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  • Peter Baker

RECORDING DOCUMENTARY SCRIPTS



When you're watching a high end documentary programme on TV, and maybe it's a nature programme about some exotic place the other side of the planet, the narrator may give you the feeling, as a viewer, that they actually have physically been there, that they have been the active explorer, that they were with the camera operator when all those amazing shots were taken.


Unfortunately, usually the nearest the narrator has been to an exotic location, was passing the travel agent on the way to the studio! But narration work for documentaries can be extremely rewarding, especially if it is a high-end production, and you're not just recording at home but actually in a physical studio, where you are shown the shots and the director works with you to create a brilliant end product, that is really professional, even adapting the script as you go along. It’s great when you’re part of the production process for a big budget documentary, where your voice is mixed with all the sound effects and the music that quite often is written especially for the documentary, and the end product is something you can be very proud of.


I've been the narrator for various documentaries over the years on a variety of different subjects from the automotive world to the natural world, business, technology, music and the arts, and you learn an awful lot from the scripts and from being involved with the production team.


There are also of course lower budget documentaries, films that are for film festivals or for the Vimeo platform and so on, where you are not paid a huge amount, and you are asked to record the script at home, and you may not even see the final documentary, unless you ask them nicely. But it's a good line of work to get into, and it's not that demanding.


Here’s a note of caution, though. If the producer knows what they are doing, they will record the narrator and the audio first, and then edit the video afterwards. If they don't know what they're doing, they will record the pictures first with a guide voice over, usually mumbled quite fast by the director themselves, and then they will ask you to try and fit into where the director mumbled…but at a slower measured pace! So try and teach the client to record the voice over first, and then do the video editing afterwards, as it's far easier for all parties concerned!


For documentary scripts, the voice style and pace is generally similar to corporate, but the amount of emotion and pride and passion is dialled down considerably. Here, the facts are important. And you will find an awful lot of gaps are also usually required, where you are silent, and the pictures do the talking. Generally in a documentary script, you would always leave a couple of seconds gap between every sentence anyway, just to give flexibility for the client to edit your voice over to their pictures. If you let one end of a sentence flow into the next sentence, that can give them a problem in editing. So always remember to leave a decent gap between each sentence.


Another tip I can give you, is to listen to the first parts of the narration after you finished it all and check that your voice style and pace hasn't changed dramatically. Sometimes, particularly for a long script, like a documentary narration, it’s easy to slip into changing the style or speed – usually up - for no particular reason apart from maybe you just want to get to the end of the job. So you need to check as you go along that your voice style and your speed is consistent as you go through the recording.

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