Voice and Style

Before you actually begin writing the narration, you must consider what voice and style are most appropriate for the film. You probably thought about all these things very early on; if that's not the case, you must think them through before committing yourself to the word processor. Is your style to be somber and serious, or are you aiming at a lighter and more folksy effect? If you are doing a historical film, you will probably adopt the former. If you are doing a film on tourism or animals, you might prefer the latter. I say "probably" because there are no ironclad rules.

Again, you might want to try for a slightly humorous and offbeat style, the approach taken by James Burke in Connections, a series about technological change throughout history. In program three, Distant Voices, Burke discusses the nature and purpose of the medieval tournaments, with their fights and jousting.


Slow-motion montage of knights on horseback.

Cheering tournament. Montage of horses, riders, spectators at castle.


Burke: The answer to shock was a stronger horse that could take all the punishment. And rearing big horses — as anybody who knows will tell you—ain't cheap.

But the coming of the knight changed the basic structure of society.

The tournament was a kind of cross between the circus coming to town and a wild free-for-all, where half the time things ended in absolute shambles with whole towns getting burned down.

Things got so out of hand that even the Pope tried to ban the fun and games. These were definitely not the days of courtly manners and fair play. But behind all the chicanery and dirty tricks, there were two very good reasons for these affairs, and they both had to do with fighting on horseback.

You see, the idea of cavalry was a new thing, and you needed all the training you could get to use the lance right. The other reason had to do with the prizes you won. You knocked a guy off his horse at the tournament, and you took everything—his armor, his horse, his saddle, the lot.

Burke's style is really quite amazing. It's loose, conversational, free, and funny. He uses colloquialisms and slang and is occasionally quite un-grammatical. And it works superbly. It looks easy but is quite difficult to imitate. In essence, it's a style evolved by Burke to suit his own personality. Burke presents the film and gives the image of a loose, easygoing sort of fellow—so the language fits the man.

This is an important point, for very often you are writing not in the abstract but for a particular narrator. Thus, if Dan Rather or Ted Koppel were presenting the above film, your language might be more serious; if Cronkite or Jack Lemmon were presenting, it might be a bit more folksy. If, however, you were writing for actors such as Kenneth Branagh or Meryl Streep, then your narration could go almost any way imaginable.

Another fascinating example of experiment in narration style and voice can he seen in The Blasphemers' Banquet, written by Tony Harrison and directed by Peter Symes. Harrison is one of England's most interesting poets. In the film, which I described earlier, he uses verse to excoriate not just Khomeini and Islamic fundamentalism but all religious extremism that limits the spirit.

I've taken the following passage from the end of the film. What makes it work is not just the verse but the whole powerful combination of picture, sound, and narration, excellently orchestrated by Symes.


Short cuts showing violent speeches of American nun, rabbi, northern Ireland Protestant priest, and yelling Baptist minister. C. Ups of shrieking followers of Khomeini, waving effigies of Rushdie. C. Ups of Moslem ravers, grown-ups, and children waving razors over self-inflicted bloodied heads and other scourged wounds.

We move into a slow-motion mode, then freeze frame on the head of a Moslem child, bloodied by religious frenzy. Dissolve into blue lapping water, on which floats a Moslem pamphlet.

Cut to wine being poured in Omar Khayam restaurant.

C.U. of Tony Harrison, a laid table, and chairs awaiting Voltaire, Molière, Byron, Khayyam, and Rushdie. Camera revolves around Harrison.

Other shots in the restaurant.


Crowds yelling hate, and cursing Rushdie.

The shouting diminishes to an ominous silence.

Then we hear a soprano sing "I love this fleeting life."

Harrison: There's me, and one, two, three, four, five. Four of whom can't come, they're not alive. One couldn't come because the fatwa fuehrer has forced him into hiding to survive.

Right from the beginning I knew you'd never make our Bradford rendezvous.

Empty chairs around Harrison.

Harrison close-up.

The Ayatollah forced you to decline my invitation to share food and wine with poets blasted and blasphemers including Omar, now a restaurant sign. . . .

The dead go down. Those under threat are not at liberty to come here yet. When you're free you're welcome.

Meanwhile I toast you on your TV set.

The advantage of a good presenter, such as Harrison or Burke, is that the presenter can personalize the experience. He or she is always talking directly to the viewing audience, enhancing contact and involvement. If the documentary does not have a presenter, as most do not, you have to decide what perspective you want to use—first, second, or third person. The essay or the film on history or science all tend to use the formality and objectivity of the third person. The effect is rather distant and cool and runs the danger of being slightly authoritarian. Nevertheless, used well, the third person can be highly effective. As suggested above, the use of first and second person helps involve the viewer. It can create a sense of dialogue and conversation, of commonality with the audience.

Here is an example of a film written in the third person, then in the second:

Third person

One turns the bend and sinister mountains immediately confront the viewer. On the right a dirt track is seen to ascend to a black hilltop from which can be heard strange noises. Thus the stranger is welcomed to Dracula's lair.

Second person

You turn the bend and immediately confront dark, sinister mountains. On your right a dirt track climbs to a black hilltop from where you hear strange noises. Welcome, my friend, to Dracula's lair.

To my mind, the latter version, using the second person, is far stronger and more effective for this film; you want the viewer to feel, taste, and smell the atmosphere of Dracula's retreat. But there is another difference between the two versions. The first is essentially written in the passive voice, the second in the active. Generally, the active voice makes for more energetic and vital writing.

Your final option is to write in the first person, like Tony Harrison. This style can be highly attractive for a number of reasons. It can be a gentler format that allows for a tremendous number of nuances. It's far less linear than the third person and allows you to be more experimental. And, of course, the more personal form makes for a more human and closer identification with the viewer. In short, the first person form breaks down the distance between the filmmaker and the viewer, which is one of the key objectives of good narration.

One of the best examples of first-person narration occurs in City of Gold (mentioned earlier), a film about the Klondike gold-rush town of Dawson City. According to Canadian critic D. B. Jones, "This was a film which needed an outstanding commentary, one that would work together with the pictures and the music to evoke the nostalgic mood that the filmmakers were after." The filmmakers' solution was to have Canadian author Pierre Berton, who had himself grown up in the Yukon, write the commentary.

Berton uses his own childhood memories of Dawson City, then contrasts them with his father's stories about Dawson City at the height of the gold rush; thus, the personal element of the film works on two levels. At first the narration is full of comments such as, "Every summer we used to play locomotive engineer, almost on the very spot where George Car-mack picked up the nugget that started it all." The writing is poetic and warm, revealing a gentle, happy childhood. Gradually, the father's memories take over.

Even when my father's memory began to fail, this spectacle remained. The Chilkoot Pass. You had to pack a ton of goods up this terrible forty-five-degree slope of sheer ice—a year's outfit. Without that, the Mounties wouldn't let you enter the Yukon. You couldn't stop to rest or it might be hours before they'd let you back into that endless human chain.

One of the reasons that City of Gold works so well is that it taps effortlessly into mood and feelings and memory. It is this ability to deal with feelings that I find so attractive about the first-person narrative.

A few years ago, I was asked to write the narration for a film on the Yom Kippur War between Egypt and Israel. The film, Letter from the Front, was a string of hastily edited battle sequences, and I was brought in to write the commentary after the film had already been edited and mixed. The film had no story line to speak of, and my task was to write to pictures and sequences that couldn't be changed and went all over the place. My answer was to use first-person narration from the point of view of one of the soldiers. That way, the narration could dart all over the place and still reflect the inner tensions and feelings of someone in the midst of war. The following sample suggests my approach to the problem:


Soldiers lying alongside cars, in tents, absolutely tired.

Soldiers playing football barefoot. Mountains behind them.

Soldiers talk, write letters, sleep on the grass, etc.


You keep running, and when you stop there is this overwhelming tiredness, not just of your body but of your whole being. Where are your friends? Where are those you love? And you feel a terrible heaviness covering everything.

Okay, so now we have a cease-fire. Big deal! Mind you, I'm not knocking it. It's good, but I don't quite believe in it, and the silence is strange.

Now I find time completely standing still for me. There's no yesterday and no tomorrow . . . no normalcy, no reference points. There's only the immediacy of this moment.

We are all still mobilized and plans, future, home life — all these things are vague and unreal.

A lot of my mood has to do with the fact that we tend to share all our emotions here, both the joy and the pain . . . and of the latter there is quite a lot.

Often one has to lift the first-person narration from interviews. In 1992, Ellen Bruno journeyed to Tibet to interview Tibetan nuns. This is how her interviews were used in her subsequent film Satya: A Prayer for the Enemy.

Notes on screen:

China invaded Tibet in 1949. In an effort to impose communism on a deeply Buddhist society, over six thousand temples were destroyed. Nuns and monks were forced from religious life and the Dalai Lama exiled. For years, Tibetans practiced their religion in secrecy, despite the threat of imprisonment.

Since 1987, a limited number of nuns and monks have been allowed ordination. Tibetan nuns have emerged from relative seclusion to lead public demonstrations against the Chinese occupation. They are demanding human rights, religious freedom, and independence.

Very soft voice of a woman narrator:

When I was a child, there was so much darkness in Tibet that when someone died, we couldn't say a word of prayer or light a butter lamp to show the soul which path to take.

My father told me that after the Chinese invasion, everything turned to the opposite way. Monks and nuns were forced to marry, but many kept their vows secretly. Buddhism is deep within us.

The Chinese say they have come to save us from the Ocean of Sorrow, that in communism there is equality, and we must learn the difference between happiness and sorrow. . . .

We are frightened into silence. People disappear into the night. It is dangerous to tell anyone the truth of our suffering.

They want our land, but they don't want the Tibetan people. The women in our village are called to be sterilized one by one. Those who refuse must pay a fine. They have no money, so they have no choice.

As in Letter from the Front and City of Gold, one never sees the narrator who is telling us both a personal and a general story. Satya differs from the other films in that we are given direct interviews from time to time, which break up the narration. As always, the narration doesn't exist alone but has to be considered together with picture and sound. In Satya, the overall effect is simply stunning. As the narration begins, we see black-and-white video pictures of oil lamps, monks and nuns at prayer, empty streets, and close-ups of faces. All the Hi-8 images have been slowed down and occasionally bleed into each other. Alongside the narration, we hear prayers and music. The overall effect is of a hypnotic, graceful, ethereal, dark vision, which in spite of its beauty, fully conveys the tragedy of the Tibetan people.

The Shot List

In order to write good and accurate narration, you have to prepare a shot list. This means going through the film with a footage counter or seconds counter and listing the length and description of all the key shots and sequences. This is something that you (the writer) should do, rather than the editor, as each of you will view the film differently.

If your film is about a university, then your first few shots might consist of groups getting off buses, students talking to each other, a cluster of buildings, more students, the occasional professor, and then a drastic cut to a lesson in progress. Your subsequent shot list might look like this:

Seconds 10 4

Buses arriving at campus Students getting off buses Groups of students talking A Japanese student close-up A Burmese student close-up Old buildings New campus buildings


Group of students with guitars

University professors entering campus

A professor looking like a hippie

A science classroom

The timings and groupings of the first few shots are obvious and probably would have been the same even if your editor had prepared the shot list. But why single out the Japanese student and the Burmese student? You do so because you suspect that at this point in the narration, you may want to say something about foreign students, and these pictures are the obvious trigger.

You have also noted the hippie-looking professor for more or less the same reasons. You sense that while you may want to use the first few shots of professors to say something general about the faculty, the shot of the hippie professor may allow you to go in a different direction. Over the general shots, you could say, "There are four hundred members of the faculty." Then, as the hippie shot comes up, you continue, "The trouble is that these days, you can't tell the faculty from the students." In other words, your shot list should not just help you make general statements but also give you the key pictures for making or suggesting specific points.

You proceed through the entire film in this fashion until you have a shot list of four or five pages. Then you can forget the hot and airless editing rooms and simply take your pages back to the comfort of your home to write. You don't need the editing table or the screen any more. The two essential things you need, pictures and timing, are contained in the shot list.

At this stage, you know what you want to write and how to write it; you have only one problem—timing. That's where the timing section of the shot list becomes invaluable. It tells you that although you want to say something about the types of students who attend the university these days, you must be able to express everything in less than twenty seconds, as you only have twenty seconds of student shot. In fact, you probably have to express your thoughts in twelve seconds, as you want the film to be able to "breathe."

Some people count syllables or words, allowing themselves, say, eight words to three seconds. My own method is to take out a stopwatch and write two or three versions, until I have my thoughts worked into the allowable time. This seems hard, but it becomes quite easy after practice.

One problem is that people read at different speeds. So while the narration may fit when you read it, your actual narrator may read much more slowly and ruin your timing. The answer is to underwrite rather than overwrite; also, keep in the back of your mind that you may have to cut certain words and phrases when you finally lay in the narration.

Film Making

Film Making

If you have ever wanted the secrets to making your own film, here it is: Indy Film Insider Tips And Basics To Film Making. Have you ever wanted to make your own film? Is there a story you want to tell? You might even think that this is impossible. Studios make films, not the little guy. This is probably what you tell yourself. Do you watch films with more than a casual eye? You probably want to know how they were able to get perfect lighting in your favorite scene, or how to write a professional screenplay.

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