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Mon, 15th Oct '12.

Finding Your Voice

Developing the narrative of your film

An audience’s ability to watch a film – of any length – is determined by the strength of the narrative. The story behind the film, whether it be fact or fiction, has to hold the viewer’s attention long enough to convey its message and one of the most important elements in ensuring that this happens is the kind of narration that is chosen.

Even when making a simple promotional film, where text alone would suffice, people still overlook the importance of a voice and how imperative it is, regardless of what the film is about, to have sound.

Imagine, if you will, having footage of John Hurt saying, in his dulcet gravelly tones, “I am John Hurt”. The combination of the moving image and the sound at once suspends disbelief, i.e. you may feel like John is introducing himself to you. Similarly, it is a familiar and comforting voice, which is one of the main reasons ad companies hire celebrities to do voice-overs. It’s not the sound of David Mitchell’s wry, nasal voice that inspires me to buy mouth ulcer cream – it’s because I’ve got mouth ulcers and Mitchell’s slurs are simultaneously conversant and well-known. 

Now, imagine John doesn’t speak, and the screen simply reads ‘I am John Hurt’. It doesn’t have nearly as much impact, and if we were to combine both text and sound, the message becomes unclear. Our eyes want to focus on Hurt’s face, and our ears listen to the voice – there’s no room for the text.

Similarly, if we were to simply have a blank screen and a voice leers from the darkness informing us that “I am a film”, this is intrinsically more powerful that simply having, in white Helvetica “I am a film” written there.

But of course, spoken narration isn’t always appropriate. In terms of workflow, there are important things to consider once you have completed, say, a preliminary edit:

1. Does the film still make sense without any visuals?

Close your eyes and simply listen to the sound of the film. If there’s a story being told, does it make sense? Does it still hold your attention? If there’s no story, does the ambient sound or music keep you listening?

2. Does the film still make sense without any sound?

Now close your ears and watch the film without sound. Hopefully the moving images will make sense – if not, something needs to be done.

If the film falls down on either of these points, then the overall narrative is lacking an important glue to keep it all together. A film should, in essence, engage with the core of our learning mechanisms – our eyes and our ears. We, in combination, remember 50% of what we see and hear – independently the percentiles go down, and so it’s very important to get the individual aspects correct. 

If the film doesn’t make sense with either sound or visuals removed, we can either add a spoken narration, or text to add exposition. Naturally, the nature of the narration chosen will depend on the tone of the piece, and the intended audience, but a general rule of thumb should be that if the film doesn’t make sense without sound, then add some text, and if it doesn’t make sense without visuals, add some more sound. 

If you close your eyes and ears whilst watching a film, it won’t make any sense.

It will vary from film to film, but it is especially important with targeted filmmaking to get it all spot on. Similarly, you don’t want to overdo it. If someone were to narrate everything that we’re seeing, it may get a little tiresome. Furthermore, if there’s no narration and just too much text, we might as well just read a book.

The tone of both the spoken and written narration makes or breaks the piece. An overtly sexual voice talking about massacres and dictatorship wouldn’t be appropriate, and neither would text written in Comic Sans, littered with swear words, talking about a charitable campaign.

It sounds simple – and it is really – but time and time again we see perfectly good pieces ruined by off-narration or weird text slides. Ultimately, as long as it makes sense, is concise, sympathetic and gets the message across, then it’s a good job well done.