Using Voice-Over Effectively

This article from the Script Lab on the top ten films to utilize voice-over gives some great insight into how to approach voice-over in your own film. There are times when voice-over should be avoided like the plague and other times when it might be essential to solid storytelling, as this article will illustrate:

In Adaptation, Robert McKee (played by Brian Cox) cries, “God help you if you use voice-over in your work, my friends. God help you. That’s flaccid, sloppy writing. Any idiot can write a voice-over narration to explain the thoughts of a character.”

To a certain extent, he is correct. A lot of films use voice-over to no real effect. They tell you what you already see on the screen. Or they explain something that, with a little bit of brainpower and imagination, you could have worked out for yourself. Or they inform you about something that would have been better off left alone, for the audiences to stew on. But no. Some filmmakers just think we’re idiots and insist that every single bit of information is spoon-fed to us.

“Everything I have written is genius. I don’t want them to miss a single, clever bit of it. But they’re morons, so I’ll shove in some voice-overs to really hammer it on home.” I’m not saying that all filmmakers who use voice-over in this way are that patronizing; most of them probably don’t even realize they’re doing it. It’s just safer for them to assume that we won’t be able to figure it out.

But then there are some screenwriters and filmmakers that’ll use voice-over to compliment the work, and without it, I would argue that the film would not be as good. Their use of voice-over challenges the viewer, in some cases even upset the viewer. Either way, they will expect the viewer to do something with this narration, rather than just mindlessly breathe it in.

Some writers will use voice-over to add a bit of reality to a situation that seems fantastical. Some will use it to create ironic tension. One of my favourite uses is to lull the viewer into a false sense of security. And then, boom. The character you’ve put your faith in, the character you’ve trusted throughout the film and started to like… well, he’s actually a serial killer. And most of what he’s said didn’t actually happen. And he’s dead. How do you feel about that? Cheated? Horrified? Violated? Good. You shouldn’t always believe everything you hear!

But before we dive into these Top 10 films, it’s important to clarify what I mean by “Best Movie Voice-Overs.” I do NOT mean the Top 10 best films (and screenplays) that have some voice over in them. More importantly and specifically, I mean the Top 10 best uses of a voice over in film.

10. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

If Fear and Loathing didn’t have any voice-over narration, it would basically consist of Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp) and Dr. Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro) running around screaming – with a trunk full of extremely dangerous drugs – for two hours. It’s a wild film, but you have to at least be able to comprehend some of it to enjoy it. Also, adapting a book can be a bit of a tricky business. There still needs to be a trace of the author’s voice there, and Hunter S. Thompson’s prose is an integral part of the story experience. Capturing his unique voice was more-than-essential in the adaptation process. In addition, having voice-over in the film meant that the action didn’t need to be stopped or diluted for our own understanding. Even if Duke relays some information in a gabbled way that is hard to grasp, you still feel reassured that there is some level of control here. Phew!

9. The Royal Tenenbaums

If you haven’t seen this film, the Narrator (Alec Baldwin) tells the tale of a family of burnt out prodigies straight out of a storybook. In reality, the book doesn’t exist. It’s actually a nod towards J.D. Salinger’s Glass Family Chronicles, particularly “Franny and Zooey” from 1961. In a lot of films, directors could do well to remove the voice-over, but in The Royal Tenenbaums, the voice-over is absolutely essential for setting the mood of the film, which, as you’ll know if you’re a Wes Anderson fan, is quite specific. Baldwin’s voice helps to break up the stillness and emotional vacuity of the film, as well as lightening it up a tad, which is greatly appreciated! Like all helpful narrators, he’ll also fill in the gaps occasionally.

8. Fight Club

The Narrator (Edward Norton) is dead inside. He stares blankly ahead, photocopying, mourning his own futile existence. He has lost his identity and gone inside of himself. His voice-over lets us know that he’s still alive. If there wasn’t any voice-over, the majority of the first act would be in complete silence. His sarcastic, droning voice has different functions. It fills in gaps, it lets us get to know him, it adds a lot of deadpan humour, and later it even helps to explain how to splice sex organs into family films. What is most interesting about this use of voice-over is how SANE our narrator comes across. He cracks jokes, he also gets nervous, and he even discloses that he’s a little jealous of Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt). You’d never guess that he’s actually suffering from multiple personality disorder. And that’s what makes this voice-over even more effective. For the whole film, he’s represented as just another American yuppie addicted to IKEA.

7. Sunset Boulevard

Sunset Boulevard is a film is told in a flashback with a narrative voice from beyond the grave. So, right from the get-go, with an opening scene consisting of our narrator Joe Gillis (William Holden) face down in a pool with two shots in his back and one in his stomach, we know that our protagonist is already dead. But nothing has been spoiled; it’s not the death that is important. The decisions Gillis makes along the way to arrive in that pool is what captures our attention. Just because we know the end before we begin doesn’t detract our anticipation. We’re interested because we want to figure out how this all happened, and why. This use of a ghostly narrator also adds to the fatalistic atmosphere of the film, which was especially effective for Film-Noir murder mysteries of the time.

6. Taxi Driver

Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) is one of those iconic characters that haunt you for a long time after your first viewing experience. Both his words and actions are deliberately ambiguous, making us question what exactly “goodness” is. The voice-over may not clear everything up, but it’s certainly very well used in Taxi Driver. Told in the form of rambling diary entries, it is important to recognize that Bickle isn’t actually talking to his audience; he is talking to himself, and we have no choice but to listen and try to find some sort of understanding. At first, he speaks with authority and truth, and we believe him and relate to him. However, once the cracks start to appear, we begin questioning him. Are these the ramblings of a deranged man, or is he just saying what the rest of the world dare not?

5. Adaptation

Adaptation is a film written by Charlie Kaufman, about Charlie Kaufman (Nicholas Cage), writing an adaptation of a novel into a film. And the film contains scenes from both Charlie’s writing process at the time of adaptation, as well as the adapted film itself… or something like that. Anyway, you can gather that it’s all very meta and going to have some meta, self-reflexive moments. The voice-over is used in this way. At the point where McKee rants about how “any idiot” can use voice-over, Charlie’s voice-over disappears from the film until ultimately Charlie declares that he doesn’t care anymore, that “It feels right.” The ego is triumphant! As we all know, writing can be a very lonely, and at times, frustrating process. Hearing Charlie’s thoughts and anxieties make him empathetic and likeable, without being too overpowering. I felt comfortable knowing that I’m not the only one to occasionally stare at a blank screen, pondering muffins.

4. Annie Hall

Annie Hall is a playful, fun, yet telling commentary on relationships, and all executed through a plethora of storytelling devices. We’ve got a bit of breaking the fourth wall, characters going into each other’s flashbacks, split screens, subtitles that contradict the dialogue, as well as voice-over. Whether it’s Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) and Annie (Diane Keaton) discussing a scene that we are watching with them, or Alvy filling in a time gap, it certainly connects the audience, making you feel intimately involved as an active participant in the film. And that’s what Woody wants. It only serves to make you sympathize even more with his character, no matter how pathetic, and slightly grating, he is.

3. A Clockwork Orange

In Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, adapted from Anthony Burgess’ novel, we find ourselves sympathizing with a very, very bad guy: a robber, a rapist, a murderer… full of the ultra-violence. How can we do that? Is it because we always feel the need to connect with our protagonists? I suppose, if we didn’t at least empathize, we wouldn’t care what happened to them. And if we don’t care, why would we want to keep watching? Sure, Alex (Malcolm McDowell) is a psychopath, but he’s also smart, charming, and witty; you can’t help but be drawn in by him, especially when he becomes victim to Burgess’s Pavlovian equivalent to Pavlov’s classical conditioning – being turned into a “good little boy,” or more accurately a machine no longer capable of moral choice.

2. The Usual Suspects

Never trust a cripple. Or, rather, don’t believe everything you hear! When Verbal got in the car, I jumped out of my seat and screamed, “I’ve been had!” as I often like to pretend I’m some sort of old school Vaudevillian. The Usual Suspects makes me think about the cinema/audience relationship today. We’re rarely inspired to actually interact with what is going on. In many ways, audiences have become zombies, staring at the shiny-shiny screen and believing everything they hear and see, and I don’t blame them – I blame the filmmakers who don’t challenge the audience to find interesting ways to make us active participants. But what’s so brilliant about The Usual Suspects is that even though we are engaged, we still don’t see it coming.  We feel as silly as the cop does. We let generic conventions get the better of us. You know you just sat there and didn’t suspect the sweet old cripple. You fools! But could you have spotted it? He does tell a damn good story! Play me off, Johnny!

1. The Shawshank Redemption

The voice-over narration in The Shawshank Redemption is such a classic that Morgan Freeman has achieved this kind of deified, legendary status as a narrator. It’s just something about his voice… so soothing… mmm… anyway, if this film didn’t have voice-over narration, it would have been nigh on impossible to squeeze over two decades of important details into a film. Because of the large jumps in time, the gaps need to be filled, and that’s where the voice-over comes in handy. There are also a lot of details to prison life that a new “fish” would have to learn over time. And we don’t have that kind of time on our hands as an audience, so it helps to be quickly taught about the rules of prison life, what it’s like to be a “new fish”, and how to access contraband, etc. The Shawshank Redemption manages to include this voice-over narration without it seeming overly intrusive, and it has clearly been carefully constructed. Picking Red (Freeman) over Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) to narrate was also a good call, as it allows Dufresne to go about his business all stoic and mysterious, without giving too much away. And then of course there’s Morgan Freeman’s voice. Sigh.

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