What is voice over? Is it Morgan Freeman narrating the plot to a movie or an AI voice content creators use for their TikTok videos? Voice over has become an increasingly common term in recent years, with so many potential uses, that it might seem impossible to definitively state what it is.
Voice Over Became Integrated With the Film Industry
No matter how you might define it, the term voiceover was initially used to simply describe the spoken word over images in film, video, or animation. Back when movies were called moving pictures and the film industry was a far cry from what it is today, not all of them had it and a definitive term needed to be coined. More than a hundred years after the first moving picture, voiceover has become inextricable with the film industry. In fact, it is now such a crucial component of modern cinema standards that an entirely new genre called “silent films” had to be created for features without it.
At its core, voiceover is a scripted narrative that’s delivered in an interesting way; it’s meant to be exciting and capture the attention of listeners. It can be a narration that highlights how a character thinks and feels or the heart and soul of an animated being. It’s the lifeblood that fuels cartoon characters, commercials, and eLearning; advertisers love it because it lets them get every bit of crucial information across to customers in a concise and efficient way. While some people spell it “voice over” and others use “voiceover” industry professionals like myself, will often shorten it to “VO.”
The Different Names for Voice Over
In French, it’s called voix hors champs which directly translates to off (field of) camera voice – but that’s just a roundabout way of saying voice over. In Spanish, it’s either narración or Voz en off which means virtually the same thing. In Italian, you might hear it called voce Fuori campo and in German Sprecher or off-stimme can roughly be translated to speaker and voiceover, respectively. As much as the different names for voice over might change between languages and the people who use them, they all circle back to the same underlying ideal – the value of a human voice.
When Audio is the Only Element in a Medium
No matter what you call it, even though the term implies that a voice is being presented over something, voice over is also used when audio is the only element in a medium. Before television and film, radio was the mainstay of entertainment with every major performance being done through voice alone. Immersive experiences and narratives swept across entire nations when broadcast voices like Orson Welles used War of the Worlds to convincingly capture the minds of everyone listening and convince them the future of the human race was legitimately at stake.
Voiceover has become so much more than just an overlayed narration or radio broadcast, but a unique medium unto itself. For example, while you can find it is used to describe vocal performances on radio, it’s also the foundation for podcasts, telephony, and audiobooks. As a professional female voice over artist with more than 30 years in the industry and 20+ thousands of narrations under my belt, most of my voice over work comes from e-learning and corporate narrations alone.
The First VO Actor
In the sense of voice acting being audio-only, the first on the airwaves happened over 120 years ago. The honor of first voice actor belongs to Canadian-born Reginald Fessenden announcing a weather report in 1900 over the wireless in Washington D.C. for the United States Weather Bureau.
While the first instances of a recorded voice being used over film only happened several years later, for a brief time it was exclusively presented without visual components. Synchronization of the two mediums, film and sound, took a lot of trial and error before an agreed-upon method for recording, editing, and distributing sound to films could be streamlined.
Although there were a couple of smaller films that were released earlier, The Jazz Singer is widely recognized as the first full-length film to feature sound in 1927. After that, it wouldn’t be long before voice applications for animation followed the trend and the first cohesive use of voice for animation was released in 1928. Historically known today as the short that set them apart, Walt Disney’s Steamboat Willie was the first-ever animated film to use voice over. From there, the incorporation of a narrator in newsreels and documentaries took off at breakneck speeds.
In the 1940s, voiceover roles for film narrators came into fashion when the film noir genre hit its stride. With the advent of film noir, the perplexed inner monologue of a grizzled detective working their way through a mystery became a way for viewers to bond with a character and understand what they might be thinking. As revolutionary as the trend might’ve been, most of these earlier projects were performed by men and it would be years before female voice over narration made its way to film.
The Industry Continued to Evolve Alongside Radio, Film, and Television
The industry continued to evolve alongside radio, film, and television for the next several decades and eventually became one of the most popular cinematic devices for a director to incorporate into their narratives. Early popular TV series, apart from animation, that regularly employed voice actors included Rod Serling in The Twilight Zone which ran from 1959-1964, and the Outer Limits, in which Vic Perrin was the “Control Voice.”
Voice work moved solidly into the realm of commercial advertising during this period and became ubiquitous in documentaries and industrial films through the ’70s and ’80s. Today, the term is applied to dozens of different forms of media. As well as earlier uses, we hear it in commercials, TV narration, corporate narrations, eLearning programs, animated and live-action videos, gaming, award shows, on apps, and as AI voice assistants. The sound has changed as well. Gone are the top-down, very measured announcer-type style reads. In almost every media you find that a more natural, conversational tone is what is most sought today.
What is Voice Over to You?
Another thing that has changed in the voice world is that today, so many more people do it. From PowerPoint presentations for your meetings to video pitches to clients to YouTube videos and niche podcasts, voice acting is accessible. To do it better, you may seek the skills of a private coach or a group workshop specializing in creating better voice overs.