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The Art of the Voice-Artist

With the invention of the ‘sound-on-disc’ in the late 1920’s, filmmakers could fairly accurately synchronise their ‘silent movie’ images with gramophone discs of music and later replace the story sub-titles with studio recorded voices or ‘voice-overs’ in what became popularly known as ‘The Talkies’.

They also now had the advantage of being able to select story enhancing ‘voice characterisations’ and nuances such as tone, mood, gender, age and nationality, that of course sub-titles could not provide, and the job descriptor of ‘Voice-Artist’ came into being.

Reliably accurate optical sound-on-film technology, which involved a sound track being photographically recorded onto the side of motion picture film to create a composite or ‘married’ print’, was intoduced by American inventor Lee De Forest and by 1931 had replaced the ‘sound-on- disc’ system.

‘Voice-over’ narration in commercials developed as a powerful technique of compelling effectiveness to become an inspiring storytelling focus in its own right, and widely used to this day.

The Voice of Paul Harvey

Paul Harvey was a famous American radio broadcaster who, in 2005 was awarded the prestigious Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 1978 he gave a speech in which he paid a moving tribute to farmers.

A recording of his tribute was used as the ‘voice-over’ for the much-lauded Ram Trucks commercial that was aired during the 2013 American Super Bowl Football Championships.

1. Ram Trucks, So God Made A Farmer

Advertising Agency: The Richards Group, Dallas

Ten photographers were commissioned by the agency to provide a backdrop of compelling photographic stills.

The commercial, which has been described as a “retro heart-tugger”, received 402,000 social media comments within 45 minutes of its first airing.

Eurostar, Stories Are Waiting

Advertising Agency: Abbot Mead Vickers BBDO, London

Simon Ratican directed this campaign of two commercials for Eurostar’s cross-Channel rail service between St Pancras International, London and Gard du Nord, Paris.

The ‘voice-over’ narrated stories are about unexpected encounters, promising cross-Channel affiliations between Paris and London and maybe, a lasting romance. The scenarios are refreshingly devoid of Tourism Advertising genre clichés.

2. Stories Are Waiting In Paris

Instead of the all too familiar travel theme of ‘life is a journey’, these stories thoughtfully propose that maybe ‘a journey is life’.

3. Stories Are Waiting In London

4. Jim Beam, Bold Choice

Advertising Agency: StrawberryFrog, New York

Directed by Dante Ariola

Created more than a decade ago, ‘Bold Choice’ is still very highly rated by Advertising Communication professionals for its craftsmanship in compelling storytelling. Superbly directed by Dante Ariola, the commercial stars the Oscar winning American actor Willem Dafoe.

The ‘voice-over’ narration is also by Dafoe and he reminds us that there is really only one choice. “All choices lead you somewhere. Only a bold choice takes you where you’re supposed to be.”


5. Tous Tender Story No5

Advertising Agency: SCPF, Madrid

Tous, a Spanish jewelry brand, has a very popular advertising campaign of ‘Tender Stories’. Stylishly directed by Victor Carrey, story No5 stars Gwyneth Paltrow.

A man and a woman seated at different tables in a coffee shop are introduced to viewers by a ‘voice-over’ narrator. They don’t know each other and consequently are unaware of just how much they have in common. It is a charming story about a chance encounter and enjoyably watchable.

6. Nike, Equality

Advertising Agency: Wieden+Kennedy, Portland USA.

This topical commercial directed by Melina Matsoukas, starring NBA champion LeBron James, and tennis champion Serena Williams, elicited 2 million views on YouTube in 48 hours.

The narrator is lauded American actor Michael B. Jordan, who makes a brief cameo appearance.

The soundtrack features a poignant rendition Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” by Alicia Keys.

7. Nedbank Private Whealth, No Stone Unturned

Advertising Agency: M&C Saatchi Abel, South Africa

Superbly directed by Kim Geldenhuys, and filmed on location in Benhaddou, Morocco, this tender story is compellingly narrated by Sunil Maholtr.

8. Allan Gray, Legend

Advertising Agency: King James, Cape Town

Directed by Keith Rose and narrated by voice artist Keith Rhoades, the commercial involved a cast of 300, a film crew of 150 members and took 14 months to produce.

The result was a Grand Prix Loerie Award and I think one of the best commercials ever to come out of South Africa.

9. Coronation Fund Managers, The Doctor

Advertising Agency: Network BBDO, Johannesburg, South Africa

The commercial was inspired by a commemorative tribute published in TIME Magazine. The true and remarkable story about a much-loved Doctor, Albert-André Nast in the French village of Chelles in 1931, is poignantly narrated by a voice-over.

Directed by Nacho Gayen, the meticulous sourcing of authentic props and the painstaking crafting of period detail for the story makes for compelling realism, and cinematic viewing that resonates with pathos.