Hal Douglas and the Evolving Art Form of Movie Trailer Voice-Overs

By J. Sperling Reich | March 21, 2014 8:36 am PDT
[youtube width=”560″ height=”315″]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fVDzuT0fXro[/youtube]

It’s been a week since we learned about the passing of voice-over legend Hal Douglas at the age of 89. If that name doesn’t ring a bell, then you probably don’t work in the marketing department of a film or television company.

Over the course of four decades Douglas provided the voice-over narration for hundreds, if not thousands, of movie trailers and promotional television spots. His list of credits is far to vast to list in total, but included movies like “Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs”, “Con Air”, “Die Hard”, “Forrest Gump”, “Four Feathers”, “Lethal Weapon”, “Meet the Parents”, “Men In Black”, and “Philadelphia” to name but a few.

Since Douglas’ death was announced I’ve heard it suggested repeatedly both in the media and in various conversations with industry professionals, that Douglas helped establish and was a part of a “golden age” of voice-over. Joining him in this unofficial category are the likes of Don LaFontaine, credited with creating the trailer catch phrase “in a world”, and Don Morrow, whose credits include “Fistful of Dollars”, “Saving Private Ryan” and “Titanic”. Up until five years ago, and dating back to the mid-1970s, Hollywood studios and television networks relied upon this troika of talent so much that their deep bass busting style has become standard to the point of almost being cliché.

Douglas made light of his own omnipresent narration by appearing in a trailer for Jerry Seinfeld’s 2002 documentary “Comedian” as a voice-over artist who only speaks in movie trailer colloquialisms.

With the passing of LaFontaine in 2008 and now Douglas, the argument being made is that an era of voice-over artistry has ended with them, and henceforth, all we’ll get is a string of artists trying to imitate these masters. While there is no disputing the talent of Douglas, LaFontaine, Morrow and their thunder throated contemporaries, when it comes to voice-over narration I must disagree with the notion that the timeframe in which they worked was anymore golden than those that came before, after or have yet to occur.

Like just about everything in life, and especially the arts, voice-over narration evolves from one set of overlapping characteristics to the next. Just as modernism spawned postmodernism or as the work’s of Picasso, the renown painter, transitioned from a monochromatic blue-green between 1901 and 1904 into cubist works by 1909, the time period in which Douglas was so prolific is defined by a style of voice-over that he helped establish.

Put another way, it’s not that Douglas was simply good at delivering “Voice of God” (VoG) narration, he actually created the style (along with others such as LaFontaine). With his passing, the style will shift slightly to match the taste of current audiences and the characteristics of whoever the next big voice-over talent is. Given the natural progression of marketing, design and popular culture, this new style will, in all likelihood, be close, though not identical, to that of Douglas and his peers.

A voice-over actor such as Jon Bailey is a perfect example of what I’m describing. Bailey was discovered on YouTube performing voice-over impersonations. His bass-heavy voice was soon being used in dozens of movie trailers and television commercials. Bailey has been criticized for mimicking the voice-over tone of Douglas and LaFontaine, so much so that Screen Junkies uses him to provide the satirical narration in their “Honest Trailers” series. Indeed Bailey readily admits he’s a fan of Douglas, LaFontaine and a host of other well known voice-over artists like Peter Cullen and Jim Cummings. Though close in style and range, Bailey’s work is a bit lighter in its delivery and softer in its presentation, without delving into the gravely deep bass register Douglas was famous for.

Such artistic evolutions are often slow and occur over an extended period. For instance, compare the original 1941 theatrical trailer for “Citizen Kane” against a 2011 trailer for the Blu-Ray release of the very same film. Held up as one of the most creative trailers ever made, it features the voice of Orson Welles, who up to that point was primarily a radio personality, and reveals very little about the plot:

[youtube width=”560″ height=”315″]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W964kq1U6JU[/youtube]

On the other hand there is the 2011 version which features a Douglas-esque voice-over narration that makes Citizen Kane seem like an action-adventure epic:

[youtube width=”560″ height=”315″]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GwN9Vwr-jRw[/youtube]

Between the 1920s and the late-1950’s, National Screen Service had a veritable monopoly on producing theatrical trailers for Hollywood studios. This is why so many trailers from the 1950s look and sound exactly the same. Trailers from this time period rarely presented a narrative of the movie, but rather teased audiences by featuring images of set pieces and movie stars. Voice-over narration was used sparingly and was almost always provided by Art Gilmore who voiced more than 3,000 trailers during his career. As evidenced by this 1953 trailer for “Roman Holiday”, Gilmore’s tone was not nearly as bass-driven as Douglas’, and it was made all the higher by the dynamic range limitations of available recording technology:

[youtube width=”560″ height=”315″]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eIFo0txAvuE[/youtube]

As National Screen Service’s stranglehold on the industry began to weaken, trailers began to change and include more voice-over. This was around the same time that trailers started laying out the entire story of the movie they were promoting. By the the late-1970s one could begin to see the first signs of the VoG voice-over narrator, as can be heard in the 1978 trailer for “Superman”:

[youtube width=”560″ height=”315″]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bHw39LmnRJU[/youtube]

So, with Douglas and LaFontaine currently “unavailable” for future work, voice-over narration in trailers will undoubtedly change, with voices that start to diverge from the style they perfected. Eventually, an entirely different trailer aesthetic will serve to represent a corresponding future time period, just as we will always link Douglas and LaFontaine to trailers from the past 30 years.

On a side note, director (and actress) Lake Bell’s indie-film “In A World” is worth watching for a fictional yet all too realistic take on the business of movie trailer voice-overs.

J. Sperling Reich