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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Reading the Screen – This week’s film clips

October 3, 2008

CONCEPTUAL / EXPERIMENTAL FILM
– what are your physiological responses to watching this film?
– how is the film engaging you?
– using new technology to inquire about itself (optical printer)
– goldrush to explore new possibilities that the technologies can usher in

Ballet Mechanique – dir Fernand Leger

Part 1

Part 2

Mothlight – dir Stan Brakhage

Wavelength – dir Michael Snow

Pas de Deux – dir. Norman McLaren

Part 1 – all I have to say is WOW – what an incredible film

Part 2

Un Chien Andalou – dir. Luis Banuel

Meshes of the Afternoon – dir Maya Deren

Variations on a Cellophane Wrapper – dir David Rimmer
– I couldn’t find a clip of the film, but here are some informational links if you want to learn more
http://www.google.ca/search?q=Variations+on+a+Cellophane+Wrapper+David+Rimmer&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8&aq=t&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official&client=firefox-a
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Pièce Touchée – dir Martin Arnold

“pièce touchée, Martin Arnold, Austria,16mm Film, b&w, 16 min
Arnold’s breakthrough film, pièce touchée, is based on a single 18-second shot from The Human Jungle (dir. Joseph M. Newman, 1954). Woman sitting in a chair. Man enters the room. Man and woman kiss. Exit man.”
– from the YouTube description

– this is only half of the film as a whole – could only get the first 9 minutes of the piece from YouTube

personal notes:

– b/w film – opens with a woman sitting on a chair in a living room reading a newspaper
– humming / mechanical noise overlay
– repetitive film – no movement at all other than fingers and head
– starts with only one frame then slowly builds up with the number of frames
– back and forth with forward and backward movement of the frames as the man enters the room
– mirroring imagery from left to right = cool effect on the eyes
– her head appears to swivel a complete 360 as the scene repeats and mirrors itself
– the man goes down and kisses the woman finally
– various editing techniques follow to the end…

in-class round table discussion:

– motion study / repetitive motion study
– changes of planes / changes of perception
– disorientation and uncomfortable
– dealt with time – kept revisiting and repeating frames
– absurdity of everyday domestic scene
– sound was mechanic humming
– story interpretation of repetition
– negation of story narrative
– metaphor / felt like we were inside a washing machine
– creation of new images using existing frames / transformation
– underlying issues of domesticity (violence / sexuality)
– issues of dominance, power and gender
– introduction of new editing techniques
– abstraction of shapes and creation of negative space
– interesting effects of animation (head spinning / rotating)
– soundtrack gives a dehumanized / mechanized theme to the piece (lack of humanity)
– unexpected editing techniques (reversals, mirrors, motion, movement)
– Experimental / Found Footage film piece
– too long? too repetitive? (was it intended?)
– no finality at the end – felt incomplete – where did it end? what does it mean?
– resolution irrelevant – it is an experimental film by nature
– A Touching Piece / Touched Piece – what does the title actually refer to?
– critique of cinema / society at the time (Hollywood system and view of society)
– expanded cinema (new term for avant-garde / experimental / innovative)


Reading the Screen – class notes from last Wednesday

October 2, 2008

The Band Concert  Dir. Walt Disney  USA  1935  8 min.

– William Tell Overture – Mickey is the conductor – all other major characters are in the band
– Donald is selling ice cream and interrupting the music – also playing the flute – shaking his tail feathers
– Mickey breaks his flute – but Donald has many others
– bee flies into the flute and into Donald’s mouth
– ice cream gets thrown from donald to mickey to the band and back at mickey
– tempo raises as mickey tries to kill bee and swings his hands around with the baton
– ruh roh here comes the tornado
– audience and benches go running
– the band gets sucked into the cyclone and then drops back down to the ground when it disipates
– lawl only donald is left in the audience and breaks out his flute again to play out the scene

I Ought To Be In Pictures Dir. Bob Clampett  USA  1939   7 min.


– WB Looney tunes with Porky Pig on opening still
– real life people walking into the film studio – shows animator drawing porky pig
– LUNCH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! animators run to the mess hall
– Daffy Duck starts talking to Porky and tells him to quit his contract
– they walk through the real life studio and knock on the studio head’s door
– Hello, Porky – cmon in – hello Leon Sclesinger
– get out of cartoon contract – get into feature films – they shake hands
– “He’ll be back!”
– Daffy was conspiring to take his place all along
– security guard at the feature film studio tosses porky pig into the street
– he comes onto a live set – QUIET!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
– porky sneezes and gets caught – thrown out again – security guard sees him – chase begins again
– “don’t like feature business – wonder if i can get my job back?”
– daffy tries to sell studio head about his acting/singing skills
– studio head ain’t interested – FIGARO!!!!!!!!!!!!
– camera on a rolling car with porky drawn into the scene
– porky comes in to see daffy talking to leon and calls him outside – beats the crap out of him – papers go flying
– porky says april fools – I knew you’d come back – get back to work!
– he jumps back into the paper – daffy is in bandages now
– THAT’S ALL FOLKS!

Duck Amuck  Dir. Chuck Jones   USA  1953   7 min.


– MERRY MELODIES
– Daffy Duck as a musketeer
– he talks to the animator / audience as the scenery disapears and he keeps changing
– farm to igloos – daffy keeps changing characters – now its a beach in hawaii
– white screen – giant pencil starts erasing daffy
– SOUND PLEASE! – guitar sounds like rifle / horn / donkey
– daffy opens his mouth and sounds like a rooster, ape…gets really pissed
– painted daffy as an alien – painted in mirror and he freaks
– THIS IS A CLOSE UP?!?!?!
– DAffy fights the black screen closing and falling on him
– The End…NO NO NO!!!
– it turns out it was Bugs Bunny all along as the animator
– “Ain’t I a stinker?”

Begone Dull Care  Dir. Norman McClaren   CANADA  1949  8 min.


– abstract drawings / patterns / layouts / cutouts
– many different cuts set to the tempo of the music
– many different layers scrolling at different speeds
– different musical tempos differentiate different graphic symbols
– line drawings represent softer tempos

– first song ends – now second one comes on – much slower tempo
– focus on 2 dancing lines across the screen to the sound of a solitary piano
– it feels like a piano playing visually
– rising and dropping cymbals in the background

– new musical piece – much heavier tempo – back to abstract and loud visual graphics
– scrolling upwards – feels like we’re on a train going somewhere
– scrolls through many different END / SALUT…to end the piece

Blinkity Blank Dir. Norman McClaren   CANADA  1952   7 min.


– similar to last piece – with abstract shapes
– he cut and manipulated the individual film strips to create the shapes and text
– very time intensive and consuming process to do
– he also manipulated the sound strips on the film as well
– use of colours and scratches in the film to create shapes

The Street  Dir. Caroline Leaf CANADA  1976  10 min.


– credit text – with sounds of kids playing overtop
– breathing – hands – face – snoring
– watercolour painting – maybe charcoal?
– grandmother dying – her last summer
– narrator telling the story – it’s a man reminiscing about his childhood
– boys peak up the nurse’s dress everytime she  she came
– boy tries to peak in and enter his old room – to give her a kiss every morning
– the sounds and voices are so rich in texture, yet the drawings are not
– mother brings the grandmother back to the house after her illness
– interesting segueway sequence from scene to scene – smoke/cloud like effect

Neighbours  Dir. Norman McClaren   CANADA  1952   7 min.


– frame by frame action – to show movement
– two men sitting on lawn chairs lighting pipes
– electronic music soundscape
– a flower grows in the middle of the lawn between their properties
– man smells flower and falls backwards – frame by frame movement again – shows them jumping – caught in mid air
– they both want the flower so now they are trying to build a fence between them
– back and forth the fence goes between properties
– now they start fencing with one another
– face painting to show them slowly degenerate to their primitive selves
– kicks their wives and babies – kills them
– in the process they kill themselves and the flower dies
– the fences are built around their graves and the flower splits into 2 and grows on their tombs
– LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOUR
The Hand   Dir. Jiri Trnka.  CZECHOSLOVAKIA. 1965.  18 Min.


– stop motion animation – like aardman/chicken run – uses puppets and real objects
– in comes a giant gloved hand through the window and breaks a potted plant
– plays with the pottery wheel and creates a hand out of the bowl the puppet had made
– knock knock knock – he moves the plant  and grabs his broom to swat at the hand
– ring ring ring – puppet looks for the phone
– has receiver to his ear but we see visual representation of the conversation over puppet’s head
– hand brings a tv out of a box on the floor
– standoff between the puppet and the scene on the tv with a hand and shows various close ups of different hands (images…)
– puppet tries to smash fingers of the hand with a mace
– newspaper comes under the door – has a hand inside of it and the giant hand appears out of it
– burlesque hand now appears and dances for the puppet – beckoning him to come forward
– nooses appear from the fingers – they are actually strings to control the puppet
– he is now in a cage and is chiseling a hand out of stone at the direction of the giant hand
– burning the midnight oil in order to finish off the hand statue
– puppet is awarded with medals for completing the hand
– he topples over the hand statue to break out of the cage and escape – begins chase sequence with giant hand trying to catch him
– puppet makes it back to his home and slams door shut behind him / barricades himself inside
– glove on the giant hand is now black as the puppet had killed himself trying to close the closet and the potted plant fell on his head
– funeral scene ow as the puppet is laid to rest inside the closet

The Man Who Planted Trees  Dir. Frederick Back   CANADA  1987   30 min


part 1/4
– narrator Christopher Plummer
– beautifully drawn scenes and animations
– abstract yet engaging at the same time
– animated scrolling scenes showcase the houses and windows
– barren landscapes – sound of howling winds overheard – sets the tone/scene of the piece
– flowing cloak of the shepherd – bahhhhhhhhhhh bahhhhhhh
– flowing line drawing to show the tide coming in at the ocean shore
– the flowing/howling winds are represented within the flowing drawings
– always the ever present wind
– illumination from the candle was shown effectively in the lighting of the drawing
– 10,000 oak trees in this desolate land where before there was…nothing
– the land was dying from lack of trees
– WWI starts and scene changes to the trenches of France – explosions – bayonets – desolation
– once the war was over – the narrator went back to the barren lands to smell fresh air
– now the old man is a bee keeper – given up his sheep because they threatened his trees
– oaks of 1910 were now 10 years old and taller then the narrator – 3 sections 10 km x 11km
– one man with no mechanization had done this
– as for providence, she would need a cyclone to destroy this stretch of trees
– creation had just followed in a natural sequence – streams flowing with water where before they had been dry
– delegation came to observe the “natural growing forest” – was placed under government protection
– he knows more about this than anyone in the world
– WWII – shows warplanes in the sky – sounds of them as well
– complete a task worthy of God