Spoken words hold a certain power; ironically, words alone can hardly do that statement justice. They can captivate the masses and have the ability to take people to a place they’ve never seen before. When the War of the Worlds first appeared on the radio all those years ago, everyone who heard it thought the Earth was being invaded, and they were listening to the end of humanity. It’s incredible what some well-recorded narration and voice over can accomplish with nothing but the spoken word and sound effects.
Today we have TV and movies filmed so well that we’d never be fooled again by a hoax radio spot – but that doesn’t mean voice over, and narration has become any less important—quite the opposite.
Whenever you watch an animated film or hear a cartoon character, that’s voice over – and whenever Morgan Freeman explains something in The Shawshank Redemption, that’s voice over too – but it’s also narration. While distinguishing the two may seem difficult to anyone outside the voiceover world, they have more differences than similarities. And the first step to understanding these differences is by learning what narration is and what voice over is.
All Narrations Are Voice Overs, but Not All Voice Overs Are Narrations
Just because it’s an audio recording doesn’t mean it’s narrating. When we talk about voice over, the mind quickly wanders to one of four things: a radio spot, a documentary, a commercial, or a cartoon. And none of those would be wrong, but the world of voice acting covers much more ground than audio recordings and script dialogue set to animation. When two characters talk to each other in an animated television show, that’s voice over, but it isn’t narration.
What is Narration, and What is Voice Over?
When you hear somebody telling a story in the third person, like Patrick Stewart giving us the exposition at the beginning of the film, Ted, that’s narration. When you hear a CGI character like Ted (voiced by Seth Macfarlane) speaking directly with other characters and acting out scenes, that’s voice over. Sounds pretty simple right? Narration is one of the many different expressions of voice over work.
Character dialogue has a natural sound that, if written and performed well, is meant to make you forget it’s a performance in the first place. On the other hand, narration puts on no such airs; it’s a story being told directly to you. It’s designed to get you to sit down, listen to the story behind it, and help you understand the scene.
Where is Narration Used?
While early reflections of the voice over industry encompass a lot of radio and commercials, the realm of voiceover spans nearly every corner of the media, and narration is used more today than ever before.
- Trailers & Teasers
When is Narration Used?
Think of the last time you went out to see a film on the big screen; did you make it in time for the movie trailers? For decades, the film industry has been using narration in movie trailers to bring viewers to the box office. They can summarize movies into easily digestible bites of a budding franchise designed to get audiences pumped for something they may not see for months. Before streaming services took over and cable reigned, there would often be previews mixed in with commercials for the next episode with – you guessed it – narration.
Similarities Between Narration and Voice Over in TV and Film
Although the two have distinct differences, voice overs and narrations share a few significant similarities in TV and Film. To give you a general idea, both can be the voices of actual characters and work to convey the narrative; they offer storytelling that helps to push a movie or TV show forward and add a sense of world-building dialogue to the audience.
- They Set the Stage for Characters to Grow
- They Help the Audience Navigate the Story
- They Both Bring a Script to Life
- either can be an actual character
- They Both Require a Voice Over Actor
- Professional Equipment (i.e., boom microphone and sound booth)
Critical Differences Between Narration and Voice Over
Whether it’s a television commercial or an epic movie trailer voice, voice over narration is a method of storytelling that stands apart from other types of voice work. One is an on-screen voice, and the other is an off-screen voice.
As far as movies, television and commercials are concerned, the difference lies between one being interaction and the other a monologue spoken for the benefit of people watching. Both feature recorded voices, and each is a voice over production technique added in post-production, but only one is narration. That being said, sometimes voice over dialogue can become voiceover narration.
It Doesn’t Take a Good Ear to Tell the Difference
You don’t have to be a professional voiceover artist to tell narration and voice over apart. The easiest way to spot the difference between these two types of voice over is to pay attention to whether or not the sound comes from an off-screen voice or an actor you can see speaking. In live-action television and movies, it’s a little more noticeable because you won’t see words leaving the actor’s mouth, and it stands apart from the film’s natural-sounding dialogue. Still, with anime and cartoons, it can get a little more confusing.
When Voice Overs Become Narration
Even though the voice actor that portrays an animated character isn’t necessarily the same one that narrates the series, there are exceptions. Sometimes it’s a recap for an anime; other times, it’s an expression of inner thoughts or a character who breaks the fourth wall.
Main (and Side) Characters Can Become Narrators
For example, when the main character of a television show is telling you what happened in last week’s episode or what to look forward to in the next installment, that’s voice-over narration. Whenever Deadpool adds to his narrative from off-screen, he acts as a narrator. Some of the other exceptions could be one character voice over telling a story to others or their inner thoughts being expressed to viewers.
If we look at anime and cartoons, as long as the dialogue between characters becomes a story spoken off-screen, it’s voice over narration, not just a voiceover. The essence of it is a narrative presented, and a story told.
Examples of Narration and Voice Over
There are a lot of movies out there that feature not just voice over narration but character voice overs as well. While each format of voice over remains a production technique added in post, both serve entirely different purposes. As mentioned earlier, the point of narration is to tell a narrative that drives the story forward and works as a creative device written into the script. On the other hand, character voice-over is used to breathe life into a role and make characters more than words on a page.
Sometimes in movies and TV, we have narration from a character the audience has never met, such as in Desperate Housewives. In the series, the person talking to the audience is someone who’s passed away but knows the core cast and most of their dirty little secrets. Through a third-person narration outside the core cast, the audience gets an inside look at everything going on but is left to wonder what people’s motives are. This method of narration is used as a device to peer into the lives of everyone in the series.
Other times, the main character narrates the entire series, and the audience is taken along for the journey – like in Roswell where the narrative we hear is the main character writing in her diary. Unlike narration, where the entire point of its use is to make the audience pay attention, voice over acting calls for a little more subtlety and can sometimes go unnoticed entirely.
When Narration and Voice Over Overlaps
If narration is tangible, then voice over is invisible; used to inhabit and envelope a role like a second skin. Where one is meant to be heard independently from the dialogue, the other has a natural sound indistinguishable from a physical character. But sometimes, we hear both, and things can get tricky.
If we again take Deadpool as an example, Ryan Reynolds does both narration AND voice overs. The audience actively listens to his narration from start to finish but passively hears Reynold’s voice overs every time he’s in costume. Because a thick mask covers the actor’s mouth, speech becomes muffled and inaudible, making his lines impossible to interpret. But thanks to voice over, Reynold’s lines could be recorded after filming and made to sound as if he’s talking in the same room as the other characters.
Fun Fact – Reynolds improvised most of his voice overs AND secretly voiced the Juggernaut in Deadpool 2
Narration VS Voice Over – Reference List
Not every movie or TV show has a complicated melange of voice over AND narration from the same actor, but they are often combined in a live-action video if CGI is involved. For further reference, here are a few small lists of different narration and voice over combinations :
When the narrator is the main character:
- Sonic the Hedgehog – Ben Schwartz both does the voice over for sonic and narrates as him.
- Avatar – Sam Worthington not only narrates the film in character as Jake Sully but does voice work behind the scenes to bring his avatar body to life.
When the narrator and main character are different people:
- Ted – Narration by Sir Patrick Stewart, featuring a voice-over from Seth MacFarlane as Ted.
When the narrator interacts with the story:
- The Big Lebowski – Sam Elliot both narrates the cult-classic film and appears on-screen to speak directly with the subject of his story.
When there’s voice over, but not narration:
- Venom – Tom Hardy also voices his symbiotic other half in both of the Venom movies
- Guardians of the Galaxy – Bradley Cooper voices Rocket Raccoon, and Vin Diesel voices Groot
Voice Over and Narration are More Important than Ever
As a female voice actor who’s been recording voice overs for the last thirty years, I’ve seen the industry expand its reach over the last few decades. In fact, with modern-day CGI techniques and cutting-edge recording equipment becoming more easily accessible than ever before, voice over has never been so prominent.
The Difference Between Professional and Amateur Voice Over
Many amateur content creators do their audio recording with nothing but a smartphone mic and a stand positioned nearby with a ring light. On the other hand, professional voiceover actors have access to ducking software and state-of-the-art recording equipment that can accurately measure a voice’s radiation pattern or proximity effect. But it’s about more than a few mic placements – voiceover actors are precisely that, actors.
User-Generated Voice Over isn’t Limited to Youtube Anymore
With social media apps like Tiktok and Instagram focusing on short user-generated video content, voice over is everywhere. Whenever someone posts a video, there’s usually an accompanying amateur voice over to explain what people are seeing. If you’re a gamer or like to watch live-stream gamers on platforms like Twitch, that’s voiceover, too – it’s just not professional voiceover. They cut through background noise and let us know precisely what the creators want us to know if it’s done correctly, of course.