Robbing our subjects or helping our audience? Jonah Kessel on voice-overs

Guest post by Jonah Kessel:

LEAVING THE LAND: Urban, But Left Behind from Jonah Kessel on Vimeo.
SUBTITLED VERSION: Urban, but Left Behind

“In the end, we didn’t reach an agreement. They got violent and took me away from the villager’s home. They hit me in the head, slapped my face and pushed me down the stairs. Then they forced me into the car and kept hitting me … They Forced me to meet their leader. They took me there and pushed me out their car and I saw the office of their leader. I thought I would be safe, but it wasn’t true. I was pushed into the office and I saw him sitting behind the desk. He was just staring at me. Then the thugs poured hot tea on my face and body. He just started at me in silence.”

Getting quotes like these is very difficult in China, especially when it comes to land rights. It’s even more difficult to get people to say it on camera. If a subject says something like this to me, on camera, they are risking even more problems for themselves. But in the video above, you won’t actually hear the subject say this in Chinese; instead, you’ll hear a voice-over in English.

I often wonder who I am truly making videos for. Am I doing it for the subjects in the videos, to give them a voice? Is it for a cause that needs more awareness? Am I doing it for me?

There is some truth to all of those answers. But the most important part of the equation is actually the audience that views the videos. If they aren’t watching, what’s the point? As news shooters, we dedicate our lives to entertaining, enlightening and hopefully creating greater awareness of the issues which affect our communities across the globe.

However, as video journalism continues to migrate from television to universal availability across all platforms, I often question some habits that we have brought along from our televised forefathers.

One of those habits is the use of voice-overs within international video journalism.

For the most part, all of my work for the New York Times contains voice-overs. And with every video, as the subtitle layer comes off and the voice-overs get overlaid, I sink a little lower in my seat.

VOICE-OVER VERSION: Urban, but Left Behind

To make a decision on whether voice-overs are a good thing or not, its best to first understand why we use them. So what are voice-overs?

They are easily consumable voices overlaid on subjects within a video who speak a different language. Voice-overs are said in the audience’s native language and relieve them from the apparently arduous task of reading subtitles.

My fear of the wide spread use of voice-overs in main stream media is that we are training our audiences to not have to think while simultaneously robbing our subjects of their emotions and identity found within their actual voices. The very people we want to give a voice to are stripped of their ability to give emotion as they share their stories. Instead, an interpretation of that emotion is given by a likely middle-class American or European. Meanwhile, our audiences are not required to interpret the sound of these people’s voices and the meaning of their words, and instead are left to simply trust the voices they hear representing the characters.

I’m currently working on a three-part video series on China’s massive plan to urbanize the country. The government here is rapidly moving over 250 million people from the countryside to cities. While reporting these stories, I’ve come across a diverse range of subjects: former villagers who have lost their way in newly constructed cities, nascent urban citizens who love their new lives in the city and a range of scholars, lawmakers, developers and thugs who make this country go round. These people all have told me stories that help build an understanding of this transformation.

However, in this series, they don’t tell these stories. Voice-over artists do. So what happens when a lawyer who was beaten up for defending a village has his voice taken away? What is gained, what is lost and should we care?

LEAVING THE LAND: China’s Consuming Billion from Jonah Kessel on Vimeo.
SUBTITLED VERSION: China’s Consuming Billion

There are two versions of ‘Urban, but Left Behind’ in this post. In the Vimeo version, you can hear the anger and pain in his voice as he recounts a story of being beat up, pushed down a staircase and then had hot tea pored over his face by land developers. Even if you can’t understand his words, the power of his voice is very important. But in the New York Times version, we hear someone else interpreting this anger. I believe this makes the video less powerful.

Furthermore, in trying to remain true to our subjects and audience by showing the most accurate portrayal of society possible, something about this method intrinsically bothers me. If we say the voice over with emotion, we are interjecting our opinion. If we say the voice over in an emotionless state, the voice doesn’t fit the tone of the words.

But from the newspapers standpoint, there is no choice. The fact is, people click away more frequently on videos with subtitles. More importantly, so much of this media is consumed on mobile phones that subtitles can be difficult to read while on a moving subway or bus.

This brings us to a cross roads in digital journalism: if we are making our videos for the audience, we should make it easily consumable on whatever device they are on. However, by doing so, we actually create something that could be defined as less truthful. Something that is steering away from the very ethics that led us to talk to these people in the first place.

VOICE-OVER VERSION: China’s Consuming Billion

As I said in the introduction: the most important character in my videos might actually be the audience. And if they are consuming the media I create on mobile devices I need to cater to that. However, by doing so I am going against what I believe is the right thing to do, journalistically and cinematically speaking.

On a cinematic level, I find voice-overs to be jarring and pace killing. Pacing is one of the most important parts of creating powerful video and by adding in an invisible voice, energy, tempo and pace can be seriously damaged.

Looking forward, I believe new solutions are needed to create a media atmosphere that helps tell stories in the truest possible manner, while at the same time being available to a modern and mobile audience.

One realistic solution that could at least improve the situation could simply be making different versions available. To have mobile devices point audiences at versions that contain voice-overs while web sites point users to subtitled versions.

Regardless of your opinion on the matter, the fact is: the web is not television. We don’t sit at our monitors from the same distance we watch television at and we don’t interpret the information we receive from these devices in the same way. So why should we use the same methods of communication they did?

Instead of blindly following our predecessors’ practices, perhaps we should rethink our methods and help create a smarter audience.

LEAVING THE LAND: Articles in this series look at how China’s government-driven effort to push the population to towns and cities is reshaping a nation that for millenniums has been defined by its rural life.
• PART I: China’s Great Uprooting – Moving 250 Million Into Cities
• PART II: Pitfalls Abound in China’s Push From Farm to City
• Part III: Picking Death Over Eviction

Jonah M. Kessel is a freelance visual journalist and cinematographer covering China for the video desk of the New York Times. In 2012 he was the field video journalist for the Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning series the iECONOMY. Follow him on Twitter here or visit his web site here.

Kessler 640x120-1


Posted on September 8th, 2013 by Jonah Kessel | Category: Canon C100, documentary, Journalism |

7 responses to "Robbing our subjects or helping our audience? Jonah Kessel on voice-overs"

  1. iservin Says:
    September 8th, 2013 at 11:01 pm

    Thanks for the post here Jonah. I’m in college at the moment, I do documentary shorts for the University’s cable station. I started out doing news photography and came to TV from a very artistic side, I never did voice overs because I didn’t know how. I was focused on the aesthetics.

    I’m well trained with audio production now, but doing voiceovers is still something I avoid. Most of my colleagues rely on voiceovers and I find that it ends up being the producer’s story, not the subjects. They just add quick soundbites to reinforce the VO, but otherwise don’t contribute much to the final story.

    I do think that VOs can be useful for some pieces, but in my opinion they are used too often as a crutch for people who either struggle with editing interviews or aren’t asking the right questions to begin with. For short recaps where the story needs context or a setup quickly, I do VO work, but otherwise I leave it to the subjects. It’s their story, not mine.

    BTW, I just wanted to add that I really admire your work. I came into college wanting to go into law. I’m in my senior year and I’ve gradually become focused on becoming a video storyteller. With the looming death of the specialist, I think embracing multimedia is crucial to today’s journalist and not only do you do so proficiently, you’re able to tell amazing stories as well. Thanks for the work you do, it’s inspiring.

  2. bgroody Says:
    September 9th, 2013 at 8:13 am

    Interesting post. This voice over business is something I have been grappling with for a lot of years now. A well written and executed voice over can add a lot to a piece and can often transform a series of sound bites into a coherent story. It can also bring in elements which film can not convey such as temperature, smell and perspective. I have come to believe that the trick is knowing when to get the narrator out of the way.
    In other words, it’s a all about balance.

  3. Mark Dobson Says:
    September 9th, 2013 at 9:57 am

    Thanks for this post.

    I find that the voice-over totally changes the relationship that we have with the film. Not hearing the hesitation, nuance and natural rhythm of the participants, having it replaced by a voice-over, however well done is to me a distancing editorial decision.

    The New York Times, by it’s very nature, is going to attract an articulate and educated audience and anybody taking the time out to watch one of your excellent videos has already made a decision to learn more about a particular issue.

    I’ve always used narration to summarise, introduce and contextualise sections within a film and here in the UK the recent success of Swedish and Danish crime dramas – full of subtitles goes to prove that if the story is engaging people are quite happy to read the text.

  4. marklondon Says:
    September 9th, 2013 at 10:51 am

    I’ve worked in news and doco for over 20 years, mainly in the UK.
    I think VO is ok for news stories, but not for long-form docos or ‘considered’ pieces.
    I think the compromise the NYT has made here is right, and as long as the non-VO version is available, then even better.
    There is more than one ‘audience’ and its vital for Jonah’s interview subjects that the story reach as wide an audience as possible, most crucially those that may think they have no interest in the story whatsoever.
    Then the more emotionally accurate piece (although sub-titling is still a terrible corruption) exists for the audience who wants to learn more.
    I’ve found the key to remaining ‘true’ to the story in a VO’d film is the casting of the voices. Get that right, and the message will have its intended effect. You’re already shaping the story in being upset his treatment by the land developers (it may really shock you to realise that others may not react that way) – the point then is communicating his pain and your outrage. You AND him are now the point of view.
    As to the commenter above who suggests that the popularity of Scandi drama has made sub-titling more mainstream, that’s a a bit of confirmation bias. You’ll note that they have almost all been remade in English to reach an even wider (including non-English speaking!) audience.

  5. MalcolmM Says:
    September 9th, 2013 at 11:08 am

    This is something I wrestle with on every project. I make industrial and documentary films and frankly using VO is very cost effective, but, for me, ruins the believability of the characters. I strive for people telling their own stories, not me writing VO to editorialize what they said, unfortunately at times this is exactly what I have to do, but for me it’s a last resort. Using VO cobbled together from the subjects own words is better, in my opinion, but I am editorializing in post. People just don’t say things clearly and succinctly, it’s our nature in natural conversation and as a filmmaker it’s a constant battle for me. When pressed for time, I use VO derived from the subjects dialogue, in rarer instances I write it, I always prefer to have enough footage or running time to let the story develop naturally, but that involves a huge amount of time in the edit, and may not give me a program length that is acceptable to a client.

    Always a tough compromise on every job.

    Thank you for the discussion on this subject.


    Malcolm Matusky
    Scottsdale, Arizona, USA.

  6. pixelkisser Says:
    September 9th, 2013 at 3:14 pm

    Think there’s some confusion here over the notion of ‘voice over’. There’s a ‘narrator’, which is there to link segments together and add insight, and then there’s a ‘dub’ which is what I think is originally referred to here as a replacement for the original voice.

    In any case, I’d argue the most important thing is that the pictures do the talking. After all, it’s a visual medium; telling the story through pictures. Words are there to help, not dominate.

    My test is that you should be able to mute the sound track and still have a half decent idea of what’s going on. If you can’t, maybe you need pictures that tell the story better….

  7. Says:
    September 10th, 2013 at 8:13 am

    They are translation voice overs.

    I agree with you, Jonah. I think subtitles are the most transparent, and best method of dealing with language differences.

    I suspect the problem is less a technical one than a matter of reducing the amount of active work the viewer has to do. This is not necessarily bad. When we are well rested and crave stimulation, we want a movie that makes us work and delivers depth. But when we are strung-out after a monotonous day, we want distraction and surface. We want a translator to tell us the short version of what a subject says. Depth vs surface.

    If the purpose of journalism is to engage people, it should make them work a bit and in exchange give them depth. If journalism is infotainment, deliver surface as quickly as possible.

    In this video and blog post I struggled with the same issues in a slightly different context:

    I wonder if the issue about readability on smart phones is a red herring. An iPhone 4 has a 960×640 pixel screen. TV is smaller at 720×576. (PAL. NTSC is smaller still.) As a result, text in a TV commercial looks quite big and very readable on a smart phone, ie. more readable than it is when it appears on a TV.

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