November 2, 2012 by Devin
Voice over is often considered an amateur mistake, mainly because it is not filmic. Having a character tell us their thoughts seems more in place in a book than a film. Voice over is not an image, not a picture, and to paraphrase Syd Field, movies are stories told with images.
I just recently saw Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, a movie I found incredibly hard to sit through, especially during the first hour. Part of the reason why I felt this way was because the voice over was simply awful. Not only was it not filmic, but it seemed to be desperately trying to be a book (which is understandable because that movie was based on a book). It took me completely out of the movie and made me annoyed at the main character more than anything else.
Having said that, voice over is not always bad. I recently recommended Looper, which made use of voice over as well. The reason why amateurs tend to use voice over is because it helps alleviate some of film’s biggest difficulties, mainly communicating exposition and character motivations. Still, there are some careful rules movies need to follow in order to use voice over effectively.
DO use V.O. sparingly
V.O. is an excellent way to set up a film, but it is most effective when used sparingly. There is no need to consistently use V.O. in a film because the audience does not expect it nor require it. Case in point, watch a movie with V.O. and see if you notice when there isn’t V.O. Chances are, you will not. That is because the lack of V.O. does not detract from a film. That is how films are supposed to be. Nobody watches a movie and thinks, “Man, I wish the main character was telling me what s/he was doing right now.”
DON’T expect V.O. to add empathy
The worst protagonists are the ones the writers expected the audience to like without putting any real reasons for the audience to like them. Case in point, Extremely Loud‘s main character is not likable. He is a little bit of a brat who disrespects his mom and just about everyone he meets. Granted, the audience understands why he is a bit of a brat (he still has not gotten over his dad dying in 9/11 the previous year and he might have a case of Asperger’s), but that does not mean the audience actually connects with the character. It just means they feel kind of sorry for him.
For example, at one point the character goes somewhere he has always been afraid of. The audience knows he is afraid of this place because he tells us, and the audience knows that this is a big deal because he tells us, but the actual moment does not have impact because the audience has only been told that they are supposed to feel impact. The audience does not connect with the main character; they just feel like they should.
DO use V.O. to setup exposition quickly
Looper is the story of how a mob hitman kills people sent from the future so that the future mob does not have to deal with disposing the body. As far as movie premises go, this one is a bit out there. However, the V.O. by Joseph Gordon-Levitt sets this whole premise up in the first five minutes. Science fiction movies are incredibly tough to communicate exposition because the world is so different, so Looper uses minimal exposition to set up the story (it helps that the main character is short on words normally anyway).
What is also important is that the exposition never replaces dramatic and telling visual imagery. I doubt anyone will forget how the actual kills look simply because their visuals are so memorable. V.O. is not a replacement for these dramatic visuals, but rather V.O. is there to add context that cannot be told efficiently elsewhere.
DON’T use metaphors in V.O.
Extremely Loud starts off with the main character talking about how coffins are like skyscrapers in the ground for dead people. This metaphor was striking and relates to the story well, but it was a poor use of the medium. People do not watch movies to hear things described to us. Movies are there to show the audience the images and the metaphors. By all rights, include metaphors in scripts. Please do. I love metaphors.
But do not have a strong memorable image described to us. Show us the image. That will stick in people’s heads a lot longer and it won’t make the audience feel like they are being told how to feel.
DO use V.O. as bookends
One of the most common use of V.O. is to set up a story and to end a story. I actually like this method as the most effective use of V.O. is at the beginning and end of a story. When things are actually happening, in the middle, V.O. is usually redundant because the audience can see what is happening. Not only can V.O. can be used to setup a story quickly, but it can also be used to contextualize an ending, give meaning to a finale, and wrap up a story effectively.
I will not give away spoilers, but again, Looper does this very well, adding meaning to an action that would be incredibly difficult to communicate with just images. The Sandlot also has a great use of V.O. in the ending. The V.O. adds a sense of retrospection and reflection in a medium that emphasizes the current happenings.
DON’T use V.O. to say what you could show
This is the cardinal rule of V.O. and why I recommend people stay away from it in general. Film is a primarily visual image, and what happens with V.O. a lot of the time is that the filmmakers rely on V.O. to communicate something that should be communicated in images. Is it easier to communicate in images? Not at all, but if you want to use words, write a book.
V.O. is especially bad when it is being used to communicate something that is already being communicated onscreen. Limitless, for instance, has a fantastic set of images that communicate the descent into drug-riddled madness, but the whole thing is framed with V.O. telling us, “I was descending into drug-riddled madness” (not a direct quote). Not only is it redundant, but it draws attention away from what is onscreen.
So those are my 6 Do’s and Don’ts of V.O. When in doubt, don’t use it at all, but if you have to, remember that V.O. is not what film is naturally good at.
So did I miss anything? Do you disagree with me on any point? Let me know in the comments below.