Sunday 29 November 2020

Home - Academic - Seven Types of Voice-over in Short Film Storytelling

24Frames: Oftentimes, using voice-over in short films is discouraged. Yet, some pieces seem incomplete without one. If a voice-over is in complete harmony with the reproduced realism and can be blended into time and space, it can achieve a higher level of emotional effect. In this article, we will be taken on a journey of understanding the types of voice-over in short films, and how and when to use them efficiently, under the fine instruction of Professor Richard Raskin.





In a standard reference work such as Ephraim Katz’s Film Encyclopedia (London: Pan Macmillan, 1994), voice-over is defined quite simply as “narration or dialogue spoken by a person not seen on the screen at the time his [or her] voice is heard” (p. 1418). It is this broad definition that will be applied here, rather than the more restrictive one proposed for example by Sarah Kozloff in her comprehensive work on the subject,  Invisible Storytellers: Voice-over Narration in American Fiction Film (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), where she defines voice-over narration as “oral statements, conveying any portion of a narrative, spoken by an unseen speaker situated in a space and time other than that simultaneously being presented by the images on the screen” (p. 5, emphasis added). I prefer to include as forms of voice-over examples in which the spoken narration is situated at the same time as that of the images, as is the case for the first three types described below.


Anyone interested in detailed discussions of voice-over should know Kozloff’s book as well as Gérard Genette’s Narrative Discourse. An Essay in Method (New York: Cornell University Press, 1980). In this brief article, I will propose my own typology as an alternative to those suggested by Kozloff and Genette, and which differs from theirs not only in the types of voice-over described and the names they are ascribed, but also in that I focus specifically on short film storytelling and all of my examples are short films for which links are provided for the reader’s convenience. I have also done my best to use only language with which any general reader would feel comfortable, and have avoided such terms – used by Genette – as homodiegetic, heterodiegetic, infradiegetic, extradiegetic, and autodiegetic which I find unnecessarily cumbersome and esoteric.


The seven types of voice-over described here are surely not the only ones that have ever been used in short film storytelling, but they are the only ones found in the large corpus of mainly award-winning or pioneering short films I have collected over a period of thirty years.



1. Inner Monologue


The unspoken thoughts of a character in the fiction’s here and now, not addressed to any other character and generally heard only by the viewer who sees the character thinking the thoughts. Frontal close-ups are essential so the viewer can see that the character’s lips are not moving as we hear her or his voice.



Director: Sytske Kok – Netherlands, 2002, 10 min



2. Character Addresses Character: Off-camera Voice


In a given shot or series of shots, one character addresses another, with the act of speaking the lines not shown on screen though it takes place in the setting we see.



Director: Hanne Nielsen and Birgit Johnsen – Denmark, 1996, 1 min 13 sec.


3. Character Addresses Character: Disjunction of Sound and Image


In a given shot or series of shots, one character addresses another, while what we see onscreen is a setting other than the one in which the spoken lines would be heard. The audio would naturally be recorded independently of the camerawork.



Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski – Poland, 1966, 6 min., doc.

The setting – a government office where elderly people apply for their pensions – is a microcosm of Polish society anno 1966. In the final sequence outlined below, we hear a female clerk (seen earlier in the film) instructing a series of clients as to how to fill out their pension applications. Several shots show clients waiting their turn at the window separating them from the clerk, while the remaining images are of countless case folders gathering dust on shelves in an adjacent storeroom – the destination of the applications once filled out, and signaling the utter futility of the bureaucratic procedures endured by the petitioners.

4. Anonymous Unseen Narrator


Widely used in 20th-century docu­mentaries, this type of narrator –  who never appears onscreen –  frames for us what we are shown. We under­stand that it is an actor’s voice we hear but as the filmmaker’s surrogate.



Director: Georges Franju – France, 1949, 22 min.

Warning: This is one of the first films to show the harsh realities of what actually happens in slaughter­houses. Don’t watch this film if you aren’t prepared to see in great detail how animals are killed and dismembered.


Director: Alain Resnais – France, 1955, 30 min



5. Fictive Unseen First-Person Narrator


Never seen, this narrator tells his or her own fictional story and should not be confused with the person of the filmmaker.

Example: FLIMMER   

Director: Line Klungseth Johansen – Norway, 2011, 5 min

The filmmaker said: ”I wanted a certain lack of correspondence between the voice and the image. It was important to me that there was room for ‘reading’ the film on different levels and that the spectators could hopefully add their own interpretations and experiences into the story. I wanted the voice of the film to be glossy, almost like in a commercial, to create distance to the content.”



 6. Character Addresses Viewer


A character who is now situated at a later time than the events are shown, looks back on those events. We never see narrators of this kind in the process of telling their stories. They speak only to us, not to any other character in the film.



Director: Ken Wardrop – Ireland, 2004, 6 min, doc.


Example 2: POSSUM

Director: Brad McGann – NZ, 1997, 16 min, fiction

When asked whether he had any advice to give to student filmmakers, Brad McGann – who died at the age of 43 in 2007 – took a piece of paper out of the diary he carried and read out loud this quote from Robert Bresson: “Make visible what without you might never be seen.”



7. Filmmaker’s Voice


The narrative voice belongs at least implicitly to the filmmaker, giving instructions for example to the viewer, to the assistant director, to walk-on characters momentarily, or to the main character.



Director: Jørgen Leth, Denmark – 1967, 13 min.

Jørgen Leth described the film this way:  “An attractive young couple serves as objects of demonstration. We will see how a human comes into being as an effect of the roles he or she is assigned. We will see how a human gets better at living. It all takes place in a brightly lit demonstration room with dissection lights. The film is a document – or meta documents – of life in Denmark in the year 1967. It will show the model, the perfect human, created according to our notions as expressed in various ways in our everyday life. In my opinion, this model is more representative of forward-pointing tendencies in society than even the astutest sociological report on life in Denmark.”_



Director: John Smith – UK, 1976, 12 min.

John Smith said: “I thought, ‘Okay, I’m going to film on a street corner, and I’ll use a 400-foot roll of film, and I’ll film what happens on the street, and then I’ll direct it later’. By “direct it later,” he meant he would pretend to direct in voice-over by appearing to give instructions that would make things happen on the screen. Smith added: “The Girl Chewing Gum explores the ways in which words, applied in this case through a voice-over, can determine our reading of images. While I was editing the spoken directions to match the image I started to suspect that, even though it would quickly become evident that the events depicted in the film were unlikely to have been directed, the viewer would nevertheless find it difficult to completely dismiss the bogus assertions of the narrator. I realized that the power of language and narrative is so strong that we can’t stop ourselves from visualizing the scenarios that are described, however absurd they might become.”



Example 3: VOICE-OVER

Director: Martin Rosete – 2011, Spain, 10 mon.

Martin Rosete fell in love with the script he read by Luiso Berdejo and relished directing this film in which the narrative voice, ostensibly belonging to the filmmaker, addresses the main character and capriciously redefines and repositions him in one or another setting.



Summary: Overview of the seven types of voice-over


1. The inner thoughts of a character heard in the character’s own voice while his or her lips are shown to be unmoving

– The Chinese Wall / De Chinese Muur


2. Lines spoke by one character to another, without the act of speaking shown onscreen

– Wake Up, Charlie


3. Lines spoke by one character to another, with the speaking character not shown onscreen when these lines are heard

– Urzad/The Office


4. Lines spoke by an unseen anonymous narrator

– Le Sang des Bêtes / Blood of the Beasts

– Nuit et Brouillard / Night and Fog


5. Lines spoke by an unseen 1st person narrator

– Flimmer


6. Lines spoke by a character looking back and not visible in the act of speaking

– Undressing my mother

– Possum


7. Lines spoke ostensibly by the filmmaker, often in an imperative mode

– Det Perfekte Menneske / The Perfect Human

– The Girl Chewing Gum

– Voice-Over



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