I find that again and again the idea of voiceover and narration arises in discussions on film, and that there's almost always a knee-jerk reaction detailing how terrible it is. Certainly, there are plenty of bad examples. Still, if it's such a common practice, isn't it likely that there are good uses for it? A while back I wrote a short paper on this topic, focusing specifically on narration and titling in documentary film. I've decided to put this online as a short series. Here's Part One.
The Accidental Narration of the Radio
I grew up in the shadow of a college radio station. One of the best, in fact, and at a small school that supported it and let the student disc jockeys alone. In summer, when the students were mostly away from the campus and there were very few requests, it was easy for my friends and I to call and name anything we liked and to hear it within moments. We memorized the request line and the disc jockey’s names and schedules, and took to turning the sound down on the omnipresent suburban televisions that dominated our lives. We began to leave KSPC 88.7 FM playing as soundtrack. Inevitably, sound and picture would synchronize into new meanings for us. We found that certain types of music went well with certain programs, which is no surprise.
What was a surprise was that new meanings would emerge when public service announcements were read by the disc jockeys. The college deejays were a diverse group, from an 18-year-old freshman to the man who had hosted the Sunday Polka Music Show for decades. They were female and male, and from many states and several countries. There were no commercials, so they played about 8 songs and then read the news or the PSAs in various voices and accents, with varying reading and announcing skills.
These PSAs proved not only as associative as music, but more so. The collision of pictures and words was always fertile, and filled with patterns anyone might sit and decode, if they had as much free time as we did. We interpreted some statements as opposing the pictures they were juxtaposed with, and others as his supporting images on screen. We took some readings as ironic, and some as heartfelt, and we perceived different voices as holding varying amounts of authority or friendliness. We found some to imply we must take action, and others that seemed to reassure us.
In this series I will examine in brief a variety of narration / titling strategies used in documentaries, noting the key functions of the relation of this “imposed” text over the film’s images and audio. My main interest in doing this will be to explore the functional purpose of this read / heard text, as opposed to its use as language.
Next: Intertitles in the Silent Era