We have all heard the Voice of God in some capacity.
I know what you're thinking, and no, this isn't a reference to the Big-Man-Upstairs, but rather as a voice-over technique. Sure, you've likely heard it before, but what exactly is the Voice of God anyway?
The most straightforward answer to that is
"An authoritative, omniscient voice that verbally details or directs a scene, from outside of Spatio-temporal existence."
In layman's terms, that basically translates to
“An unseen, non-diegetic voice-over that draws attention and respect through its all-seeing ability to represent a scene.”
If that definition satiates your curiosity, then go forth and spread the word of the Voice of God. However, even that definition is a lot to unpack and still raises questions on how exactly a voice-over embodies it.
So, if that seems to be a little bit confusing or you want to expand your expertise and learn more about this style – Keep reading as we go through the history, uses, and people that embody this term. If you don't have a lot of time and want to skip the exciting history and just read more about the term, click here to jump to the final section
Westbrook Van Voorhis and The March of Time.
The first significant example of the Voice of God style can be found in The March of Time by Time Inc, all the way back in 1935. The programme was a newsreel series in America that collated the most relevant news of the day and delivered it. The March of Time began as a radio broadcast but was eventually adapted to documentary films to be screened at the cinema. These films ran for over 16 years, holding historical significance as archives of nonpartisan explorations of the 1930s-1950s.
However, the cinematic experience of these newsreels was made obsolete by the rise of broadcast television. Both iterations of the series were helmed by the voice-over talent Westbrook Van Voorhis, more notably known as the first Voice of God. His distinct voice-over style was a centrepiece to the programme. What was significant about his style was the emphasis on the omniscience of the narration. Westbrook Van Voorhis' voice-over provided viewers insight into problems of the day, guided by a storyteller who is familiar and informed on numerous topics, showcased in the series.
Van Voorhis' voice-over efforts carry an overtly authoritative tone and transatlantic professionalism. This was intentionally implemented to instil authority through a voice-over that sounded educated. It remained accessible to a broad audience by using a universally palatable accent. This voice-over style may seem silly and too formal by modern standards, especially compared to what we expect in our narration today.
The performances on The March of Time were not subtle, but it's important to remember that this was the first of its kind. Refining and redefining this style would come later, a consequence of the evolution of voice-over across time. Nonetheless, it seems cliché because this voice-over style was so significant that it became ubiquitous for many years in documentary, newscasting, promotional content, and more. The narration style became intrinsically linked with the newsreel format. Orson Welles' seminal Citizen Kane featured the technique in a fictional duplication called News on the March.
The Power of Propaganda & Parody
The Voice of God has also been invoked for more sinister purposes. The authority and objectivity that this tone radiates means that it has been a valuable tool for disseminating propaganda messaging. Authoritative omniscience is essential to invoke when misrepresenting foreign powers – with falsities broadcast as fact.
This voice-over style proved helpful in propaganda, especially during the McCarthyism years in the U.S. However, the ubiquity of this vocal tone quickly became cliché. As a result, a parody of the technique was inevitable. One such example can be found in the classic Monty Python, International Chinese Communist Conspiracy sketch.
Needless to say, the Voice of God intonation has evolved from its classic iteration into a new form. In modern times, the strictly formal tonality is too rigid to appeal to contemporary audiences. This in itself has increasingly influenced the selection of voices by tone to remove the elements that sound too cliche or cheesy.
The New Wave Voice of God
The Voice of God has splintered off into various distinct styles, depending on the genre. It is here that we can explore the tone as it appears in different voice-over mediums, spearheaded by specific celebrity voice-over talents – people who bear the title of The Voice of God.
Don LaFontaine and Movie Trailers
The most apparent successor to the Voice of God title is Don LaFontaine and his work in the film industry. We were once "In a world…" where the classic movie trailer voice-over did not exist. The booming voice of Don LaFontaine changed that. LaFontaine was able to hype up any film with his iconic voice and set the premise for over 5,000 movie trailers – and potentially hundreds of thousands of television advertisements, promos, and video game trailers, earning him the title "The King of Movie Trailers."
The deep, gravelly bass in the pitch of his voice produced a near-shaking sensation in audio. A thunderous power appropriate for someone referred to as God-like. The movie trailer voice-over that Don LaFontaine employed also served to fill a similar function to the classic Voice of God. At his height, he was so successful that LaFontaine practically monopolised the movie trailer voice-over industry – voicing upwards of 60 trailers a week.
His voice-over exists in a vacuum, located outside the time and space of the movie. Despite this, he delivers us questions and information relevant to the upcoming film, which feeds into the omnipresence necessary for this voice-over tone. A notable departure here is that the formality and transatlantic accent are no longer present in this tone. While it may have served well in documentary form, these traits do not translate well to entertainment, nor do they build excitement. Therefore, they were replaced with a more informal register, proving that the Voice of God doesn't need to be formal or harbour a particular accent.
Bob Sheppard and Announcements
Announcements are another field where the Voice of God tone is especially relevant. The core of an announcement is to broadcast to the audience what is happening. This uses a disembodied voice from offstage or off-screen. These messages are usually directorial by nature, as they instruct listeners to sit or narrate events. Typically, announcers hold potent roles, as their word is gospel.
There is a distinct objective truth that is unquestioned by the listeners. That is why when we are told to return to our seats during a play, we do it. We are so used to voice-over announcers that we do not even attempt to look for a speaker; we follow their guidance – without overselling it, it is as if spoken to us by an all-seeing entity. In this industry, the titleholder for the Voice of God was proclaimed to be Baseball announcer Bob Sheppard. His status is considered legendary in American sports, lending his classic sound over 4,500 Yankees baseball games over his 56-year career.
They used to say that "you haven't made it to the big leagues until Bob Sheppard announces your name." Demonstrating how much weight Sheppard's voice-over carried for followers of the sport. He was the voice of baseball for many, entwined with the very soul of the sport.
The element of omnipresence is replicated most obviously in Sheppard's work. Many people would tune into the radio to hear the voice-over performance by Sheppard, which would direct the line-up for them. A great deal of importance is placed on the announcer in sports and to become the best of the best is no small feat. He evoked imagery in the minds of listeners and became bound to the brand.
Morgan Freeman and Voice-Over
There are few people as renowned for their vocal ability as Morgan Freeman. His buttery smooth sound is universally beloved as a cornerstone of modern cinematic celebrities. Maybe this is an unfair inclusion since he has literally played God.
The Morgan Freeman delivery in voice-over has found great success in film and documentaries. His off-screen recountal in The Shawshank Redemption is a standout and one of the most referenced in the world. While he may be telling the story of the film through his character persona in the movie, he also describes events outside of his character's knowledge. This provides a similarly omnipresent element to the performance.
What might be most interesting about Morgan Freeman's Voice of God tone is how his gentle demeanour still commands authority. In the award-winning March of the Penguins, Morgan Freeman's vocal cords create a powerful emotional investment in the emperor penguins' perilous annual journey in Antarctica.
In a way, the documentary format has become the home of the modern Voice of God. The voice-over guides us through concepts, places, and ideas that we may have never given much attention to. Through a window into the unknown, the voice-over transports us, holding all the answers, which it slowly disseminates to the audience throughout the programme. The position of power that Morgan Freeman's voice is gentle and kinder than the original work by Westbrook Van Voorhis. Despite this, Freeman still carries the torch of a benevolent observer, showing that the Voice of God style has changed over time.
What is the Voice of God anyway?
After learning more about this term, it has become easier to understand and define for modern contexts. While the term began as domineering and formal, it has since evolved to be more versatile. An informal or even gentle voice-over can be employed and still hold authority necessary for the Voice of God tone. The information and purpose of the voice-over are what lends power and value to the words. Whether through guidance and description in a documentary; or via hype and anticipation in a movie trailer. Here is our top tip list for the Voice of God:
- Sound like an expert: Confidence and authority will hold your audience on your every word. Expertise will enhance your voice-over's ability to capture a transcendent position through exposure to new information.
- Know your stuff: The Voice of God should be all-knowing and all present. They should be ready to provide the viewer with answers.
- Strike the right tone: You don't need to sound like a Westbrook Van Voorhis' transatlantic formality. A less formal or friendly tone can work wonders - but never dip too far. You have to remain larger than life.
- Remain a mystery: Your voice-over must exist outside of time and space. This voice-over is for the viewer and should seem like it is coming from another plane of existence, guiding audiences through the plot or information.
So when you are working on your next voice-over project, in need of a Voice of God - think. Do you want a classic style with a formal, neutral-sounding voice? Or something more modern to give off a warmer demeanour? Voquent has a myriad of voice-over talent, ready for any project in this style. If you require a little help with your casting - contact us for top tier advice!