“Beautiful in the summer and scary as hell in the winter,” is how narrator David Pettit, describes the Coquihalla Highway, the setting for “Highway thru Hell” – the reality series that follows heavy rescue towing outfitters through lethal drop-offs, avalanches, killer rockslides whiteouts and steep hills. Pettit’s smooth rugged twang, filled with measures of narrative bluster and gravitas is completely in keeping with the show which has been widely marketed as “tough guys meeting tough conditions.”
Highway Thru Hell, Beautifully Scary
Shifting gears with the finesse of the truck operators, he guides the viewer through the show’s many complexities. Weaving together structure and drama with a delivery that supplies context and information while also amping up the drama and explaining the high-stakes rescues as they unfold. There’s plenty of heavy-duty macho man stuff going on, but the focus is on helping.” The guys on Highway Thru Hell are just so darn likable, they commiserate and, well… care. It’s odd, it’s great, it’s easy to get invested.
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A veteran voice-over artist, narrator, and self-described “geek-world Rockstar”, Dave narrates the show as a “high stakes version” of himself. With a long history of successful projects, including narrating Highway Thru Hell’s sister series Heavy Rescue 401, two of Discovery’s most successful programs. “I tell it in my way, and I think I’ve been fortunate enough to have been given lots of creative license to be myself.” Dave Pettitt is also the narrator behind BAFTA-winning Valiant Heart: The Great War, has several credits in the animation scene and is the affable voice of the GyPsyguide app, where he further flexes his storytelling muscles.
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Reality TV Narration and Its Role Storytelling
“Part of being a storyteller is being able to find the mood,” Dave says, “You have to be engaging, and you have to have a little bit of charm and charisma.” Through a mixture of narration, radio conversations, interviews, and stunning footage. Highway thru Hell is a riveting, high-stakes look into the beautiful and often terrifying world of Highway 5, the Coq (pronounced ‘coke’) and Jamie Davis Motor Trucking.
“Ideally you want the characters on screen to tell the story, you want the narrator to explain the details,” Dave explains. The crew is onsite in blistering conditions, working in 12-hour shifts. The highway recovery team is doing their thing and doesn’t have time to turn to the camera and explain the situation. The crew skilfully catches massive amounts of footage that needs to be woven together in a way that is both understanding and engaging, that connects the viewer with the realities of the Coq.
So What’s so Hellish about the Coquihalla?
“Just how colossal and incredible the elements of those areas are, you know?” Those who brave the Coq approach the trip more like survivalists going to war with nature, or at least trying to sneak by and hope nature doesn’t notice them. They stock up on fuel, food, water, ready for severe weather that can attack in as little as 20 minutes. Throw in raging wildfires that recently forced the highway to close and you have a beautiful, frostbitten, hell. And if you squint just right ‘halla’, sounds like hell. Coquihalla actually means ‘stingy container’ or ‘place’, (something to do with Salmon?) Highway Thru Stingy Container doesn’t have quite the same ring.
“I mean, you’re driving through some of the biggest mountains on the continent and… just the majesty of what it looks like. The drone shots that they get, will blow you away,” says Pettitt. Highway thru Hell is true to its packaging. Delivering a reality docuseries primarily centered around Highway 5 and its infamously treacherous 125-mile stretch, The Coquihalla (ominous music). Featuring steep hills, unpredictable weather, -22 F temperatures, death trap drop-offs, and rockslides that give it the reputation as one of the most dangerous major highways in the world. With snowfall that can exceed 4 inches an hour, the highway can close at any time, occasionally forcing travelers to sleep in their cars.
Using Narration to Build a Highway Thru Hell’s Story and Mood
Unlike other areas of media, reality shows don’t rely on a script, and shows like Highway thru Hell certainly can’t know what kind of disasters are going to unfold during the winter season. They rely heavily on producers and editors to piece a narrative together and narration to tie it all together. “The intensity helps build the action as well, so you know my job (is to) portray just how dangerous of a situation this is…. And all these guys make it look easy. They put themselves at risk every single time on the road…. I definitely have to reflect on just how dangerous and high stakes all of those situations are.”
Emphasizing pivotal moments, piecing together storylines, providing information, and using his awesome voice to hype up the scene. There is so much the average viewer might miss or not know, that explanations are crucial to keep the narrative flow. “I love the parts where I get to tell a little bit of back story on people…. get a bit more sense of who the person is that you’re talking about. Not just that their life begins and ends on this section of the highway.”
Navigating Narrative Difficulties
The life of a narrator might not be as difficult as the guys out on the Highway thru Hell, but it can have its oddball challenges. Dave describes the absurdity in one episode of a truck that had careened off an embankment and caught fire. Clearly, a dire situation, the challenge Dave had was that the truck had been filled with juice boxes, juice boxes that were now on fire. He had to find a way to use that voice of his to navigate the gravitas past the oxymoron “a blazing inferno of juice boxes.”
Pettitt’s vocal qualities and style happen to match the excitement and challenge of Highway Thru Hell to a “T.” He says, “Voice actors are that creative icing on a cake, you know lots of people have mixed all the ingredients to make this beautiful product. And at the end, they choose the voice that is going to be the final representation, or the outer representation of all the hard work that everybody else did in making that beautiful, delicious cake.”
The Tenth Season of Highway Thru Hell
In celebration of Highway Thru Hell’s tenth season, (produced by greatpacificTV, airing on Discovery Canada, National Geographic,) and The Weather Channel, Dave Pettit assures us there is a little something special, something extras and different bits coming up. Not to oversell it, but I for one, can’t wait.