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Engaging Filmmaking Techniques: Breaking the Fourth Wall

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This week in the Zooppa office, we had a really great conversation about filmmaking techniques that we like to use in our own creative ventures. One of the techniques that generated some healthy conversation was ‘Breaking the Fourth Wall.’


The term ‘Fourth Wall’ refers to the imaginary barrier at the front of a theater that separates the action on stage from the audience. Traditionally, the action on stage happens despite the audience, so to speak. When the actors speak directly to the audience, suspension of disbelieve is disrupted. Enter self-reflexive cinema/theater. The audience is made aware of their role as passive spectator to constructed scenario. This approach is certainly not new, people have been using it pretty much since the beginning of theater. After all these years however, breaking the fourth wall is still a compelling way to engage your audience and throw a wrench in the cog of traditional modes of viewing.


To give a recognizable contemporary example: Woody Allen uses this technique consistently throughout his films as a comedic tool. John Hughes utilizes the technique in his 1986 cult classic Farris Beuller’s Day Off. In most cases, one character will take on the role as fourth-wall breaker. Frequently it is the main character, the one with whom the audience is meant to most identify or sympathize. These moments of disruption can serve as comedic tool, or to further elucidate the action unfolding.





A personal favorite example is the films of director Michael Winterbottom. Admittedly, I have not watched all of his films, but the ones I have seen: a) I adore, and b) utilize breaking the fourth wall as only one element in a totally self-reflexive, postmodern cinematic schema. Example: One of the most awesome moments in his film 24 Hour Party People (2002) revolves around Steve Coogan’s character and his self-aware flirtation with another character in the film. As he waxes poetic to this woman about his awareness of the social phenomenon of flirting and his participation in it, he turns to the camera (read – audience) and states: “Don’t judge. I was being postmodern, before it was fashionable.” Blatant? Maybe. No less clever, however. In fact, within the first five minutes of 24 Hour Party People, Winterbottom establishes the film as a piece of self-reflexive cinema, and Steve Coogan as Tony Wilson as the conduit of the device.


Winterbottom also makes extensive use of this technique in his 2004 film Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story. It is a film about making a film that is adapted from the suposedly unfilmable novel by Lawrence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentlemen (1759-1767). Still with me? Tristram Shandy stars Steve Coogan as Steve Coogan as Tristram Shandy. The fourth wall is broken in this film not only by the actor speaking to the audience, but also in exposing the behind the scenes aspects of making the film. The crew is shot filming the fictional movie that this movie is about filming. Ostensibly this same crew is actually shooting the film. Exposing the crew disrupts the believable narrative, again, making the audience of their role as viewer. Bottom line, Tristram Shandy is hilarious. It also functions pretty well as a work of postmodern meta-text. I recommend.





All of that said, as much as this post is about films that successfully break the fourth wall, it is also meant to suggest that you can be inspired by filmmaking techniques you love. And use them. You don’t need a feature length script and a million plus dollar budget to think outside of the box in your own work. I would love to hear about other filmmaking techniques that inspire you. Who knows, maybe I’ll blog about it.


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Meme E

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