Cabiriafilms.com Film Theory section
Notes regarding sound design & commentary in a documentary film.
a documentary film is one of the toughest decisions, because in a way, it
fulfills the role of the protagonist in a fiction film.
It is the narrator that takes the audience from one part to the other in the film; hence becoming the protagonist himself. The audience's emotional and rational experience have a direct link to the narrator's voice, pitch, text, subtext, colour, phrasing, language, accent, etc.
Narration, which is part of the film's sound design, is the director's last chance to shape his film. The film's sound main and principal target is to create, via ingenious design, a separate layer with it's own dynamics and merits. Not merely accompanying the picture, but having life and merit of its own. When listened to while watching the film, the whole should become greater than the sum of the parts: the gap between the picture and the sound should be filled with the audience imagination. The sound track would then add meanings that were meant to be there; would clarify events; and would help the audience care and sympathize, or feel otherwise, towards his characters, his subject, his film.
Hence when making a documentary, the decisions regarding commentary have to be taken with the utmost care and attentiveness. In my 1997 film, "Hypnotic Hell", it took me almost three months just to write the narration, decide who will read it, in what way, and who should the narrator have in mind when he was reading it to the microphone. (And of course I would do it differently today...).
One can make an average film exciting with the right narration, adding a third subconscious layer to the film. Or destroy the audience interest and participation in the film if using a boring narration, or a squeaky so called "personal" voice, etc.
Beware of other people's opinions.
The director must bear in mind: Isn't one's truth subjective when it comes to art? Consulting with someone when facing critical decisions regarding one's film could be dangerous. When one is negotiating with creative decisions, other people's notions and opinions of one's film could be misleading and confusing. Everyone has an opinion, and our ego-centered Western psych forces us to offer it whenever the opportunity presents itself.
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