Ahhh documentaries. How you’ve changed. And expanded. And wormed your way into our hearts. Have you noticed there are more documentaries than ever now and more people watching them? In part perhaps because of their availability on streaming services (over a thousand available right now on Netflix and Prime), but because of the evolution of documentary narration and the styles and trends.
The Nature of Reality
The nature of reality has changed as well. Well, to be fair, our perception of the word “reality” is what has changed, (taken a beating, actually). We are attracted to true stories and documentaries capitalize on this attraction. However, the realness we seek in this is often biased. The filmmaker often wants to do more than inform, but influence. Whether they went into it with a fixed idea or a message emerged after much shooting and living with footage and the material, informing and making a case for their point of view is their modus operandi.
But that doesn’t mean documentaries have gone the way of “reality TV”. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences still defines Documentaries as Films dealing with historical, social, scientific, or economic subjects, either photographed in actual occurrence or re-enacted, where the emphasis is more on factual content than entertainment. While reality TV presents real people in live, though often deliberately manufactured, situations and monitors their emotions and behavior for entertainment.
In my fairly long career as a voiceover artist, I’ve had the good fortune to narrate several documentaries, including an iMax film about NASA’s probes and machines called Touch the Stars. I love and appreciate this genre both as a performer and as a consumer.
Exploration Opportunities For Voice Actors
These days there are lots of opportunities for exploration for voice actors as this hothouse of genre blossoms. But in order to explore, an understanding of the various types of documentaries is important. Film educator Bill Nichols breaks down the 6 types of documentary films in his book “Introduction to Documentary”, so let’s review them and briefly discuss the narration styles.
Expository documentaries are heavily researched and aim to educate and explain things – historical events, social issues, cultures, exotic locations, and animals we know little about. They often include interviews, illustrative visuals, actual footage, graphics, photos, and a “voice of God” narrator. The scripted narration connects the dots between story elements and often relays the thesis or the argument. The many documentaries of Ken Burns are created in this style. The narrator’s role is guide and storyteller.
Also referred to as cinema verité, observational documentaries are more direct cinema or fly-on-the-wall films. These films strive for cinematic realism and often employ handheld cameras and portable sound equipment so they can be shot anywhere, in almost any lighting and sound environment, and therefore follow the action as it unfolds. There tends to be far less narration in observational documentaries, but if present, would lean more journalistic in tone.
The participatory documentary aims for immediacy. It often presents the filmmaker’s point of view and is regularly a recorded encounter between the filmmaker and the subject they are documenting. Nichols notes they employ a dynamic shooting style that captures ‘man in the street’ interviews as well as ambush grillings of the powerful, staged sequences featuring the director and mostly one-sided narration. Narrators in this genre, if they are not the filmmaker themselves, are presenting the voice of the filmmaker.
Documentaries made in reflexive mode ask the audience to “question the authenticity of documentary in general,” writes Bill Nichols. Rob Reiner’s mockumentary “This Is Spinal Tap,” is a reflexive piece focused on a fictional heavy metal band in decline. His use of fake interviews, fake concert clips, improvised dialogue, and a ‘shaky cam’ shooting style poke fun both at heavy metal culture and at rock documentary conventions. Narrators in these types of documentaries need to keep in mind their satirical nature.
Poetic documentaries aim to create an impression or a mood rather than argue a point. Filmmakers operating in the poetic mode typically emphasize cinematic values over content to create visual poetry. The narrative, if there is one, is expressed visually rather than rhetorically, so there is likely not a lot of narration in this style, but if any exists, narrators should keep in mind the overall goal of poetry and adapt their performance style accordingly.
Performative documentaries are the direct opposite of the observational mode. Rather than unobtrusive observation, these documentaries emphasize the filmmaker’s own involvement with the subject. They commonly focus on a larger political or historical reality through the lens of the filmmaker’s own experience – they become a personal guide. The guide shows it and tells it like it is with raw emotion. Narrators should be especially careful to understand and capture the filmmaker’s POV in any narration.
Tools For Documentary Narration
So what are the narration tools for voice actors who want to work on documentaries? Erica Ginsberg, Executive Director of Docs In Progress has a list here that I agree are key skills that a narrator needs to master to do effective documentary narration.
First, the narrator needs to have a visual brain and high visual acumen. This doesn’t just mean a great reading ability. Doc narrators need the ability to speak to picture (knowing when to push it to enhance the story and when to lean on the back foot and let the images do the work) and the ability to imagine the visuals if they aren’t provided/edited yet.
They should innately understand the story and the writer’s word choices – really grasping the message they are trying to get across and reflecting that with nuance and skill. A passable narrator recites lines. A skilled narrator is a storyteller, employing pacing and dimension. They must be inside the writer’s mind and heart.
In addition, a great narrator brings something creative to the project. Documentaries are known for their myriad styles and the narration often matches it in some way. It could be a folksy, simple style. Or an edgy hard-boiled sound for the dark subject matter or investigative crimes. A sassy style for a Hollywood starlet biography. Or sometimes the narration style contrasts the subject matter This choice is a statement in and of itself. They should feel free to try different readings to give directors options and feel like they are providing an added dimension to the story.
Great narrators also understand timing and know that it can be everything in narration. A keen sense of how to adjust the pace, but still sound authentic can help ensure fewer things to “fix in post”. And all the while a powerhouse narrator needs to be cool under pressure, and be able to adapt to script changes or adjustments in what’s on-screen smoothly.
Learn from Master Documentarians
It’s important to pay attention to and learn from how master documentary filmmakers speak about the narration in their work. In his Master class Ken Burns says, “The narrator is one of the most important forces in the film, and, you hope, one of the most invisible. That person has to be really good, and so confident that they’ve earned your trust early on. And so they’re just guiding you through.” Burns maintains a doc narrator has to inhabit the words, always telling, revealing, but never selling.
Matt Seitz, editor-in-chief of rogerebert.com and television critic for New York Magazine, observed how the voice over can be used skillfully to enhance the film’s narration with this comment: “Other films use narration matter-of-factly and rather aggressively throughout the story, and when they do it well, nobody hauls out, ‘Show, don’t tell.’ But even when they don’t do it well, heavily-narrated films often get a pass from viewers because the voice-over is simple to understand and doesn’t ask the audience to hold more than one thought in its head at the same time. There’s one narrator, usually, and he or she is giving us information that the scenes themselves might not convey, but without contradicting them, or making us doubt what we’re seeing, or ask ‘Why is the main character telling me this? Why is it important?’ ”
And the academic Charles Wolfe wrote 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.”
The True Power of Documentary Narration
The true power of a documentary voice over comes from its ability to communicate with the audience. The voice over acts as a conduit between the documentary’s story and the viewer. The voice over is an invaluable tool for the filmmaker to use to speak directly to his audience, establish a connection and imbue the work with authority which gently persuades without the viewer even noticing. David Attenborough, perhaps one of the most famous documentary narrators, creates what has been called an “illusion of presence.” So much so that when the illusion slips, audiences have reacted with a sense of betrayal over any revelation that scenes in his documentaries were not filmed on location (as with a tour of a polar bear’s den in Frozen Planet). Attenborough is a master at creating the sensation that the viewer is present in the scene and viewing it with their own eyes. After all, that’s the real power of all voice over.