Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Narration & Tone

Dear Documentary Filmmakers: You’re not a DJ/planetarium announcer- don’t tell me to “sit back, relax & enjoy” your film.

While I’ve addressed my general dislike for narration in a previous post, I recognize that it’s a creative choice that some filmmakers will continue to make if they feel it’s appropriate for their project. I still caution restraint, as excessive voiceover – like excessive anything – can be a distraction from the core of your film. The above DDF addresses another aspect of narration that irks me and is generally a terrible idea: utilizing a conversational tone.

If you feel narration is the best way to provide exposition or a throughline for your film, that’s one thing. Consider, however, how you implement it, and how it fits your film’s topic and approach. I’ve come across many docs were the filmmaker thinks his/her presence in the film is vital (let’s set aside the argument against this previously-discussed decision) and, perhaps in order to establish a rapport with the audience, decides to employ a loose, colloquial narration. I guess the thought process is that s/he can make you think that you’re old friends, and you’re listening to him/her telling a story.

More often than not, this doesn’t work. You’re not Spalding Gray. You’re not Garrison Keillor. Sure, there are probably some good storytellers out there, but they’re pretty few and far between in my viewing experience – at least the ones who are making films and using this kind of folksy approach. Gray and Keillor could get away with their tone because they had a following – people know who they are, and the way they tell stories is part of their schtick. Unless you have their notoriety, the audience isn’t likely to respond to you the way they would to them and your narration will come off as cheesy – like the pandering planetarium announcer/wedding DJ mentioned above. Generally an audience for a doc isn’t there to become your friend or hear your version of THIS AMERICAN LIFE – they are interested in the subject matter and potentially want to learn new facts, or engage with ideas that intrigue them. Reserve the conversational tone for cocktail party storytelling – for your film, just get to the facts in the most appropriate (and concise) way possible.



Filed under Dear Documentary Filmmakers, Documentary, Film

4 responses to “Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Narration & Tone

  1. And if you decide to narrate, first read Vivian Gornicks “The situation and the story” Her book on writing personal memoir is the only thing I have found that can help find the appropriate distance and tone.

  2. Paul

    Josh Fox pulled off a low key and sparingly used conversational tone brilliantly in Gasland. It was the perfect counterpoint to the ‘whatinholyfuck is going on in America?’ barrage of facts & figures. Confidently & masterfully done..

    • Thanks for your comment. The key with narration in GASLAND, I think, is that it is sparingly used – and that Josh is successful in making his presence in the film feel necessary.

  3. Pingback: I don’t want to go to school- Stylistics | 1000 Pictures: Media Producer

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