Breaking The Fourth Wall [Definition & Examples]

Breaking the fourth wall
Breaking the fourth wall

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Have you ever watched a film or TV show where the actor looks directly into the camera? This is called this breaking the 4th wall, it’s hard to miss, and it changes the viewing experience.

So, what is the fourth wall, how do you break it, and when can you use it in your film projects? In this following guide, we break down the 4th wall in detail. We’ve also included a few examples from popular movies and TV shows.

What is The Fourth Wall?

The fourth wall is the imaginary wall between the audience and the fictional world. The term comes from live theatre where a set has three walls, with the fourth wall facing the audience.

So, the audience watches a show by looking into the 4th wall. Obviously in film and TV, this wall is where the camera stands. In a typical show, the actors do not interact with the audience.

However, when you break the wall, the actor acknowledges they are in a show. Therefore the story is now aware of itself, removing the illusion of the story world.

What is Breaking The 4th Wall?

Well, put simply, by acknowledging the audience or camera, you, in effect, break the 4th wall. In a movie, the actor might speak directly to the audience. The actors also step out of their story world either with narration or by looking into the camera.

The term ‘breaking the 4th wall’ is used in theatre, film, video games, and even books. Most film and TV shows never break the wall; however, when they do, it’s typical to have a specific purpose in mind.

Examples of Breaking the Fourth Wall

Confused? No problem here are a few quick examples from popular films and tv shows with explainations.

Ferris Buellers Day Off (1986)

In this comedy, Ferris breaks the wall many times by talking directly to the camera. Ferris lets the audience in on his plans to skip school and even sings to the camera. In the final scene, Ferris tells the audience that the film is over and they should leave the cinema.

The Office (2001)

In this mockumentary, the show pokes fun at the documentary genre with this effect. The characters speak to the audience through interviews. The person behind the camera also talks to the character’s creating the illusion that they are real people.

House of Cards (2013)

In this drama, breaking the wall brings the audience inside the mind of Frank and how he sees the world. By using a monologue, Frank reveals his plans, feelings, and secrets. By doing this the audience feels closer to Frank, creating a stronger emotional connection.

Deadpool (2016)

In this comedy, Deadpool addresses the audience many times. In one scene, he winks at the camera and talks about the actors playing the roles. He is aware of the film and his place in the Marvel universe. As such, this is an example of this effect and meta referencing.

Let’s have a look at a few more reasons why a filmmaker might want to break the fourth wall.

Why Break The Fourth Wall?

Breaking the 4th wall is a decision the director will make in pre-production unless the screenwriter included wall breaks in the script. Either way, using this effect takes careful planning because it destroys the audience’s belief in the story.

Even one shot breaking the wall will pull the audience out of the story illusion. But if done correctly, the audience can feel more engaged with the material. There are many reasons to break the wall, from letting people know vital information to telling a joke.

Here are 5 main reasons for breaking the fourth wall.

1. Narration

The main reason to break the wall is to talk to the audience. By doing this, the actor can deliver new information or tell the audience an opinion on the story. Typically the narrator in a film is off screen, and you hear them as a voiceover. However, you can create a more personal connection by having them in the movie.

2. Comedy

Another reason filmmakers break the wall is to tell a joke. You don’t expect a character to know they are in a fictional world. Often only one actor does this, and the others remain in the story world. You can find this effect frequently in mockumentaries with fake interviews. By doing this, you create the illusion that the footage is real.

3. Documentary

In a documentary, the filmmakers themselves might speak to the audience. Instead of creating a fly-on-the-wall effect, the filmmaker addresses the camera and shares their opinion on the events. By doing this, you show the inner thoughts of your host and can push the story forwards. Although, you also run the risk of creating bias.

4. Drama 

You can break the 4th wall in any film genre. In a drama, an actor might speak or look into the camera to create a deeper connection between them and the audience. By doing this, they can share a secret or heighten an emotion. You can also use this effect alongside the point of view shot to show the story world in the eyes of the character.

5. Meta

Lastly, using this effect is another way of meta referencing. By doing this, you draw attention to the universe within which the story world is. You can use this as a flashback or by telling a meta joke. The act of self referencing shows a broader awareness of the character within their world.

How To Use Breaks In Your Own Film?

Breaking the fourth wall needs to come across as intentional. Unless the breaks are within your script, you must decide if they will benefit the story. By acknowledging the audience in your project, your story will lose a sense of realism.

When deciding to use a break you need to decide how real you want your story to feel. Consider if by breaking the 4th wall, you will convey key information to your audience. Is it part of a joke throughout the movie or will it help create a connection with a character?

When you use this effect, you enter your character’s mind. Because of this, you can find it in scenes with psychopaths or when a character has psychosis. Also, the actor does not need to speak to the audience as looking into the camera is enough to break the wall.

Wrapping Up – Breaking The 4th Wall

To sum up, you can break the fourth wall in any film genre. By using this effect, you instantly get the viewer’s attention. It’s a bold creative decision that will require some thinking. So, pick your shots wisely and ensure they add value to your film.

Also, unless you have it in your script, you should plan these shots before filming. We hope this helps you understand what is the fourth wall and how you can use it within your own short films.

Amy Clarke
Amy Clarke
Amy is a content writer at the Video Collective. She is a former script supervisor and writes about careers in the film industry. Follow her on Facebook.
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