Voice Acting

Narration in Film and Documentaries a Must

Tara Parachuk | February 24, 2021

After sitting down to watch a 31-minute documentary without any narration whatsoever I came to the conclusion that films without narration are incredibly difficult to digest.

Something was obviously missing and I tell you, it was painful!
Is narration necessary in film? Let’s find out.

In this article

  1. What would happen if you were to strip them of their narration? It would be catastrophic, wouldn’t it?
  2. Why do you need a narrator for your documentary film?
  3. A trained narrator provides benefits to the viewer:
  4. Weaving Words in a Wonderful World
  5. Masterpiece Theatre

Remember those hour-long documentaries made by National Geographic with the animals going about their business?

How about the numerous historical programs on A&E and TLC?

What would happen if you were to strip them of their narration? It would be catastrophic, wouldn’t it?

This evening, there was nothing on TV and we were out of LOST DVD episodes so I clicked around to find a documentary from our cable provider to watch. Thirty-one minutes of natural splendor featuring Algonquin Provincial Park was calming and tranquil, yet as I said before, something was missing. It didn’t take long for me to realize that the documentary I was watching didn’t have a narrator and that fact made me uncomfortable.

Why do you need a narrator for your documentary film?

I realized just how integral speech and narration is to someone who is watching a film or documentary.

A trained narrator provides benefits to the viewer:

  1. balance
  2. structure
  3. an anchor
  4. a touchstone
  5. verbal perspective
  6. interpretation
  7. intelligence
  8. window into the writer’s mind

Another surprising aspect of this experiment proved that although beautiful, splendorous and serene, the film was not able to keep my undivided attention, partially because I was so distracted by the fact that there was not a narrator. 

I desired the companionship of a narrator and wanted someone to comment on what I was seeing to affirm my interpretation of the film… but most of all, I needed someone to speak to break the solitude — to share the moment.

Watching the film in complete silence (with the exception of some nature sounds and music) seemed too private and intimate, almost like I was intruding on the filmmaker and his crew.

Weaving Words in a Wonderful World

This past week our family has been watching a lot of material narrated by Sir David Frederick Attenborough, namely a six-disc collector’s set from BBC called “Life.” David Attenborough’s is a voice that you can hear narrating thoughts about the world around you even when he’s not speaking. Now that’s mental real estate!

Attenborough (b. 1926), British broadcaster and naturalist, has been writing and presenting natural history programming on BBC for over 50 years. To say that he has the market cornered in this area is an understatement.

Derek Chappell blogged about Sir David Attenborough and his ability to paint words in a recent blog post which in turn got my wheels turning to share some thoughts with you. Other great narrators where nature is concerned are James Earl Jones (b. 1931) and Morgan Freeman (b. 1937). The work Jones did on Disney’s Earth (2009) was absolutely majestic. Other celebrity narrators in this niche include, but are not limited to, Sigourney Weaver who narrated the Discovery Channel’s “Planet Earth” series and Pierce Brosnan who narrated Discovery Channel’s series, “Blue Planet.”

Masterpiece Theatre

Scenes depicting life in the wild remind us of what a wonderful and dangerous world we live in. Brave souls behind the camera sacrifice life and limb to bring us moving images that tell stories of incomparable beauty and awe without compromising the integrity of what they are filming.

Waiting for the perfect shot for days on end, stretching milliseconds into tangible moments and spectacular time lapse sequences give us more than just a glimpse into the miracle we call life. This art form takes patience, skill and passion. A storyteller’s respect for nature and their love projected through the lens of the camera affords viewers a greater appreciation and understanding of the world around us.

One of my favourite quotes comes from Dr. Vance Havner, who observed, “God made the country and man made the town – and you certainly can see the difference.”

The imagery itself presented in documentaries about the natural world speaks volumes. Well-crafted narrative and spoken word storytelling serves as icing on the cake, but what a lovely icing it is!

Having a narrator on board is kind of like a nod in your direction giving you permission to partake in what is going on. They invite you in and encourage you to journey with them as the story unfolds on the screen.

People like narrators because a narrator provides security. They can spur on new thoughts, segue eloquently when required and persuasively convey emotion using the most powerful and innately wonderful tool in humanity’s communicative arsenal — the human voice.

How important is narration to you?

Leave a comment sharing your thoughts.

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  • Avatar for Scott Fortney
    Scott Fortney
    February 19, 2008, 8:36 am

    Watching a documentary without narration is like touring a museum without a tour guide. Or like exploring an historic battlefield without a park guide. You walk around thinking, “This is really interesting. Very cool,” but you have no idea what you’re looking at, what its origins are, its history, etc. So you get some exercise and scenery, but there’s a key ingredient missing in your experience.
    An historic example is an experiment that proved people need narration: 1980 NFL game between the Jets and Dolphins – the network ran the game with no announcers. There is a reason that one of the announcers is called the “color man.” Without voices, the show is “colorless.”

  • Avatar for Elisa Weller
    Elisa Weller
    February 20, 2008, 10:42 am

    This is a beautifully written blog, Stephanie. Very well thought out and beautifully conveyed. I love all the Vox Dailies, but I particularly enjoyed reading this one. Thank you 🙂

  • Avatar for Stephanie Davis
    Stephanie Davis
    February 20, 2008, 11:18 am

    Narration (i.e. sound,music), provides the emotional impact to the piece. That’s what was missing.

  • Avatar for Dan Gorham
    Dan Gorham
    February 22, 2008, 8:54 am

    Narration for what you watched was necessary. I recently saw a show on the History Channel on Al Capone’s St Valentine’s Day Massacre. The narrator had a heavy Italian accent which I thought was perfect for that show. How does the History Channel hire their voices as they are a place I would like to use my voice talents someday.
    Dan Gorham

  • Avatar for Stephanie Ciccarelli
    Stephanie Ciccarelli
    February 22, 2008, 9:00 am

    Hi Scott, Elisa, Stephanie and Dan,
    Thank you for your comments! I appreciate hearing your thoughts.
    Dan, there has been narration work for various channels hired through Voices.com so I know that the producers do come here to post their jobs or contact talent directly. I suggest optimizing your Voices.com website to let people know that you are a narrator and the kind of reads you specialize in. If you have an agent, they also might be able to help.

  • Avatar for Glenn Carella
    Glenn Carella
    June 23, 2010, 12:31 pm

    From your blog-
    “Calming and tranquil”…”Thirty-one minutes of natural splendor…” , yet it was somehow diminished by an implied need for human noise in the background.
    Based on your description this was presented as an aesthetic piece, not a “documentary” (as your blog writing conflated it with). Perhaps the originators of the piece expected it to be taken as-is.
    If a presentation of something as beautiful as this cannot be grasped without someone giving a “play by play” narration I would suspect the problem is on the part of the viewer, not the presenter.
    [On screen, Picture of tree 1:30- 1:33]
    Narrator: Look at the beautiful tree. This is a tree, you know… what a nice tree…
    Every aspect of life does not require elaboration by a paid talking head. It’s a shame the originator of the visual piece was not given an opportunity to state their side of this issue. The piece, based on your description, was meant to reach something within us that goes beyond words. I’m saddened by the realization that the concept is so hard to grasp.
    Yes, there was no revenue garnered by a voice actor with this piece. I did not notice the world collapsing on itself as a consequence.

  • Avatar for mark grove
    mark grove
    May 7, 2015, 2:59 pm

    You’re right Stephanie that a documentary without narration is like a boat without a rudder or sails to guide it and give it the feel needed. Like a great guitarist without a bass player.
    I watch documentaries on organized crime,and they use the same people for them. It makes you feel secure, and they segue into important parts in a way that emphasizes it in away that
    makes you want to learn and understand the material in away you can use in your life.
    I’m going to put the link up on my site Stephanie. VO artists will learn from it and and see another way to provide value doing VO work.

  • Avatar for alex
    June 26, 2017, 4:16 pm

    Nonsense – with all due respect –

    Grey Gardens
    the moon and the Sledgehammer
    Fire at Sea.

    if you get it right I think they can be far more powerful without any narrator.

  • Avatar for Hank Stone
    Hank Stone
    September 7, 2023, 7:00 am

    I especially miss the narration in PBS’ Frontline. Agree it is difficult to get through these episodes.
    I tend to listen to them drifting off to sleep, and the narration format is so much better for that.

    A deep Google research of my own reveals absolutely no explanation of why they changed the format……other than to say “some episodes will have no narration at all…..”
    Stephanie, do you have any insight as to why the producers changed it?