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How to make better video commentaries

By John Sirett

As we meticulously prepare a storyboard or a shooting plan for our visuals, we should also pay particular attention to what we are going to say, and how we are going to say it, in any "voice-over" commentary accompanying that vision.

The videos we make, whether based on fact or fiction all have a story to tell.

Most fictional works (screenplays, drama etc) have the actors' dialogue to promote the story, but many documentary videos, (the ones that do not have personal interviews with characters) will require a spoken commentary or narration to complement the visual scenes, so that the viewers will know what they are being shown and why.

It is this documentary-style narration that I am addressing here.

Basic principles

Visual communication versus verbal communication.

Because visual communication is many times faster and more effective than verbal communication, it takes priority.

So when writing a narration for your video it is of prime importance to:-

a) Minimize the number of words you use to describe anything in a script so that it will "fit in" the time available with the visuals.

Unessential words should be eliminated or statements rephrased to use only a minimum of words. It is surprising how much screen time can be taken up with a few small words and how difficult it can become to align a comment with the appropriate scene, especially if the vision editing is nice and tight.

b) Use narration only to complement the visual scene, by mentioning things that are not shown visually, but are important to the story.

c) Do not use commentary to describe something that is already being shown.

However, if it is necessary to identify something on the screen - be brief.

d) Sometimes something has to be explained verbally that cannot be shown visually. In this case, run this piece of commentary over some "unimportant" visuals.

(This device is commonly seen in TV news broadcasts for example where information about a person is spoken over visuals of them walking down a long corridor.)

In this way, the viewer's attention will switch from the (less interesting) visual to take notice of what the commentary is explaining.

Conversely, if the vision is carrying the story, don't talk over the top of it.

e) Control the viewer's attention by using either rule (c) or (d) as appropriate.

Composing the narration script

Since the desired end result is an easily understood spoken message delivered in a conversational style, it's important to recognize the difference between 'spoken English' and grammatically correct 'written English'.

a) Write in the vernacular i.e., compose your script in "spoken English".

Use simple vocabulary. (Good writing style uses simple words.)

Use apostrophes (e.g. "it's" in place of "it is") and other verbal 'short-cuts' as we do in everyday conversation.

b) Test-read your commentary, by reading it out aloud to yourself.

Chances are that what you have written looks good on paper but when it has to be spoken out aloud there are words that just won't flow together.

An example of this might be: "Police Constable Nick Kennibody was placed under great stress supporting law and order in the mob."

This could easily sound like: "Police constable Nick anybody was placed under great stress supporting Laura Norder in the mob".

c) Make the words flow. Substitute those words that don't flow off the tongue smoothly, with a different sounding synonym, or rephrase the statement.

d) "Writing means: - rewriting and rewriting and rewriting …."

Be prepared at the outset to rewrite your commentary script many times over to get just the right choice of words, phrases and flow. This is important.

Typing up the script

If you can ad lib a commentary straight onto the sound track of your otherwise completed video; you are better and more skilful than most professionals !

Many makers of camcorders and editing software make provision for doing just this, but I have never yet seen it used to any great advantage.

One professional "Voice", or "Talent", I have worked with prefers to have scripts that:

1) Are typewritten, using large type. (14 or 16 pts).

2) Are double spaced between words and lines.

3) Use only half the width of an A4 page. (This creates a "column effect" which is easy for the eye to follow down the page.)

4) Start each sentence on a new line and don't use hyphens as 'carry-overs'. Never split a sentence over two pages.

5) Use phonetic spelling as an aid to ensure correct pronunciation.

6) Number the paragraphs for easy reference.

Everything should be aimed at easy eye-scanning of the script.

Even if you intend to speak your own commentary and already know how you want it to sound, it helps to make things as easy as possible for yourself.

The use of a properly typed-up script can be a great advantage when you want to get things 'just right'.

Script reading - the professional way

Professional readers are able to craft their delivery to suit almost every kind of subject matter, from 'religious', to 'humorous', to 'technical' and so on.
Crucially, they also have a quality voice , that sounds pleasant and is easy to follow.

A hired professional Talent will probably ask at the outset "How do you want the script read? Fast, slow, hard or soft ?" (to suit the type of subject matter).

From there on, he probably makes as many reading mistakes as you or I would. Hardly a single sentence is recorded correctly first time and is often repeated several times before everyone (talent, author, director, producer) is satisfied. There is no embarrassment, it's just part of the business. But the professional knows how to control his voice and make the necessary adjustments.

To complete a 10 minute script and get it 'in the can' may take the professional an hour or so. It is regarded as "a read", and is charged that way.

Delivery and recording - having your say

For practical reasons, most of us use our own voice or that of a friend or partner. Don't rush to make a choice - do trial recordings and listen critically to the results. Good voices are rare.

Having already prepared your commentary, and having found your perfect voice, there are a few useful things you can do to make your recording session run smoothly.

a) The microphone

It is necessary to have a quiet, echo-free and comfortable environment in which to record. Some people use a booth lined with egg cartons, others sit in their cars and record voice into their camcorder. It's up to you.

b) Lubricate (but not with alcohol !)

The reader should spend a few minutes loosening up their facial muscles and tongue by stretching their jaw, pulling faces and speaking out aloud. You will find the words will flow off their tongue better for this. It is equivalent to an athlete 'warming up' before an event.

(Experienced public speakers are inclined to do this before giving a speech and can sometimes be noticed appearing to yawn while waiting for their turn at the podium.)

c) Record the commentary or narration in small, manageable pieces. (This also gives you an advantage in positioning the comments on the time-line at final edit.)

  1. Rehearse each piece several times.
  2. Experiment with different inflections and emphasis on words to suit your taste, then mark the script to remind the reader. Check that P's are not popping in the microphone and that S's are not sounding like F's :- "Peter Piper Picked a Peck of Pickled Peppercorn" ; "Sister Susie Sews Socks for Soldiers on Sundays"
  3. Make any last minute adjustments to the wording.

Then record that small piece. Play it back, and if you don't like what you hear, do it all again. This is how the professionals do it, and illustrates why it can take an hour or more to complete a ten minute script.

d) Get the reader to act up a little!

The voice should reflect the mood of the subject matter.

If the narration is about something funny, let the voice sound amused .

If it's about something annoying, sound annoyed, -- all for better effect.

This adds to your video: the narrator becomes part of the action, actually in the scene as it happens, instead of a detached, indifferent voice obviously added later.

The salient points :-

* Scriptwriting means --- rewriting and rewriting and rewriting.

* Use economy of words .One picture is worth a thousand words.

* Commentary / narration should complement the vision. Do not describe what is already visible on the screen.

* Write in the vernacular - use "spoken" not "written" English.

* Make the words flow - avoid difficult pronunciations.

* Control the viewers' attention - important verbal information should be presented with unimportant visuals. But if the visual scene takes priority - don't talk

* Type up a script for reading - copy the pros. It really helps.

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Page updated on 11 October 2011
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