Narration in Film and Video: A Guide to Off-Commentary

The Dos and Don'ts of Voice-Off

Narration in Film and Video: A Guide to Off-Commentary Narration in Film and Video: A Guide to Off-Commentary

Narration in film or off-commentary – the voice off-screen that accompanies the images – comes together to create a unity in film and video. That is why it is an essential aspect of the overall conception in moving image communication and should already be planned and thought out in a project’s scripting stages.

The final version of the off-commentary however only really begins to take shape after filming in the editing suite. One of the basic principles of off-commentary is to make sure the text doesn’t simply describe the image but instead complements or adds to the visual information.

During filming the camera’s main objective is to determine how to convey the message on a purely visual level. For the camera, the filmed subject should be the main source of information. With the off-commentary it’s a different story:

Off-commentary is also known as off-voice, narration or voice-over. The term voice-over however can lead to confusion as it is also used to describe dubbing, when for translation purposes a different language is spoken over the original audio. Off-commentary is used in sponsored films, TV and also in documentaries (often to provide extra explanatory information) and in fiction films (as an additional storytelling tool).

The Formal Structure of Narration in Film

Main sentences should always refer directly to the image. Subordinate sentences should then go on to convey information that goes beyond the image.The off-commentary has to be adapted to the rhythm of the edited images. Thereby the images often determine the length of a sentence.

Short main sentences – because of their abruptness – come across more forceful and formally transport a feeling of urgency and tension. Short main sentences, spoken at a fast pace are often used in news segments.

It’s different for subordinate sentences: They often transmit information that the camera and editing alone can’t transmit. By means of subordinate sentences information that isn’t visually presented can be tied to the image sequences the main sentence departs from.

When it comes to off-commentary silences are almost as important as words; breaks between sentences are an essential factor to consider when editing. Breaks or pauses are crucial to processing information in audio both On (=sound source in image) and Off.(= sound source off screen)

Breaks can even be implemented as a dramatic element.

It is often forgotten that pauses in a text not only have an effect on the text to come, but they also allow some breathing space, for that which has been said before, to echo in our minds.

The next step up from a single sentence are blocks of texts made up of several sentences. Just like a sentence, the length of a paragraph or the space between them can be used as a tool to provide both rhythm and tension.

Style of Language: Narration in Film

The style of language for off-commentary goes by its own rulebook. Complicated phrases that are hard to understand at first hearing should be avoided at all cost in narration in film:

Long-winded phrases will not be – or at best only partially – understood by the viewer. Clear and simple is the premise here. Also, awkward wording can draw too much attention to the off-commentary and can make it stand out for all the wrong reasons;Off-commentary should always be “speakable”. It is imperative for the off-commentary to always be clearly comprehensible for the viewer.

Written text and spoken text are two different things. A trained eye might have no problem reading complicated and convoluted sentences, but even the most experienced and professional speaker can stumble if the writing is too wordy and long-winded.

The viewer of a film or a web video with narration – unlike a reader – has no way of defining the tempo in which he processes the information. In communication with the moving image viewers aren’t given a chance to go over the text content at their own pace or re-read certain excerpts.

Narration in Film: Content

Off-commentary should never be just a comment on what can be seen in the image. Using words to describe something the viewer is perfectly capable of seeing for himself, doesn’t provide context nor originality. Doubling up on information is a bad style choice and in its futility can only be surpassed by what media experts refer to as  “image-to-text-gaps”.Image-to-text-gaps are when the content of the image and the accompanying text contradict each other and confuse – if not irritate – the viewer.

These “image-to-text gaps” don’t only rear their ugly heads in moving image, but in any field where text and image combine, like journalism for example .

The term “image-to-text-gap” (translated from the German original “Bild-Text-Schere”) was coined by the German media expert Bernward Wember in the 70s, when he published his research on how information was transmitted in German television. Wember’s analysis proved that comprehensibility of information is notably diminished when visual and textual information contradict one another. Images thereby lose their conciseness and become meaningless gap fillers. Later research and practice based studies (experimental reviews) led to the understanding that the interplay of text and image is in fact substantially more complex and that coining the term “image-to-text gap” doesn’t suffice to explain all communication mishaps. Text and image, according to more up-to-date research, connect to one another on a number of different levels and touch upon varying disciplines, such as linguistics, perception psychology and logic. The viewer also reacts differently to non-existent image-text relations than he does to contradicting image-text relations.

The content of the commentary is especially important at the beginning of the film. The viewer should know from the get-go who is speaking and from what perspective. How much the viewer chooses to be drawn in is greatly affected by how the narrative voice is introduced at the beginning of the film or video. The viewer subconsciously tries to decipher the narrative pattern in the first few film minutes. From the very first sequence the viewer searches for answers on how and in which genre to categorise the film.

Whether the narration begins by highlighting contrasts, by presenting a series of questions to be answered or perhaps by taking on a humorous stance, it always is partly responsible for how the story evolves and how the viewer will receive it.

The Narrative Voice

It’s not only the people or actors who appear on screen that have a defined role. The off-commentary – although invisible – is an actor too. The choice of words and the style of the off-commentary should either be oriented towards the colloquial language of the target audience or else do the narration’s standpoint justice.

This element that determines a film or video’s narrative perspective is called the narrative voice. In narration in film, the narrative voice can also be a person who appears in the video (a presenter for example).

Common examples of how to script a narrative voice are with:

  • a storyteller’s stance (“Once upon a time…”),
  • a critical stance, or
  • an ironical stance.

The storyteller’s stance guides the viewer from the very beginning and is thereby decisive to how the rest of narrative unfolds. Here, how the character of the scripted voice ties into the story has to be clearly planned from the beginning too.A critical stance always works especially well in the eyes of the viewer, if it isn’t presented as a given from the start, but instead evolves as it is reasoned and substantiated throughout the film.

A critical stance can be argued by means of interview questions in the film or argumentatively rationalised with cutaways. The critical stance plays an important role in news reports or investigative videos. In this genre, the images are assigned the task of – along with the original audio – corroborating the statements set out in the off-commentary.

The ironic stance – although tricky and dangerous at times – can prove to be enormously attractive. Irony can be misleading, because it oftentimes is only understood and recognised by the person making the ironic statement. Many TV executives are of the opinion that irony “doesn’t work” in TV. When it does however work (meaning, if the irony is perceived as such), films and videos with an ironic scripted voice can be hugely successful, especially when it comes to ratings or YouTube reproductions. They have a long online lifespan and are viewed repeatedly. Here the off-commentary really proves its importance and the potential it has.


Literary references:

  • Karl Heinz Drescher: Erinnern und Verstehen von Massenmedien: Empirische Untersuchungen zur Text-Bild-Schere. Vienna, 1997. (only available in German)
  • Karl Nikolaus Renner: Die Text-Bild-Schere. Studies in Communication Sciences, 2001, S. 23-44. (in English)
  • Bernward Wember: Wie informiert das Fernsehen?Munich, 1976. (only available in German)
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Articles by the Videothink team are collaboratively-written by more than one member of the videothink publishing team.

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