Breaking the fourth wall isn’t a new phenomenon. But thanks to the recent success of BBC’s hit show Fleabag, it’s been a much talked about technique in recent months.
Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp character unashamedly acknowledged the camera in his 1914 screen debut and it has been a common trope in cinema and TV ever since.
From Ferris Bueller’s direct advice on how to pull a sickie. The racial slur onslaught in Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing. Jim from The Office’s exasperated glances, the Underwood’s provocative soliloquies in The House of Cards to Miranda’s cheery asides. For as long as there have been cameras, there have been characters willing to confide in them.
This type of direction requires confidence and proficiency from the actors to avoid it becoming a bit panto. However, this technique can be a great tool for a narrative when it’s done well. As well as being used for comedic effect, it can create a bond between the viewer and the protagonist. The audience is being let in on the secret, as if the character has allowed them in the club. It makes the viewer feel important, trusted and valued. Which in turn will make them more invested as the drama unfolds.
How we break the fourth wall
With documentaries and corporate films, this style can be used to cultivate a similar relationship with the viewer. With the right camera set-up and direction, you can achieve this kind of performance – regardless of experience in front of the camera. For example, in our Creative Cuts Series, we use this technique when interviewing experts to create an intimate and engaging relationship with the viewer.
While much of the success of shows like Fleabag is obviously down to sharp writing and strong performances, the inventive use of this direct-to-camera technique was definitely a contributing factor too.
Whatever type of content you are creating, you want to build an invested and committed fan base. Breaking down walls between you and your audience isn’t just a novel camera technique, it can also be a valuable tool in the quest to build a strong relationship with audience.