Once Upon a Time the Storyteller was the Star

by on September 13th, 2010
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A lot of people who attended film school will tell you that using a voice over narration in a film is wrong. People who don’t know how do something well will often say it’s wrong to do. Word of mouth story telling is becoming a lost art and that is basically what a voice over narration is. If a story is told well it stimulates the imagination and creates a “memory” of the story that is more personal and therefore more “real” than simply watching a story unfold.

A basic rule of film making is to show what you want the viewer to know, don’t tell him but if you can show him information and at the same time tell him a different point of view that enhances that information then you have succeeded in imprinting information through two different senses and have increased the scenes’ “reality” two fold.

Storytelling in a movie is often a very dramatic part of the film. Captain Quint’s tale of his experience on the USS Indianapolis is one of the high points of Jaws. Little Bill’s retelling of the “true” story of the “Duke of Death” is a great scene from Unforgiven and even Obi Wan Kenobi’s telling Luke Skywalker about his adventures with his father as a Jedi Knight is a riveting scene even though in all these scenes there are no shark attacks, gun fights or light saber battles.

How would movies such as Good Fellas, Platoon or Apocalypse Now or TV shows such as Dexter and Scrubs be without their voice over narration? There have been many books adapted into movies that are almost always compared unfavorably with the book because of the omission of the author’s voice. With some stories it is the way it’s told not the story itself that keeps the reader’s attention. Of course, if the person telling the story is dull then telling the story strictly through the visuals is a good idea but it shouldn’t be a rule carved in film school stone.

There are those who claim they don’t like music videos because they interpret the songs and rob the listener of the opportunity to imagine for themselves the story of the lyrics. Hopefully, the writer and designer of the music video have above average imaginations and will give the listener a visual experience his or her own imagination could never approach. Unfortunately, many “concept” videos seem to be short films onto which the music is tacked and really do not relate to the lyrics of the song in any meaningful way.

These days TV commercials have become an almost legitimate form of music video, a very short music video, but usually the advertisers will choose a song that at least seems appropriate to the product and the commercial’s visuals. A music video is essentially a “voice over narration” as there is virtually no character dialogue with the sung vocals telling the story.

Just as the concept video is a perfectly acceptable alternative to the performance video where a band is simply shown playing the song on stage, the voice over narration is a perfectly acceptable alternative to the non-voice over form of cinema. It all depends on who is telling the story and how well it’s being told.


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