I know that voice! Documentary ‘star’ narrators and the sonoral qualities of the voice

 Bella Honess Roe (University of Surrey, UK)

The use of celebrities and stars to narrate documentaries is not a new phenomenon. In the late 1950s Orson Welles gave voice to a documentary about the then Belgian Congo. In the 1970s Laurence Olivier narrated the British television documentary series The World at War. More recently the likes of Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon, Kenneth Branagh and Ian McKellen have lent their voices to theatrically released documentaries on subject matters as varied as penguins, prehistoric life and global economic disaster. On the one hand, one could view this as a simple marketing device: in a similar way to the sea change in animation voice acting spurred by Disney casting Robin Williams in Aladdin in 1992, documentary makers are cashing in on an actor’s fan base in order to boost the reach of their documentary. Yet, is there not more to it than this? Is there not something to the particular qualities of a certain voice and the body that it implies? The unseen documentary narrator, or ‘voice of God,’ has traditionally been theorized as the sound of authority that carried the didactic weight of the documentary and to which the images played a second fiddle. Mary Ann Doane suggests that the voice becomes a guarantee of knowledge when it ‘cannot be yoked to a body’ (2009: 325). But while we may not able to see the bodies of documentary star narrators their identity is known, the sound of their voice conjures up specific associations and it entails an intertextual audiovisual cross-referencing by the viewer/listener that may either validate, or invalidate, the documentary text as a whole.

This paper will explore the history of star documentary narrators, paying particular attention to the implications of the sonoral qualities of the voice for documentary reception. In doing so it will also look at documentary-makers who have become ‘vocal stars,’ such as Werner Herzog and David Attenborough.


Chion M (1999) The Voice in Cinema, trans. C Gorbman. New York: Columbia University Press
Doane MA (2009) The Voice in the Cinema: The articulation of body and space. In: Braudy L and Cohen M (eds), Film Theory and Criticism, 7th ed. Oxford: New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 318-330
Dolar M (2006) A Voice and Nothing More. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press
Rogers, Holly, ed. (2015) Music and Sound in Documentary Film. London: Routledge.
Barthes, Roland (1977) The Grain of the Voice. In: Image, Music, Text, trans. S. Heath. London: Fontana Paperbacks, pp. 179–189.

Bella Honess Roe is Senior Lecturer and programme director for Film Studies at the University of Surrey. She has published in journals including The British Journal of Cinema and Television Studies and Animation: An Interdisciplinary Journal. Her book Animated Documentary, published in 2013 by Palgrave Macmillan, was the recipient of the 2015 McLaren-Lambart award for best book by the Society of Animation Studies. She is currently co-editing a volume on the voice in documentary with Maria Pramaggiore.