Fourth Wall

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A term originating from theatre, where the classic stage setup was a space with three walls, the back wall and two sides, and the fourth wall was ‘opened up,’ or removed to allow the audience to observe the stage action. The actors would traditionally act as if the audience was not there, and in order to keep that illusion, they would never cross the line where the imaginary ‘fourth wall’ would be, separating the stage from the audience.

As theatre developed, actors and directors experimented with crossing the fourth wall and addressing the audience directly, acknowledging their presence. Bertolt Brecht was famously known for doing this, as a way to intentionally break the illusion and the flow of the play, which he thought of as escapist. Brecht wanted to educate and make his audience aware, rather than entertain. Breaking the fourth wall was a way to do achieve the ‘estrangement effect’, preventing the audience to be completely absorbed by the illusion on stage, and encouraging them to reflect on themselves and real life instead.

In film, the term ‘fourth wall’ was adapted to describe a certain amount of space between the camera and the action, keeping the viewer at a safe distance and retaining the illusion of the theatrical fourth wall. The viewer was held at a distance, as a fly on the wall, observing from outside the dramatic space.

As cinematographic language developed, the invisible barrier of the forth wall was crossed as well. Hitchcock used it as a dramatic effect in a memorable shot from the film ‘Notorious’. In this shot, the character of the malevolent mother-in-law, descends from a staircase in the point of view of Ingrid Bergman’s characters. She then continues to walk straight towards the camera and crosses the ‘fourth wall’ with her movement. For a moment, she seems to walk straight through you, creating a strong, unsettling effect.

In VR and 360 videos, the question of the fourth wall arise again, as the viewer actually seems to enter the world, not simply observing it from a theatrical distance. This discussion is as yet inconclusive, as it can be argued that the viewer could be just as much a fly on the wall in a 360 setting, as in traditional film. (In a shot filmed from within a refrigerator for example, who´s standpoint are we taking in the story?)

As we have grown more accustomed to and trained in the cinematographic language, we have stopped focusing on the perspective and accepted without questioning that we are somehow present, observing the characters.

Possibly, it is only a question of time and customization, before a similar convention is established in a 360 perspective. Once the novelty of the medium has worn off, a feeling of distance and objective viewpoint may also develop in VR and 360, allowing us to observe a story from the outside, not questioning our role or position in it and wondering why we are there.

Even though a fourth wall may not be an adequate term, as there is no frame or limit of view in a 360 video, something comparable to a forth wall element may develop in this medium too.

On the other hand, it can also be argued that interactive VR will develop a novel way of storytelling, working in the opposite direction, where the objective will be not to establish a fourth wall, but rather to include and engage the viewer in the action, enhancing his/her feeling of presence and making the notion of a fourth wall lose its meaning altogether.


Cecilie Levy. Dec. 17, 2017