A voice over, often abbreviated VO in script notation, is a narrative technique in which an unseen actor's lines are heard over visual elements in a movie or commercial. The narrator of a documentary or the announcer introducing a talk show host would be considered a voice over artist. By eliminating the need for a human spokesman, more time can be spent showing the product or visually setting up the storyline of a movie. During the introduction sequence of the film To Kill a Mockingbird, for example, an adult actress provides a voice over to help set the film in her childhood.
A talented voice over artist can have a very long and lucrative career, but there is a significant amount of competition for assignments. Many screen and television actors with distinctive voices are highly in demand for commercial voice over work. Some exude an authoritarian voice over quality, notably British actor Patrick Stewart. If Patrick Stewart provides a voice over for a particular product, the target audience should sense an overall feeling of distinction and quality craftsmanship. A different voice over artist, such as the late Mason Adams, would provide a warmer, folksier tone for products such as Smucker's Jelly.
A typical script for a commercial with a voice over is broken down into several parts. Each element is timed to the precise second, leading up to the 29.5 seconds or 59.5 seconds of a broadcast commercial. The extra .5 second contains electronic information necessary to trigger the next event on a computerized sequencer.
The script might say "5.0 seconds. A line of black SUVs is seen driving across a desert, kicking up dust. VO: If you think the days of luxury SUVs are over, think again." To a voice over artist, this portion of the script would tell him or her that the line must be read in less than five seconds. It would also suggest that the visual image is dynamic and a bit intimidating. Therefore, his or her voice over should reflect this power through a more forceful line reading.
A working voice over artist is not always expected to create his or her own interpretation of the script. The director of the film or commercial will often suggest various ways to read the lines in order to match the needs of the client or audience. This requires some degree of patience on the part of voice over artists, who may spend hours in a recording studio rereading individual lines until the director is satisfied. Sometimes a line may be changed if it proves too difficult to read or runs over the time allotted, but more often than not, a voice over artist must create a unique sound from whatever the client wants to emphasize in the commercial.
Voice over work is generally found through open auditions, talent agency representation or an introductory voice reel containing the candidate's best work to date. There are some schools that provide training for voice over artists, with classes designed to strengthen the natural voice and improve interpretive skills. Local cable companies may also hire voice over artists for local television spots. Many disk jockeys are also required to provide voice overs for audio spots and promotions.