Thursday, 1 February 2018

Don't Break the 4th Wall

Don't look at the camera
One of the most common mistakes made by student animators is to have their characters talk directly to the camera.

Inexperienced animators often do this, at least at first. We pose out our character and we think - who is she talking to? I know - she's talking to me! But in a film, or a play, or a TV Series, the camera (ie the audience) is almost always an observer, never a participant.

Part of the principle of the Willing Suspension of Disbelief is that the characters acting for us on the screen don't know we are there.

Character looks at the audience - breaks the Fourth Wall
Next you watch pretty anything on TV, notice how seldom the characters look directly at the camera. Of course, if it's a documentary, or the evenings news, it's different. Then, they are talking directly to us, the audience.

The trouble with having a character looking directly at the camera is that it breaks the so-called “Fourth Wall.”, the invisible barrier that separates the audience from the action that we are observing.

Much of the work you need to do as a film-maker goes into maintaining the illusion that we are watching a story unfold before us, whereas in reality it is all just a contrivance. We, the audience, pretend that we are watching something real.

The character looks to screen left - much stronger
When an actor, or an animated character, looks straight into the camera, they are looking directly at the audience, and this destroys the illusion. The character is now making eye contact with the viewer, and the problem with this is that the viewer isn't supposed to be there, because no-one is supposed to be there.

The general rule to hold to is that the camera should just be an observer, never a participant.

Rules can be broken, of course, but they should be broken sparingly, and with good reasons. When you break the fourth wall, your character becomes aware of their fictional nature, and this suspends the drama.

Below is an example of strong character animation by Bucks Animation MA student Victoria Bailey. The camera is offset just enough so that the character isn't talking directly to us; rather he is speaking to someone just behind us and to our right. We, the audience, are an observer, not a participant.


For more on the experience of studying at Bucks New University, come and visit us at one of our Open Days, take a virtual tour of one of our animation studios, check out what our students think of our course, and see why we're ranked in the top 12 creative universities in the UK.

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