There are two main kinds of commentary.
Very crudely, they can be defined as:
- Commentary for sport, state occasions, etc. This is usually unscripted.
- Commentary for documentaries, features, travelogues, etc. This is almost always fully scripted.
And he Scores!
There’s the voice from the sidelines at football, snooker, royal weddings, cricket, etc. On radio, the commentator has to keep the listener informed about the event – who has the ball, or is out in front, by how much, etc. Film and television are totally different here. The viewer can see the main information. He can see that John Smith is way out in front, he’s getting near the finish, he’s crossed the line! He or she can probably also see the clock face frozen at whatever, with the record time also shown for comparison, so the fact that he’s three seconds short of the world record is also redundant. But the viewer can’t see information that will make the hero of the hour more three-dimensional. Maybe the fact that he was a very keen cricketer until he was in a car crash at the age of seventeen, and hasn’t played since. Does he only eat raw fish the evening before a big race? Or have a loft of racing pigeons? Does he spend his spare time rebuilding a vintage car? How would you know that sort of thing?
HomeworkThe bulk of a commentator’s job is done before the event starts. A very famous commentator, perhaps the finest ever for ‘formal occasions’, Richard Dimbleby, said he never opened his mouth without enormous research. Six times as much as would fill the time for the event. If he had to cover ‘Trooping the Colour’, he’d know all about the history of the ceremony, the main people involved, the horses – where they were stabled, what they ate, who brushed them, where the colours were woven, how they were stored and cleaned. Etc, etc, etc.
Know, but Don’t TellThen he shut up! Not all the time, of course, but when it was the right thing. If the guest of honour had just arrived and the troops came to attention, he’d be quiet. If the Sergeant Major were calling orders, he kept quiet. If the troops were saluting the cenotaph, he’d shut up. But if the pictures and mood weren’t riveting, perhaps during a long walk down a line of troops, he’d be ready with information about when the regiment was formed, when it last went into battle, any famous victory or defeat, the regimental mascot. Some of that vast array of knowledge. The homework – fine tenths of which might remain unvoiced.
VoiceUse what’s right for the occasion. Big round baritone for a royal wedding. Almost whispered for a tense moment in a snooker event. Whimsical and chatty for non-test cricket. And all the time, whether you’re standing up, shouting like Murray Walker on the sidelines of a Formula One race, or quietly adding details about a gymnast as she chats to her coach, remember the cardinal rule:
One to One CommunicationYou’re only talking to one person. Who is he or she? An acquaintance, not a friend. An acquaintance of maximum intelligence but minimum knowledge. Maybe an analogy is in order: maybe he’s shown a vague interest in stock car racing, and has tagged along with you, the expert in the field. He’s at your side, can see the obvious action, but you’re filling in the invisible details, helping him understand some of the tactics by pointing out certain things he might otherwise miss. Get that one-to-one thing right, and do your home work, and you can’t go wrong!
Save the Whale
For a documentary film on whales, chances are you never see the man or woman reading the commentary. For a travel piece on television about learning to canoe, you might see the presenter quite a bit, but he or she is busy trying not to drown. There might be some on-camera chat, but most of the time, a lot of the factual information will be added by a voice-over. In many ways, the dos and don’ts are the same as for sport commentary; if the commentary is about how you felt when you were stuck under the canoe for what seemed like hours, trying to get the thing back upright, try to recall the near panic in your voice. And like sport commentary, keep quiet during the visually exciting things, and speak when the action is a bit more relaxed. A big difference between sport commentary and ‘documentary style’ voice over is that the sport event is live and the commentator is on his or her own. In a dubbing studio, there will be a director who can help and guide you towards a perfect result. Even better, it’s the director (or researcher) who wrote the script. All you have to do (!) is bring it alive. Look after your voice, and read the section on writing commentary, so that you know the other chap’s problems and are ready to help when a re-write is needed. As it almost certainly will do.