Writing The Final Narration

As the film has been progressing through its various stages, you have probably been drafting a narration line, and perhaps even the tentative narration itself. Certain films, such as a historical documentary, required that you think about the narration very early on. Other films, heavily dependent on interviews and verite techniques, may have allowed you to proceed much further without thinking about the commentary. However, the moment comes when you have to write the definitive narration. That moment is usually just before or just after finishing the fine cut. It's a challenging task, but one that in the end is tremendously satisfying.

In the 1940s and the 1950s, almost every documentary was accompanied by commentary. In recent years, though, a school of filmmakers has emerged absolutely opposed to the use of narration. This opposition stems from various beliefs, from a dogmatic assertion that it is a fascist practice (de Antonio's belief) to a feeling that pure verite has eliminated the need for commentary. In practice, there are some serious drawbacks to commentary that cannot be ignored. Very often it tends to be authoritarian, giving the impression of the voice of God speaking through the mouth of Charlton Heston or Kenneth Branagh or Richard Burton. The tone can be patronizing, and if it is done badly, narration can seem like a horrendous lecture forced upon the audience. Finally, instead of stimulating thought and participation, narration can produce a deadly passivity that distances the viewers from the film.

However, I think there is a much more positive side to narration. For example, though pure action films and the verite efforts of Leacock and the Maysleses can work well with no commentary, the complex essay film almost always demands commentary if it is to have any level of seriousness. Narration can quickly and easily set up the factual background of a film, providing simple or complex information that does not arise easily or naturally from the casual conversation of the film participants. It can complement the mood of the film, and above all, it can provide focus and emphasis. It does not have to judge what is seen, but it should help the viewer understand more fully the significance of what is on the screen.

Taking a rigid stance that no films should have narration or that all films should have narration seems to me rather restrictive. Certain films work well without narration. Others are tremendously enhanced by narration. The job of this chapter is to ensure that when you are required to write narration, you can do it well.

The broad function of narration is to amplify and clarify the picture. It should help establish the direction of the film and provide any necessary information not obvious from the visuals. In a simple but effective way, it should help focus what the film is about and where it is going. Narration can also help establish the mood of the film, and it is particularly useful in bridging filmic transitions and turning the film in a new direction.

The first thing one learns in journalism is to let the reader know the five W's: who, what, when, where, and why. This is often the function of narration when the visuals by themselves make no sense. Let's imagine the following scene: A sun-swept hillside is covered with thousands of people of all ages. Their appearance is somewhere between that of gypsies and hippies.

Some are cooking over campfires; others playing musical instruments in the shade of hastily erected tents. In the center of the multitude is a grave surrounded by a brick wall. Fires are burning in the vicinity of the grave. All around the grave, old and young men are doing Greek-style dancing, their arms linked at the shoulder, while women press notes into the cracks in the grave wall.

By itself, the above scene is fascinating but incomprehensible to the viewer. It needs some narration based on the "who, why, where" approach to make it meaningful.

Once more it's May. And as they have been doing for the last six hundred years, the followers of Abu Jedida, miracle man and wonder worker, have come to this lonely spot in the Atlas Mountains to commemorate his death. Here, for twenty-four hours, picnic, passion, and prayer will intermingle till once more the crowds will disperse, leaving Abu Jedida to his lonely thoughts.

The narration lays out the essentials of the scene but doesn't describe everything. We still don't know why the men are dancing or why people are putting notes in the wall. However, it doesn't take much intelligence to assume that the first is a sign of fervor and that the notes are pleas to Abu Jedida to grant favors such as a successful birth or marriage. These facts might or might not be explained as the film proceeds. The narration is simple, but there's the odd bit of flamboyant alliteration in "picnic, passion, and prayer." However, as the scene itself is fairly wild and colorful, for once the extravagant commentary can be excused.

The basis of writing most narration is finding interesting facts and presenting them in the most gripping or imaginative way to the viewer. Facts are the raw material of commentary. The writer's job is to use them judiciously to make the narration come alive and sparkle. This is obvious. However, what is less clear is how far the writer should add value judgment to the facts. Some writers take a purist position on this matter, arguing that while it is permissible to draw attention to certain situations and present evidence about them, the final judgment must come from the viewer.

That's fine as a basic rule, yet there are times when the writer feels so passionately about a subject that his or her own commitment and point of view must be expressed directly in the narration. That kind of editorializing, which can be seen in the films of Ed Murrow or Bill Moyers or in "60 Minutes" is problematic, yet it is probably appropriate to films calling for action and social change. But such writing usually has a tremendous impact and should not be used indiscriminately.

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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