A behind the scenes look at recording TV documentary narration
Nat Geo mag anyone?
We all think that we know how narration for TV documentaries sounds don't we? Either a bit David Attenborough or perhaps more Robert Powell? Either way, it's serious and might appear to have a set of conventions attached.
I spent a day in the studio with National Geographic recently as I recorded narration for two very different documentary TV programmes and wanted to share some thoughts on the skills and techniques involved.
I usually work from my own studio at home but from time to time you just need to be there and recording TV documentaries is one such occasion. We all know of course about arriving ready to work - time is tight and the thing needs doing so quiet vocal warm ups on the tube and the walk to the studios were the order of the day! I possibly looked a little in a world of my own on my journey but needs must!!
On this occasion, I knew the titles and basic premise of the two programmes but no more and hadn't had access to the scripts before I arrived. Probably just as well as one of the films had changed anyway.
The first script to be recorded was "Wild Borneo", a beautiful, one off film highlighting the landscape and wildlife of a fascinating place I have always been interested in. As a voiceover for narration you have the script, headphones to hear both yourself, the producer and engineer and the soundtrack of the film. Hearing the soundtrack you are becoming part of, is vital as it provides so much atmosphere.. and as voiceover artists are generally creatures of vivid imaginations, I actually kind of felt that I was there, amongst the tropical vegetation and squawking birds! On hearing the soundtrack I was able to decide straight away on the vocal style that was appropriate for the film and the story that I was telling.
I also had a monitor in front of me which showed the film itself. You aren't going to be able to watch the whole thing and you're not expected to either, but what it's vital for is pacing your read, maybe it's best to wait for the animal to ease itself into the lovely muddy pool before completing the sentence! The producer of course assists with the cues and any tricky pronunciations as they come up.
Generally in this situation you don't rehearse, you go with the feel of the programme and largely read it cold unless any script changes are made along the way. This is where all that cold reading practice comes in handy. Any eye on the script, an eye on the programme on the monitor and ears on yourself and the producer / engineer.
The single most important thing though is of course to tell the story.. documentaries are a great deal bigger than the voice that narrates them. My job is to lift the story off the page and to convey the wonder, beauty and mystery in a way that explains, enlightens and transports the viewer. It really is TV magic.
"Wild Borneo" was played pretty straight as this is what the film required.. in contrast however, my second assignment was "Super Squirrel!" and that needed a little more lightness of touch.
Wild Borneo was largely me, telling the story. Super Squirrel also introduced characters, people taking part in showcasing the skilful squirrels and staged events. My narration, as well as telling the story, needed to wrap around them - complementing them, weaving the whole thing seamlessly together. It feels a little like my work in radio when you assemble a "package" in many ways.
In contrast to Wild Borneo, the soundtrack and script inspired me to use a different vocal style here. There was humour, suspense and a slight kookiness to the film. I brought this out using a vocal style that used more of my personality and slightly more conversational parts of my vocal range. Light, bright, humorous, driving the suspense and just a sprinkling of irony at points.
Whatever the content and style - and these two examples where high in contrast - the main thing is the story and communicating with the audience. Using all the tools provided, and some of my own, I went on journeys with the viewers - to Borneo and it's beauty and also to some interesting squirrel based scenarios - all in a day's work - Hope Dave Atters would be proud ;)
You can see "Super Squirrel!" on National Geographic WILD on 14th January at 8pm and "Wild Borneo" on National Geographic WILD on 1st February at 6pm. Hear Clare's narration showreel.