Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Using Voice Overs ( V.O.)

I'm not a big fan of voice-overs. The majority of the ones I see in unproduced screenplays remind me of a Real Estate agent going from room to room saying "This is the kitchen... and this is the living room. And this is..." By the second sentence, I wish they would just shut the hell up.
But there are times when VO's work. There are times when they add so much to a movie...and those are the only time they should be used. A great VO takes you deeper into the story and the characters. It gives you the tone of the movie and improves the experience the audience has.

So here's my first two guidelines for Voice-Overs:

1. Quality VO's don't describe what is on the screen.
 They enhance it. If all it tells you is what is on the screen, cut it.
2. Quality VO's intrigue the listener as they reveal character. If the VO isn't intriguing by itself, cut it.

Consider the opening scene from CASINO.

SAM 'ACE' ROTHSTEIN, a tall, lean, immaculately dressed man approaches his car, opens the door, and
gets inside to turn on the ignition.
ACE (V.O.)
When you love someone, you've gotta trust them.
There's no other way. You've got to give them the
key to everything that's yours. Otherwise, what's
the point? And, for a while... I believed that's the
kind of love I had.
Suddenly, the car explodes. Flames, smoke and metal rise into the sky covering the view of the Las
Vegas casinos and their signs
Ace's body comes flying in - extreme slow motion. His body twists and turns through the frame like
a soul about to tumble into the flames of damnation.

NOTE: Ace is talking about love and trust as he gets in the car. His final line "I believed that's the kind of love I had" ends just as the car blows up. Those two together instantly cause intrigue.
Also, do you see him saying "I walked over to my car and got in. It was a warm day out and I never thought anything bad would happen to me when I turned the key?" That would be a bad VO!
Instead, the VO gives us our first hints of insight into who Ace is.

Vignette of ACE through rippling flames, we move in on ACE ROTHSTEIN overseeing the casino. He
lights a cigarette.
ACE (V.O.)
Before I ever ran a casino or got myself blown up,
Ace Rothstein was a hell of a handicapper, I can
tell you that. I was so good, that whenever I
bet, I could change the odds for every bookmaker
in the country. I'm serious. I had it down so cold
that I was given paradise on earth. I was given
one of the biggest casinos in Las Vegas to run,
the Tangiers...

NOTE: Here, he talks about his job, but we don't see all of that. So the VO adds a level of depth.

Vignette of MOB BOSSES sitting at a table surrounded by food and wine like the gods of Olympus.
ACE (V.O.)
...by the only kind of guys that can actually get
you that kind of money: sixty-two million,
seven-hundred thousand dollars. I don't know all
the details.
Matter of fact...
Vignette of NICKY SANTORO standing at a bar with DOMINICK SANTORO, his brother, and
FRANK MARINO, his right-hand man.
...nobody knew all the details, but it should'a
been perfect. I mean, he had me, Nicky
Santoro, his best friend, watching his ass...

NOTE: Notice those last three VO's. Ace tells us about 62 million dollars, but we don't see it. Nicky tells us that he is watching Ace's ass, but again, we don't see it.
Later in the VO, they do describe money going into a suitcase, but they also provide more depth and intrigue by the way they do it.

If you are writing a VO, ask yourself this question "Does it add depth, intrigue, and take us beyond the visual?" If it doesn't, chances are that you are just using it to provide exposition without adding quality to the VO. But if it truly improves the experience of the reader and viewer, than this may be the technique of choice.

So what's the problem with starting a script with a Voice Over?

Two things. First, one out of two screenplays by a new screenwriter starts with a voice over and in most cases, they bore the reader to death telling them the story that should be shown on the screen.
That leads to the second part of the problem. Because VO's have been overused and abused, they automatically sets off an alarm in a reader's mind. It puts them on alert that this script may be from an amateur. If they're already looking for a reason to say "no," the VO may become that reason...
...unless it's well written.
Once again, we're in search of what makes a quality VO. In the first part of this article, I gave two guidelines:
1. Quality VO's don't describe what is on the screen. They enhance it. If all it tells you is what is on the screen, cut it.
2. Quality VO's intrigue the listener. If the VO isn't intriguing by itself, cut it.
Now, let's take a look at two more.
3. Quality VO's give a deep sense of character.
4. Quality VO's take you deeper into the story world.
In this scene from the opening of BULL DURHAM, notice the combination of baseball, sex, and religion. In about 1.5 pages, we get a sense of the essence of Annie and we have a much deeper understanding of this WORLD of Minor League Baseball, at least, from Annie's eyes.

A SHRINE -- And it glows with the candles like some religious altar.
We hear a woman's voice in a North Carolina accent.
I believe in the Church of Baseball. (beat)
I've tried all the major religions and most of
the minor ones--I've worshipped Buddha, Allah,
Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, trees, mushrooms,
and Isadora Duncan...
PAN AWAY FROM THE SHRINE across the room. Late afternoon light spills into the room, across fine old furniture, to a small dressing table. A WOMAN applies make up.
ANNIE SAVOY, mid 30's, touches up her face. Very pretty, knowing, outwardly confident. Words flow from her Southern lips with ease, but her view of the world crosses Southern, National and International borders. She's cosmic.
I know things. For instance-- (beat) There are
108 beads in a Catholic rosary. And-- (beat)
There are 108 stitches in a baseball. (beat)
When I learned that, I gave Jesus a chance.
(beat) But it just didn't work out between us. The
Lord laid too much guilt on me. I prefer
metaphysics to theology. (beat) You see, there's
no guilt in baseball...and it's never boring.

NOTE: By this point, there is no question that Annie is a unique character with some very interesting perspectives. Her language is poetic, which makes sense, because she is an English teacher.
But she also sees baseball as a religion...and there's more.

ANNIE OPENS A CLOSET DOOR -- Dozens of shoes hang from the door. She chooses a pair of RED HIGH HEELS, with thin straps.
She sits on a bench and
Which makes It like sex. (beat) There's never
been a ballplayer slept with me who didn't
have the best year of his career. (beat) Making
love is like hitting a baseball-- you just got to
relax and concentrate.

NOTE: We just went from religion to sex. That's quite a jump and it is an excellent hook to take us deeper into this story world.
From Annie's perspective, baseball, religion, and sex are all tied together. Are we getting to know Annie and her world?

ANNIE SLIPS ON THE RED HIGH HEELS -- Smoothing her hands up her calves as she does.
Besides, I'd never sleep with a player hitting
under .250 unless he had a lot of R.B.I.'s or
was a great glove man up the middle. (BEAT)
A woman's got to have standards.

NOTE: On top of all of that, she's got standards. While I think this is an excellent punchline. It also again says what Annie is about. She knows baseball and she feels that she is contributing to the game in her own unique way.
Important: She's not a groupie or whore or anything like that. She is someone brings her own unique value to the game.

ANNIE STARTS PACKING A HUGE HANDBAG -- With fruit, an official scorebook, binoculars, a radar gun, and lipstick.
Y'see there's a certain amount of "life-wisdom"
I give these boys. (beat) I can expand their
minds. Sometimes when I've got a ballplayer
alone I'll just read Emily Dickinson or Walt
Whitman to him. The guys are so sweet--
they always stay and listen. (beat) Of course
a guy will listen to anything if he thinks it's
ANNIE TOUCHES PERFUME BEHIND HER EARS and, ever so slightly, in her cleavage.
I make then feel confident. They make me feel
safe. And pretty.

NOTE: And her final line tells us a little about Annie's own needs.

Did you notice how that VO fulfilled all four of my guidelines for a great VO? It enhanced what was seen on screen, intrigued us, gave us a deep sense of character and took us deeper into the story world.

Poor VO's "tell" us a lot, but don't entertain, intrigue, etc. But, a quality VO can lure a reader deep into your story and build a deeply satisfying world that we'll enjoy living in.
One last point: If you read your VO and can't tell if it fulfills these guidelines, cut it. A VO is a tool and should only be used if it truly enhances the script. So if it is on the fence, cut it.
Follow these guidelines and you'll have readers and Producers raving about the quality of your story...all because of that VO.

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