by media psychologist, Dr. James N. Herndon.” (www.orsonwelles.tv)

In-class notes/general comments from Wednesday’s screening:
– author was talking about big budget film productions
– unless you are in the union, you can’t pickup anything
– back in the day, production board / production manager = THE BIBLE
– strip of cardboard/posterboard in different colours
– day/night/interior/exterior shots
– find most expedient production time wise/budget wise
– shoot scenes at the same time to streamline production
– having things in front of you = air traffic controller (new york times article)
– each aircraft is on a strip of paper = visual representation / better memory and recognition
– you will still see the production board today, even in a digital world
– Frank Capra – very egotistical, yet talented – as a director, you need to know your vision, because you are asked thousands of questions everyday
– “The Fastest Runner” – group decision film production process
– get the audience “sutured” into the film story

Film, Film, Film – Patterns
– people joining the elevator
– keep going through all of the door, so many steps/people to get approval from
– hurry up and wait analogy with moments of pure action to long pauses with nothing to do
– different colours for different scenes (ie: Traffic having different colours for different locations)
– opening montage with stars and glitz, yet the reality of making moveis is so far from the glamour
– the screenwriter’s muse’s wings were incorporated into the logo of the studio
– cast and crew waited with baited breath for the audience reaction
– labeling – letting the average viewer know exactly who is who, what departments are involved and the steps needed to complete the project
– emotes were used instead of actual dialog – even though it is Russian, it is universally recognizable
– Film, Film, Film = same in Russian and English

Chicken Run
– Aardman – successful British studio run by Nick Park and Peter Lord = Wallace and Gromit
– animation style = portrait emotions very effectively with a plump of eplasticine
– “The Wrong Trousers” – remember the penguin (the eyes = evil bird!!!)
– they had a fixation on machines/gadgets = putting contraptions together to create a great machine
– mechanization can be a threat to people and society or a help to it
– Tweedy montage = building pie machine / genocide
– chickens montage = building plane / freedom
– obsessive compulsive disorder = Babs always knitting
– always like using feathered creatures through their previous work

How “Chicken Run” got made:
– contacted Jake Eberts (Pathe) – his kids loved Wallace and Gromit
– he set them up with a NAPKIN deal = had lunch meeting and worked out details on a napkin
– Michael Rose = Producer
– Sundance 1996 – Nick and Peter pitched the idea of a “Chicken Escape Film”
– Jake called Dreamworks which had just formed (SKG)
– Dreamworks flew their jet to Sundance to bring the 4 of them to LA
– Katzenberg says the chicken is the best at the restaurant they met at
– pitch = The Great Escape…with CHICKENS
– talented independent animators who were confident enough to make their pitch work!!!
– also based on Stalag 17

FILM CONVENTIONS
– western = shoot out at the end /  good guy and bad icon
– icon = cowboy hat = western genre
THE PLAN / building montage / blueprints / secret compartments / promise of positive change = the dream / teamwork / guard dogs / Ginger kept getting put in solitary confinement (Cool Hand Luke / Steve McQueen) / military context to a chicken farm with the soundtrack / morning roll call / always a party (Bridge on the River Kwai)

Great Britain vs. America
– swing dancing / there was no reason to have a love story between rocky and ginger / cliche of almost kissing, then finally kissing
– the only shot Katzenberg wanted to change was on the roof with Ginger and Rocky – he wanted to spend more time on her face to accentuate that she is falling in love with Rocky (Nick said uh uh, we Brits don’t do that)
– the escape scene from the pie machine was so Indianna Jones (Spielberg’s influence no doubt)
– homage to Hogan’s Heroes as well
– Brits don’t show emotion, americans do
– tough thing having Ginger being the leading lady (she wasn’t as funny or charismatic as normal leading characters)
– history period American GIs = The Yanks – British women were charmed by them, British men were jealous, British parents were resentful
– influence for Rocky = Burt Lancaster (The Rainmaker), The Fonz (Heyyyyyyyyy!), John Travolta (Saturday Night Fever)
– Mel Gibson was too busy to do his voice overs alone in LA while the others did it together in London
– Mel took the role because his kids loved Wallace and Gromit
– slow mo shot when Rocky flies over the fence on the trike
– Mrs. Tweedy on the rope with a knife then hitting the billboard with her face
– always gotta have an explosion at the end

– puppets are articulated steel frames, heads are plasticine
– dancing sequence was choreographed from actual dancers
– they had to put rubber hip contraptions because the dancers were too skinny
– Talisman – object that has tremendous emotional value = Mac’s RAF pin

Shadow of a Doubt – Alfred Hitcock (1943)
– Hitchcock loved to storyboard his films in detail – constructed the film meticulously step by step
– look at complacent America before WWII – took place in Santa Rosa, CA and also filmed there
– Uncle Charlie and Little Charlie – little charlie’s mom absolutely adores him and little charlie idolizes him = kindred spirits
– Uncle Charlie however, is a serial killer who preys on elderly women and then steals their money/jewelry
– group of elderly women dancing to a waltz named, “The Merry Widow” = further pattern to tie in to the rest of the film

– little charlie’s father’s favorite past-time is to theorize the perfect murder mysteries with his friend, yet little does he realize that he has a murderer under his own roof

– Shadow of a Doubt trailer

– Shadow of a Doubt – part 1/11 – you can continue watching the rest of the film on youtube

CONVENTIONS
– shadows of the railing banisters against the wall, Little Charlie is trapped between telling the truth about her uncle or letting things lie as they are
– Uncle Charlie walks very forcefully towards Little Charlie when she brings out the paper – then the close up show when he grabs her wrist to show his anger and power
– he is also the dominant persona in the family, sets the tone of conversations, yet can also force conversation to end when he knocks over the glass to stop Little Charlie from saying the name of the waltz
– he offers to give $40,000 to his brother-in-law to show that he is very important and powerful

*****Down and Dirty Pictures – book about Miramax – recommended by fellow student in class*****

The Player – Robert Altman (1992)
– made some successful Hollywood movies and then some not so successful movies
– this film is an incredible satire of the whole Hollywood scene as a whole
– opening shot is an homage to, “Touch of Evil” – Orson Wells and “Rope” – Alfred Hitchcock
– old painting on the wall showing the golden age of Hollywood – turns into business of it all
– MTV, cut cut cut – Touch of Evil
– The Graduate, Part II (25 years later lol) – spooky house in northern California, dark and weird and funny and with a stroke!
– couldnt make out the picture on the ground when boy got hit by cart but it is a postcard for Griffin which tells him he is going to die
– japanese tourists with Ari from Entourage – SONY PRODUCTS
– the hens are all talking about heads rolling
– replace Griffin?!?!? with Larry Levy
– I’m right in the middle of a pitch – I’ll call you later…Goldie Goes to Africa = Out of Africa meets Pretty Woman

– politely political scary but funny with Bruce Willis with a heart in the right spot!

– “The Player” Opening shot

– “The Player” trailer

– “Touch of Evil” opening shot

– “Touch of Evil” trailer

– “Rope” opening scene

– “Rope” trailer

Asparagus – Suzanne Pitt
– In the beginning there was animation and it was overrun by Disney
– he setup a production machine that was the monopoly of innovation certainly within North America – Mickey Mouse still is pervasive
– Mrs. Frances Brewer – letter to her back in 1939 – women do not do any of the original work in the process – as a result, girls are not considered to join animation studies – they were only allowed to trace work already created
– it was believed that women were better at tracing then men because they already knew how to apply makeup and do their nails – they could stay within the lines!!!
– this animation was created in 1979 – shown on art circuit/festivals
– combination of cell and clay animation

Questions:
What would tell you as a spectator that this is an independent film?

What patterns do you see?

My notes:
– woman’s bare leg, with a snake rolling around it = men vs. women
– harsh saxophone music = sex
– flowers remind me of Gerald Scarfe’s work in Pink Floyd The Wall
– red nail polish on her fingers
– dual lights = breasts?
– takes a dump in the toilet – see asparagus come out of her ass
– which then magically rises up and spells out “ASPARAGUS”
– dead man’s head as a bust on the railing
– red curtain opening up to scenes of flowers scrolling by the window
– flower buds look like vaginas – asparagus look like penises – she starts stroking one of them
– wall ornaments look like vaginas as well
– keeps repeating shot of turning the dial on the lamp
– miniature version of herself within the doll house?
– eerie looking Santa head on the shelf – she grabs a different mask though – kabuki mask with red cheeks
– we see the snake again slither by as objects fall into her hand bag
– she goes outside with her mask on to hide her true identity from the public
– passes a dildo store, then a gun store – while we hear muttered whispers/voices of people around her
– claymation sequence – curtain opens up to reveal another curtain and then another and another
– finally swaying wave like pieces – with what looks like mountains and a waterfall
– she is still hand drawn, yet the other characters are claymation
– horizon perspective black hole on the stage now
– she gets into a cab and pulls down the mask slightly to reveal that her face is actually blank except for her mouth
– now she deep throats an asparagus, regurgitating water and then the penis disgorges inside her mouth (back and forth different susbtances)
– scene ends with the asparagus reappearing as she raises her mouth one final times – END SCENE

In-Class discussion:
– soundtrack was uncomfortable and discordant
– the entire film sequence made the audience uncomfortable
– sounds in the theatre assaulted the senses and attacked you
– Why Asparagus?!?!?!
– source of creative power comes from the phallus
– dream state to just let go and not psychoanalyze everything – just experience the moment

Gravity – Frank Rofuze (1981)
– Hungarian animator who had to work in government studios or else he wouldn’t work at all
– “The Fly” nominated for academy award in 1981 – but he couldn’t leave Hungary to attend the ceremony
– Gravity was made in 1984
– you are working for the state, paid by the state and commenting on the state – all at the same time

Questions:
How does gravity convey the complexities of living in a totalitarian state?

My notes:
– scene opens with a beautiful tree in an open meadow
– you hear rustling in the bushes
– camera zooms in and then shifts left and right when we hear mumbling/crying
– sounds like a guy taking a shit
– apples are human faces
– main apple is trying to jump up and down to release himself from the tree
– slow motion sequence is hilarious
– everyone else is static and complacent
– FINALLY he is released and enjoys the joy of freefall/FREEDOM
– only to smash into pieces as he hits the ground
– everyone is oblivious to it
– butterfly lands on one of the other people
– one tree in one field = one system