The quality of a documentary narration can make or break a film.
Although the voice narrating a documentary is not necessarily at the forefront of the viewer’s mind, a poorly narrated documentary can significantly detract from the audience’s viewing experience.
No matter what the topic of the documentary, there are three things to remember to make a great documentary voiceover.
1) Attract audiences with a great voice.
Some actors in Hollywood make their bread and butter solely from voiceovers — and for good reason. Great voiceovers are an art, and not everyone can deliver a good one.
This is especially true for documentaries, where the challenge is to capture the audience’s interest with an appealing voice, while at the same keeping them focused on the content of the documentary as a whole. It’s vitally important that production teams select the right voiceover talent.
A good documentary voiceover reads smoothly and clearly, and enunciates well. Documentary narrators often have particularly engaging voices and are unlikely to exhibit any kind of displeasing characteristic — like shrillness — which would make listeners want to tune out.
While keeping the viewer interested, documentary voiceovers should never become the main focus of the film. You want audiences to walk away talking about the documentary’s message and content, not the narrator!
2) Narrate to match the documentary’s tone.
These days, you can find documentaries about all kinds of topics, from global warming to the lives of pop stars. Most documentary filmmakers know to choose a documentary narration that fits the content and tone of the film (sometimes this even means choosing an accented voiceover).
Traditionally, you’re probably not going to hear the voice of a teen girl narrating an environmental documentary, just as you’re unlikely to find a solemn professorial voice narrating a Beyoncé documentary.
This isn’t a hard and fast rule, obviously, and the choice of voice talent may depend on the target audience as well. For instance, an environmental documentary aimed at kids would not be ill served by a youthful voiceover.
3) Enhance your documentary voiceover with localization.
In the interest of appealing to different audiences, some documentaries may choose to localize their voiceover for different areas of the world.
The documentary “Planet Earth,” for example, used professional narration by David Attenborough for the original BBC version, while Sigourney Weaver provided the voiceover for the Discovery Channel’s US version.
Localizing documentary voiceovers by using more than one voice actor may be recommended for films hoping to reach audiences from diverse language backgrounds.
While subtitles can be used, the viewing experience is likely to be more personal — and powerful — if audiences are hearing the documentary narrated in their own language.
Why Professional Voiceover Talent is a Must
A great documentary narration takes talent and hard work. It’s best to work with professional voiceover actors who have the skills needed to do the job right, and who know how to prepare for their part.
Great documentary narrators know that you can’t just walk into the studio, read off the script, and call it a day. A true professional will take the time to go over the script, familiarize themselves with its content, and give an excellent performance.
In this way, the right voice actor can take a documentary narration from acceptable to outstanding.