The Hidden History of the Voice-Over Men: An Elegy for Hal Douglas

At the beginning of March, one of the most recognisable voices in film passed away at the age of eighty-nine in his quiet Virginia home. For the past twenty years, he and his wife had been building an organic garden, while he worked away in his small studio, often not bothering to change out of his pyjamas. It was here that he would work on hundreds of blockbusters during his lifetime, cementing a reputation as one of the preeminent artists in his field. But despite his fifty year long career and many accolades, nobody would have recognised him in the street, nor would they would have known his name. Like all good voice-over men, Hal Douglas knew when to blend into the background. The unsung talent of a billion dollar industry, Douglas and the voice-over men have assumed an invisible but vital position between audiences and filmmakers.

How many of us can think of the phrase “In a world…” without hearing it in a booming baritone? We may not realise it, but that baritone belongs to Douglas, or perhaps to his equally prolific colleague Don LaFontaine.  The experience of cinema-going has imparted these voices into the audience’s consciousness, and since the 1960’s these sounds have coloured our perceptions of film, cementing genres, building characters and pulling us in to the products they’re selling. Years of trailer-watching have inexorably altered our expectations of mainstream cinema too – a bad trailer can break a film, while likewise a good one can send it rocketing at the box office. But things haven’t always been this way. The art of the trailer, like the art of the voice-over men, is something that has grown up with our viewing habits.

Trailers began life as a one-off stunt, when promoter and radio host Nils Granlund produced a short film for musical production The Pleasure Seekers for the Marcus Loew theatre chain in 1913. But like all good trailers, the fever spread, and soon Loew began implementing the notion of promotional footage across all his theatres. The effect was to standardise the notion of promotional footage, although the original “trailing” display at the end of a production was soon switched to the pre-movie format we know today. From then until the 1950s, trailers were produced by one company – the National Screen Service – and were usually arduously long with great chunks of text written across them, such as this one from The Maltese Falcon (1941) below:

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But the artistry of the trailer began to take off in the 1960s, when developments in editing brought greater possibilities. With his background in still photography Stanley Kubrick was quick to capitalise on this, producing groundbreaking trailers for Lolita and 2001: A Space Odyssey. The real change however came with the ascent of the voice-over men. Usually drawn from a background in commercial radio, announcers like Fred Foy, Disney’s Mark Elliot and Hal Douglas made the transition from radio to TV and film during this era. Suddenly a new and enticing way to market a film was born.

The effects were profound, primarily because voices have their own distinct power: they are personal, and over time we come to know and trust them. They are almost in some sense paternalistic. Don LaFontaine was known as “the voice of God” – a moniker that reveals something of his sonic omnipresence. We have in time become accustomed to being marketed to by these invisible yet familiar figures and their presence reassures us that everything is as it should be; the consumer wheel keeps turning, and the new releases keep churning.

The voice-over also has a broader critical function. As a marketing tool it can be likened to the blurb of a novel, which is to say it is not merely a sales tool, it also a means by which we can contextualise and talk about the products we buy into. Voice-overs tell us what to expect of a film, but they also create their own unique language to accompany the visual hooks of a trailer. We use these terms as a way in to understanding and thinking critically about film- whether it lived up to expectations, what it was trying to achieve, and so on.

In essence, the trailer has become an art form. But behind the rise of the trailer has been a much less visible yet equally important ascent. The voice-over men foster our expectations of the cinematic experience from childhood, for better or for worse. Without them, our cinematic landscape would be much poorer, and our ability to compare and contextualise the films we watch would be much less great. Mediating the dialogue between audience and filmmaker for over fifty years, Hal Douglas was just one of many whose position will – and perhaps should – go unspoken.

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