Off-Voice and Off-Commentary: What you need to know

How to avoid an off-putting voice-off

Off-Voice and Off-Commentary: What you need to know
Off-Voice and Off-Commentary: What you need to know

Off-Voice and off-commentaries don’t always necessarily improve the quality of a video. They can however often make it worse. A viewer is generally very forgiving. But not when it comes to a narrative voice in off. Here he won’t think twice about exercising his right to make good use of his time…- he chooses to click away. This can be avoided.

This article provides a practical checklist and guide for the correct and professional – and consequently effective – use of voice-off and off-commentary. It is directed at both advert, image films and webvideo creators and at those who commission audiovisual productions for marketing and communication.

Off-commentary is the voice off screen; the narrator or as the name simply suggests; the commentator. As is often the case with film industry terminology, the difference between off-commentary and voice-in-off isn’t clearly defined. In general both terms describe the same thing.

Voice-Over (also spelt „voiceover”) however is specifically used when it comes to synchronisation. Voice-over means an unsynchronised voice off-screen that “talks over” an already existing voice.  Unlike film dubbing, this type of translation doesn’t transform the words identically into another language by literally putting words into someone’s mouth. Instead a short, spoken summery is superimposed onto the original spoken content. This technique is generally used in TV reports or on the radio when an interviewee is speaking in a foreign language. For videos an alternative to voice-over are subtitles.

This article only deals with off-commentary and the off-voice. Both are to be used and understood as synonyms for a “commenting voice in off”.

Checklist for professional off-commentary

Off-commentary is easy to listen to, but surprisingly difficult to write. It’s like kissing: You only know how it’s done, once you’ve tried it.  For decades research into empirically determined TV ratings have confirmed one thing: Viewers have no mercy when it comes to zapping. So, how do we avoid off-commentary becoming the motive for channel hopping when viewing films?

Why writing comes before filming

Whenever a film or video contains a text in off, both image and sound play an important role. This union can only be successful, when – just like the content – it has been thought out and planned ahead from the very beginning. If the off-commentary is left to the editing stages, once filming is over, it can affect the quality of the entire video. The editor has painstakingly considered every edited second, streamlined sequences and images and cut away any superfluous takes. Then the director walks in (or the editor in the case of TV) and quickly realises: The film’s rhythm and the text segments are impossible to combine.

In newsrooms there’s a rule of thumb: A two-minute news story is made up in equal parts of original audio (original recordings in statements and interviews) and images that illustrate the audio. So you’d think, that leaves about a minute for the voice-in-off. Unfortunately this is not the case. The viewer needs pauses; time to see, feel and reflect. If you add in these respites before and after each text segment, the time for off-commentary is reduced to about 45 seconds. That’s all the time you have to communicate any additional and relevant information. It is by no means an easy task. Especially considering the language and syntax we use in emails or blogs, when spoken, far exceed the duration of a single take. The average take lasts around 3 to 5 seconds and the duration of a scene depends on its function within the film and its dramatic structure.

The use of off-screen language therefore has to be carefully planned in advance, before filming even begins. Where are images needed? Where does text suffice? Keeping this in mind the filming process can be more productive and editing more effective and it doesn’t all have to be fixed haphazardly at the end. Only this way will you succeed in improving the content’s clarity (also with regard to the image), minimise complexity and efficiently transmit your message.

Who’s talking: The narrative voice

When creating a video with off-commentary the author has to decide in which role he wants to address the viewer. Will the voice be subjective and from the point of view of the reporter? Neutral and descriptive? Or critical, taking on the point of view of a person in the video (voiced thoughts). Once the stance of the narrative voice is defined, the text has to be written in a way that flows naturally.Especially in corporate films directors at times combine different voices in the off-commentary. This technique can be an interesting option, so long as the shift from one voice to the next isn’t used as a gimmick to grab a viewer’s attention and provided the written voice and its intent are clearly defined. Mind you: If the text can be transmitted with one single voice – without it affecting the content or its effect – it should be. In this case, the use of more than one voice is out of place.

It is also possible for the scripted voice to be drastically cut back. The voice-off then only introduces, concludes, builds bridges and subtly seduces the viewer to continue watching the video.

Film and videos even work when you make a conscious decision to completely abstain from any narrative voice in off. This option can be challenging and requires a lot of work throughout the filming process. Without a voice-off all necessary explanations have to be captured on location and in the original audio. The director has to be able to make the people speak in front of the camera. Even though the original audio is generally edited (for example with images where the person is doing something which adds to or illustrates his words), the recordings have to be detailed and versatile. This ensures you have a varied selection to choose from in the editing room. Research and pre-production are especially important here. If certain subject matters are not addressed in front of the camera, it could lead to confusion and loss of viewers. However if it is done well, the film can gain in authenticity.

Subtext

Surprisingly – even 130 years after the film camera was invented – the off-commentary often describes what the viewer is perfectly capable of seeing for himself. »The antelope peacefully grassing on the shore, is as yet unaware of the terrible fate that awaits it!«  1 Simple image descriptions are not only useless, but a sure way to bore an audience or even scare them off.

Every statement made in a film or video should always be placed within a context and have its own particular subtext. Finding that, depends on the writer’s level of professionalism. Context and subtext can be tied to the image as a voice-off and have to speak for themselves beyond the image. Additional information in the form of off-commentary helps the viewer to classify the content and to see and understand it in its right context. Subtext can, may and should also be like an arrow strung into the bow of suspense to peak the viewers curiosity on what is still to come. This is also one of the benefits of the well-aimed use of subtext.(1 see text box above. This example is from a nature documentary of a German private TV channel. Note here, contrary to what this article recommends, the use of image description.)

Tips for Off-Voice

For the off-commentary, as is the case for sprinters or hurdlers, the first few meters are decisive. The off-voice is established from the very beginning of the film. The first few sentences already define the style and the tone of the video. In the opening sequence all indicators are unveiled helping the viewer “enter into” the film. It’s much like navigating a website’s homepage: if it doesn’t start up properly the viewer won’t stick around for long and its lifespan, not only on YouTube, will be short-lived. But it’s not just the beginning that matters. Whatever happens in the video afterwards, the scripted voice, language style and the spoken rhythm are established at the beginning and have to be adhered to throughout the entire film.

A good off-commentary can be compared to a professional climber who is making his way up a mountain, ascending bit by bit. One step at a time. A voice in off should do the same. Follow a line of thought, one thought at a time. This is no guarantee for success, but keep in mind if the voice-over fails to connect one step to the next, the line of suspense can snap. Attention spans plummet and the viewer is lost.

To Do

Losing viewers due to unprofessional off-commentaries can be avoided with:

  • videos in which the images primarily convey the meaning and not the text. (Audio books are great and work. No one would say the same about audio videos)
  • a line of thought which is comprehensible for the viewer.
  • clear and short texts that avoid long-winded sentences. A good recipe for writing a voice-over text is: “ One sentence. One thought. “
  • simple and concise sentences, which can be understood on first hearing and avoid pointless, empty phrases.
  • a text, which creates a narrative tension or at least sustains the narrative structure of the piece.
  • audio texts, which add value to the images and don’t smother them with nouns.

Taboos

Writing text for film and video is completely different from the style of writing we use in everyday life. Taboos when it comes to writing off-commentary for film and video are:»Superlatives are like half-hearted impulses that make a desperate bid for attention, but soon fade into the background.«  2

  • Mentioning too many numbers. The average spectator can remember only one (!) number a minute. And only if the number is important.
  • Texts, which come across as pretentious or highbrow. A strong voice over text only needs to contain three things: Verbs, verbs, verbs. Whenever possible replace a noun with a verb to strengthen the voice-in-off.
  • Complicated jargon and obscure foreign words stand out for all the wrong reasons in off-commentaries.
  • Superlatives lose their impact if they’re overused. Too many superlatives in an off-commentary doesn’t improve a video, it just makes it seem ridiculous.
  • Implementation, consolidation and renovation…- all words that end in “–ion” in this context are all indicators of poor use of language. Almost every –ion word can be replaced by a verb. So there’s no justificat-ion in using –ion words in an off-commentary.
  • Voice-over for film has been around since the early 1930s. In today’s digital age the technical quality of the moving image has reached extremely high standards. It would be nice, if the same could one day be said about the quality of content in off-commentary.

Summary

Nr.Checklist
1Was the off-commentary defined during the project’s development stages?
2Is the narrative voice clearly defined and used in a uniform manner throughout?
3Have context and subtext been researched and implemented?
4Is the spoken line of thought and its structure plausible and comprehensible?
5Is there a short text, which can be clearly spoken and includes plenty of verbs?
6Are there no more than ten words in each sentence? Is there no more than 1 number mentioned per minute?
7Comprehensibility in an audio text comes before correct grammar usage – are these guidelines being followed?
8Have foreign words, language clichés, empty sentences and superlatives been avoided?  2

Source: Faro TV, Summer 2016


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This clip is a fun example of how to use irony in the narrative voice in off-commentary and voice over. Enjoy!


Further readings:
Texten für TV, Martin Ordolff & Stefan Wachtel, 3. Auflage, 2009.
Kozloff, Sarah: Invisible Storytellers: Voice-Over Narration in American Fiction Film (1989).

© filmpuls, translated by Nina Kaelin

Über Markus Röthl 2 Artikel

Markus Röthl is head of TV at FaroTV and Member of the Management Board at Condor Films.

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