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About Narrative Voice Over in Documentary

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Rocco Forte
About Narrative Voice Over in Documentary
on Aug 13, 2009 at 4:34:24 am

Had a discussion today about the "correct" time to consider and create a voice over narrative for a feature documentary.

For example, one could write and record a temp voice over before any footage has been shot.

Conversely it could be more appropriate to shoot all your interviews, b-roll, stills and do graphics first and THEN decide to drop in a narrator (or have none at all).

How has it been done in your experience?


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Mike Smith
Re: About Narrative Voice Over in Documentary
on Aug 13, 2009 at 12:17:18 pm

Either way works, and there are fervent advocates of both approaches. It may depend a little on what suits your project.

Pure economy would dictate a tight final script ahead of shooting, which could even be prerecorded, and then film sequences and any graphics or other material would be created to fit that timeline. Few take the approach quite that far: the drawback that counters the costs savings is that many feel you get less good work this way.

Over here in the UK John Birt, ex ITV current affairs (very different from docs over here) and with a "mission to explain" was strong associated with this script-tightly-first approach.

By many accounts this led him into significant conflicts when he became head of the BBC, where the tradition is much more "reporters with cameras". In this (BBC traditional) approach, the investigator starts researching a story and collecting material almost in parallel, the story is shaped in shooting and editing in response to what is discovered or uncovered, and then any final voiceover is written with the final edit very much in mind.

When Mr Birt left the BBC, attempts to impose his full-script-first working style were reported to be largely abandoned - most of the corporation's filmmakers were not in favour.

There will be cases, though, when the script-first approach works - the poem section of the famous old doc The Night Mail http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Night_Mail would be a good example.

For my part, though I think planning, preparation and story research prior to shooting are essential, it also seems to me that the director and editor have to be flexible to respond to and cover what they find in the production process, and have to adapt both shoot and edit to the story as they discover it. So final voiceover would have to be written at the end - otherwise, you are trying to jam your "experts" and your images into what your preconceptions told you, rather than learning from your various expert sources and developing follow-up questions in response to their input.



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Tony Stampalia
Re: About Narrative Voice Over in Documentary
on Aug 13, 2009 at 1:04:06 pm

Hey, Rocco.

I've shot and edited many, many Docs. Keeping in mind there are no rules, I find scripting VO prior to shooting anything else pulls the piece together. I don't record VO until the end.

This is especially true in narrator-heavy docs. Maybe a Doc using VO as links wouldn't have to be scripted prior.

Done it both ways, but experience taught me to script VO before shooting. And this method doesn't get in the way of Docs becoming organic - taking surprising turns - as they almost always seem to do. When a film takes an unexpected turn the VO can be re-written to suit the piece then recorded.


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Mark Suszko
Re: About Narrative Voice Over in Documentary
on Aug 13, 2009 at 6:48:03 pm

It is very easy to do the job badly, writing first and then just shooting to that script. We call this "Radio with Pictures", or "ready, fire, aim", not television.

It also assumes you can GET all the shots you script, just as they were scripted. At least if you shoot first, you know you're not going to write sctripts for things you don't have. I think in a general sense script-first on docs is lazy. Real television, real "documentary television" is a synthesis of the written word, the visuals you capture, and the sounds you capture or apply.

That's not to say you go into a doc project as a completely blank slate: nobody does, everybody brings some kind of agenda or perspective to a story. And to be efficient and complete at making the story, you have go into it with at least a rough outline in mind, or a list of all the people you'll talk to and what each one's overall perspective is likely to be. So you have the rough skeleton in mind going in. But you never really know what you've got until you bring it back and start layering it together. And sometimes you find what you end up with goes in a very different direction than expectations dictate.


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Bill Davis
Re: About Narrative Voice Over in Documentary
on Aug 14, 2009 at 12:00:06 am

Here's my perspective as someone who was a voice talent and narrator BEFORE I started directing, shooting and editing content.

With that background, voiceover was one of the primary tools I brough to the table when organizing my work. I knew I could competently write and narrate the underlying thread no matter what visuals or actualities I had.

Then I did a program for a local non-profit. We set up a series of on-camera interviews with about a dozen volunteers - and interviewed them extensively about many aspects of the operation.

At the end, I sat down to write my narration, but something kept bothering me. After a day or so I realized the problem. What I had in the can no longer NEEDED narration. The interviews said it all - and far better than I could have written it.

There were a lot of lessons for me in that experience. First, learning to trust my instincts. Second, learning that while I "own and operate" a wonderful, professional storytelling tool: to wit a narrators voice and proven narration talent - that doesn't mean I need to pull it out to solve my storyteling problems all the time.

I've learned that you seldom know what you need, until you get past the point that you need it. And that there are a lot of ways to tell a story - and sometimes good reasons not to tell it at all, but to let your audience figure it out for themselves.

I think writing narration as a structural tool is probably always a good exercise because organization and structure is an essential tool for good storytelling. But it's just as important not to use any original script as a crutch.

Live in the process. Keep your eyes pealed for ways to do things outside the way you USUALLY do them.

And finally, respect the story you're telling enough to listen to it for clues as to how to tell it best.

My 2 cents anyway.







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Tony Stampalia
Re: About Narrative Voice Over in Documentary
on Aug 14, 2009 at 12:57:51 am

Hey, Mark. Let's do lunch.


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Rocco Forte
Thank You
on Aug 14, 2009 at 5:39:25 pm

Great feedback, thank you everyone for taking the time to write helpful and inspiring advice.

Very much appreciated.

Now back to editing.......


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Tony Stampalia
Re: Thank You
on Aug 14, 2009 at 10:46:28 pm

You're welcome, Sir.

Got enough B?


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Rocco Forte
Re: Thank You
on Aug 17, 2009 at 10:16:44 pm

Yes! B-Roll is ever evolving. We're shooting 16mm footage and converting it to DVCPROHD for our abstract notions of society and to indicate people and such. for more specific B, we're shooting with the HVX to match the interviews... So far so good... Vimeo is a good source of temp B-Roll I'm discovering.


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grinner hester
Re: About Narrative Voice Over in Documentary
on Aug 17, 2009 at 8:58:15 pm

I use em as stitchers to tell a story and I never know what will be needed until editing what I have. I think they made videos to written copy in the 80s but I can't quite recall all of the 80s.



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Tony Stampalia
Re: About Narrative Voice Over in Documentary
on Aug 18, 2009 at 2:46:44 am

Too many drugs?


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grinner hester
Re: About Narrative Voice Over in Documentary
on Aug 25, 2009 at 1:35:40 am

too many melon dings. I have no use for drugs, Sheesh, could you imagine???



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Alberto Mendez
Re: About Narrative Voice Over in Documentary
on Aug 29, 2009 at 7:35:55 am

You should decide if you are going to use V.O. (narration) during the preproduction phase. If you decide against it, you will have to be extremely prepared in the field to ask the right questions to the interviewee. Without all of the relevant info/bites you will have gaps in your story-line and the ultimate goal should always be to progress the story.

It's a lot harder than it seems because 9 times out of 10 you may change the direction of the story in Edit and then you realize, you needed a follow up question to make some stories connect. It's easy to write a track line to solve this issue but wouldn't you rather hear it in their own words.

I always love when Producers/writers state the obvious in V.O. tracks. "They ran for their lives" and on screen you are watching archive of a tornado coming at them while they run away. Does that track line make it more dramatic? Nope. Let the audience wonder if this family is going to make it out alive. It's the WTF factor.


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