Thursday, 4 January 2018

Why Animators Shouldn'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 so-called Willing Suspension of Disbelief is that the characters acting for us don't know we are there.

Character looks at the audience - breaks the Fourth Wall
Actors don't look at the camera
There are exceptions to this rule, of course, but next you watch anything on TV, notice how seldom characters look at the camera. It's done occasionally for dramatic effect, but very rarely. Unless, of course it's a documentary, or it's someone reading the news. Then, they are talking directly to us, the audience.

"Fourth Wall"
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.

The character looks to screen left - much stronger
Camera as Observer, not Participant
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. Who are they really taking to? The general rule to hold to is that the camera should just be an observer, never a participant.

Break the Rules - But Learn Them First
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.

Audience is a Non-Participating Observer
Below is an example of strong character animation by Animation Apprentice 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.


1 comment:

  1. The rule is, only stars can break the fourth wall. Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Charlie Chaplin can do it because they have a relationship with the audience. In my book, Comedy for Animators, I describe the difference between representational storytelling, and presentational performance, where addressing the audience is perfectly acceptable.