Voice-over (also known as off-camera or off-stage commentary) is a production technique where a voice—that is not part of the narrative (non-diegetic)—is used in a radio, television production, filmmaking, theatre, or other presentations. The voice-over is read from a script and may be spoken by someone who appears elsewhere in the production or by a specialist voice talent. It is usually pre-recorded and placed over the top of a film or video and commonly used in documentaries or news reports to explain information. Voiceover is used in video games and on-hold messages, as well as for announcements and information at events and tourist destinations. It may also be read live for events such as award presentations.
In Herman Melville's Moby Dick (1956), Ishmael (Richard Basehart) narrates the story and sometimes comments on the action in voice-over, as does Joe Gillis (William Holden) in Sunset Boulevard (1950) and Eric Erickson (William Holden) in The Counterfeit Traitor (1962); adult Pip (John Mills) in Great Expectations (1946) and Michael York in a television remake (1974).
Voice-over technique is likewise used to give voices and personalities to animated characters. Noteworthy and versatile voice actors include Mel Blanc, Daws Butler, Don Messick, Paul Frees, and June Foray.
In film, the film-maker places the sound of a human voice (or voices) over images shown on the screen that may or may not be related to the words that are being spoken. Consequently, voice-overs are sometimes used to create ironic counterpoint. Also, sometimes they can be random voices not directly connected to the people seen on the screen. In works of fiction, the voice-over is often by a character reflecting on his or her past, or by a person external to the story who usually has a more complete knowledge of the events in the film than the other characters.
Voice-overs are often used to create the effect of storytelling by a character/omniscient narrator. For example, in The Usual Suspects, the character of Roger "Verbal" Kint has voice-over segments as he is recounting details of a crime. Classic voice-overs in cinema history can be heard in Citizen Kane and The Naked City. Other examples of storytelling voice-overs can be heard in Annie Hall, Gattaca, Fight Club, Megamind, Ratatouille, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, Tangled, The Emperor's New Groove, Blade Runner, The Rugrats Movie, The Shawshank Redemption, Big Fish, How to Train Your Dragon, Moulin Rouge!, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Young Winston, Raising Arizona, Goodfellas, and Clash of the Titans.
Sometimes, voice-over can be used to aid continuity in edited versions of films, in order for the audience to gain a better understanding of what has gone on between scenes. This was done when the 1948 Joan of Arc, starring Ingrid Bergman, turned out to be far from the box-office and critical hit that was expected, and was edited down from 145 minutes to 100 minutes for its second run in theatres. The edited version, which circulated for years, used narration to conceal the fact that large chunks of the film had been cut. In the full-length version, restored in 1998 and released on DVD in 2004, the voice-over narration is heard only at the beginning of the film.
Film noir is especially associated with the voice-over technique. The golden age of first-person narration was in the 1940s. The term Film noir was coined by the French film critics, Nino Frank the first among them in 1946. More often than not, the plot of a Film Noir evolved around a cynical, hard-hearted, disillusioned male character accompanied with a narrative voiceover. Film noir typically used male voice-over narration but there are a few rare female voice-overs.
In radio, voice-overs are an integral part of the creation of the radio programme. The voice-over artist might be used to remind listeners of the station name or as characters to enhance or develop show content. In the 1980s UK broadcasters Steve Wright and Kenny Everett used voice-over artists to create a virtual "posse" or studio crew that contributed to the programmes. It is believed that this principle was in play long before that time. USA radio broadcaster Howard Stern has also used voice-overs in this way.
The voice-over has many applications in non-fiction as well. Television news is often presented as a series of video clips of newsworthy events, with voice-over by the reporters describing the significance of the scenes being presented; these are interspersed with straight video of the news anchors describing stories for which video is not shown.
Television networks such as The History Channel and the Discovery Channel make extensive use of voice-overs. On NBC, the television show Starting Over used Sylvia Villagran as the voice-over narrator to tell a story.
Live sports broadcasts are usually shown as extensive voice-overs by sports commentators over video of the sporting event.
Game shows formerly made extensive use of voice-overs to introduce contestants and describe available or awarded prizes, but this technique has diminished as shows have moved toward predominantly cash prizes. The most prolific have included Don Pardo, Johnny Olson, John Harlan, Jay Stewart, Gene Wood and Johnny Gilbert.
Voice-over commentary by a leading critic, historian, or by the production personnel themselves is often a prominent feature of the release of feature films or documentaries on DVDs.
The commercial use of voice-over in television advertising has been popular since the beginning of radio broadcasting.
In the early years, before effective sound recording and mixing, announcements were produced "live" and at-once in a studio with the entire cast, crew and, usually, orchestra. A corporate sponsor hired a producer, who hired writers and voice actors to perform comedy or drama.
Manufacturers will often use a distinctive voice to help them with brand messaging, often retaining talent to a long-term exclusive contract.
The industry expanded very rapidly with the advent of television in the 1950s, and the age of highly produced serial radio shows ended. The ability to record high-quality sound on magnetic tape also created opportunities. Digital recording—thanks to the proliferation of PCs, smartphones (iOS and Android 5.0+), dedicated recording devices, free or inexpensive recording and editing software, and USB microphones of reasonable quality, increasing use of home studios—has revolutionized the industry.
In some countries, such as Russia and Poland, voice-over provided by an artist is commonly used on television programs as a language localization technique, as an alternative to full dub localization.
In Bulgaria, multi voice-over is also common, but each film (or episode) is normally voiced by three-six actors. The voice artists try to match the original voice and preserve the intonation. The main reason for the use of this type of translation is that unlike synchronized voice translation, it takes a relatively short time to produce as there is no need to synchronize the voices with the character's lip movements, which is compensated by the quieted original audio. When there is no speaking in the film for some time, the original sound is turned up. Recently, as more films are distributed with separate voice and noises-and-music tracks, some voice-over translations in Bulgaria are produced by only turning down the voice track, in this way not affecting the other sounds. One actor always reads the translation crew's names over the show's ending credits (except for when there are dialogs over the credits).