In script notation, a voice over is a narrative technique in which the lines of an unseen actor are heard over visual elements in a film or commercial. A voice over artist would be the narrator of a documentary or the announcer who introduces a talk show host. By removing the need for a human spokesman, more time can be spent demonstrating the product or visually setting up a movie’s storyline. An adult actress provides a voice over during the film To Kill a Mockingbird’s introduction sequence, for example, to help set the film in her childhood.
A skilled voice over artist can have a long and prosperous career, but there is a lot of competition for assignments. Commercial VO work is in high demand for many screen and television actors with distinctive voices. Some, such as British actor Patrick Stewart, exude an authoritarian demeanor. When Patrick Stewart narrates a commercial for a product, the target audience should get a sense of distinction and quality craftsmanship. For products like Smucker’s Jelly, a different artist, such as the late Mason Adams, would provide a warmer, folksier tone.
A typical commercial script with a voice over is divided into several sections. Each element is timed to the second, leading up to a broadcast commercial’s 29.5 seconds or 59.5 seconds. On a computerized sequencer, the extra.5 second contains electronic information needed to trigger the next event.
According to the script, “It took 5.0 seconds. A line of black SUVs can be seen kicking up dust as they drive across a desert. VO: If you think luxury SUVs are extinct, think again.” This section of the script indicates to the VO artist that the line must be read in less than five seconds. It also implies that the visual image is dynamic and potentially intimidating. As a result, through a more forceful line reading, his or her narration should reflect this power.
It is not always expected of a working voice over artist to create his or her own interpretation of the script. In order to match the needs of the client or audience, the director of the film or commercial will often suggest various ways to read the lines. VO artists must be patient, as they may spend hours in a recording studio rereading individual lines until the director is satisfied. If a line is too difficult to read or runs over the allotted time, it may be changed, but more often than not, an artist must create a unique sound from whatever the client wants to emphasize in the commercial.
Open auditions, talent agency representation, or an introductory voice reel containing the candidate’s best work to date are the most common ways to find VO work. Some schools offer voice over artist training, with classes aimed at strengthening the natural voice and improving interpretive skills. Artists may be hired local cable companies for local television commercials. Many DJs are also required to provide voiceovers for commercials and audio spots.