A quality voice over is critical in documentaries. While the visual takes you into the story, it is the voice over actor that gets you the information and takes the viewer on the journey.
The storyline is what captures the audience and keeps them engaged, and it can only be done with the best voice over narrator. This is called "in-show" narration. You can see it effectively done on popular cable network programming as on Discovery Channel, History Channel, ID, Animal Planet, etc.
When starting many voice-over actors find that it can be challenging. However, with some training and practice, it can be very rewarding and open up more job opportunities. There are several skills that you can master to become great at documentaries.
Context and Tone
The first thing is to understand the context of the documentary. Documentaries are informational and can be from serious topics like wars and global warming to the lives of celebrities. By understanding the context and the tone it will help you decide upon the voice acting style to use.
The choice of the voice-over actor will depend on the audience as well. If the target audience is children, then a lighter, more youthful voiceover may be preferred than that of a solemn voice.
What are the different reading levels your voice naturally lends its hand to? While you may have many style options, consider the script when considering the opportunity. Even if you have to make up your own "backstory" (because very little was provided for you in say an audition) you will create an interesting read.
Timing is key to a good narration. As a voice-over actor, it is something that needs to be perfected to keep the documentary jobs coming your way. The voice needs to be paced to match the picture. REad and understand all the visual cues provided in the script. A voice-over actor is also expected to be cool under pressure while sounding natural.
When auditioning for a documentary, give different readings to the script (if permitted), so that you are giving creative options and possibly adding more dimension to the script. As an industry professional, it is looked upon for you to give ideas and collaborate. The goal of the director is to have a film that speaks to the audience and one that they enjoy.
Some filmmakers will choose to localize their voiceover in a way to appeal to different audiences all over the world. One example of this is the documentary Planet Earth in the original version David Attenborough was the voice-over actor, however, in the US version, it was Sigourney Weaver.
The good news is that while your voice may not be used in all versions of the film, it opens up the opportunity to voice over actors to work on more films.
Accept criticism and constructive feedback about your work. The only way to progress in the voice-over industry is to learn from each job and improve your skills.
It Takes Work
Always keep in mind that the best documentary narrators understand you do not just walk into the studio, read the script, and it is ready for viewers. Take the time to understand the script, perfect the voice to match the content and the timing. As a successful professional voice over actor, it is these skills and understanding who my voice appeals to best, that has given me a successful career. Know thy voice!