PAINTING THE FOURTH WALL
Once upon a time, there was a young boy who was curious about why television looked the way it did.
I was only eleven in 1970, but already I had become aware of something odd about television. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was or what was causing it – it was little more than subliminal – but there were some strange shifts back and forth in the look and feel of what was on the screen. It happened in many home-grown UK programmes of the late 60s and early 70s: Dad’s Army, Doctor Who, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, The Forsyte Saga, Fawlty Towers, and so on. That eleven-year-old boy eventually came to realise the change was due to a simple geographical shift – from inside the studio, to outside. I don’t mean just that the light was different, it was something more fundamental: when Captain Mainwaring or Basil Fawlty stepped out from the studio and into the outside world, they crossed a threshold that was not merely physical but in some way profoundly psychological, a boundary between two different worlds that simply didn’t belong together. Jarringly, they failed to connect. Over the years I became increasingly curious about what was going on.
Of course, now I know: the studio action was shot on video, and the outside action was shot on film. Why such a difference, and why did it matter? After many years of pondering it, my conclusion was this: video looks like it is happening now, whereas film looks like it is happening in the past. Indeed, in the studio-based scenes of old TV re-runs, I still get a very strong sense of the here-and-now, of our actors being very much alive and in the present. Hard to believe, in fact, that the Dad’s Army team are mostly long since dead. Not so for the filmed sections, which feel more nostalgic and distant, like looking through old letters or photographs. For a story-teller, this is a crucial distinction.
Stories tend to be told in the past tense. Yes, there are many exceptions to this rule and authors as disparate as Hilary Mantell and Stephen King have written powerfully using the present tense. But in one crucial sense, by dint of us merely accepting a story which has a beginning, middle and end – in other words a literary construct that we know is complete before the first word is uttered – a story always resides in the past. It seems to me that this is the default position for story-telling: “It befell in the days of Uther Pendragon”, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”, “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away”. For thousands of years, stories have begun with the words “Once upon a time…” My opening sentence, clumsy though it may be, takes the reader to another world in space and time.
And so it is with the moving image. A fictional film benefits from invoking the past tense. We crowd round the TV or cinema screen, warmed by it as if it were a campfire, and we await the day’s story-telling. But how does film achieve this? We talk about “The Fourth Wall”, a magical barrier, invisible yet concrete, between the audience and the action, a curtain that allows us to see and hear everything and yet be separate from it. This Fourth Wall contains a contradiction: by keeping you at arm’s length, it draws you in. It gives us the frisson of the voyeur, we become James Stewart in Rear Window, or Anthony Perkins watching Janet Leigh through the spy hole in her motel wall. We even talk about films being “letterboxed”, something we don’t so much look at, but through, and become absorbed by the story on an emotional level – whilst physically remaining safe. We are aware of the protagonists and the pulse of their lives, but they are not aware of us. It’s a one-way mirror: when Arthur draws the sword from the stone he has no idea we are watching. Just as we look up at the night sky and see stars from millions of years ago, many of which have long since died, the fourth wall becomes our telescope into another world and brings the past back to life. Somehow, by looking through the fourth wall, we see something that has already happened. It invokes the past tense.
Whilst this fourth wall is largely in our heads, it still needs to be triggered, sparked into life by some physical cue. Some are obvious: in the theatre, the stage is lit, the auditorium is dark (we can see them but they not us); often we look from above, or below. The orchestral pit, whether full or empty, creates a physical barrier. When we draw the curtains back, they leave their memory behind. Some cues are much less obvious, especially in more intimate circumstances such as theatre-in-the-round, or fringe theatre where the audience is physically closer and the actors are sometimes invited to break through the fourth wall. (In the hands of experts, doing this can be a powerful dramatic tool; take note, though, that this still implies there is a fourth wall to break through.) Make-up, costumes, lighting, music, and, most mysteriously of all, the skill and technique of the actors, all contribute to the construction of a fourth wall. Theatre is indeed a magical place. Even the buzz in the foyer before curtain-up lays down the foundations upon which to build the wall.
So audiences play their part too, entering into some kind of unspoken contract between themselves and the action on the stage. We sit quietly, mindfully, meditatively, to enter into our own personal mental space. Theatre is often described as a shared experience, but it seems to me that what everyone is actually sharing is their own individual solitude, without any sense of irony. Comedy may be an exception, though I’m not sure. It’s why we get upset when we hear the rustle of sweet wrappers or the hissy whispers of thoughtless audience members; or, God forbid, the dreaded mobile phone, bringing down the fourth wall with the destructive power of an earthquake and razing the entire production to the ground. It is not so much the moment itself that is so frustrating, but the knowledge that the huge investment we have made in helping to build the wall has collapsed, and it will take more time than we have left to re-invest in it. Five seconds of ringtone can destroy two hours of theatre. King Arthur might as well answer the mobile phone himself.
What has any of this to do with film? I’ve barely mentioned it yet. In the UK we visit what we call the Cinema, but in the US it’s a Movie Theatre. I actually prefer the latter, in that it implies a theatrical event, something to build up to and experience. It’s why I like to get there in time to see the adverts and trailers; not, you can be sure, because I want to see them for themselves but because that’s where the fourth wall starts to be built, the first few bricks are laid down and I begin to enter a magical world where I can embrace some kind of personal solitude. (At least that’s the theory. In practice it’s almost impossible, what with the crunch of popcorn, the “excuse-me”s and coat removals of late arrivals, the mobile phone screens springing into life like fireflies at dusk and the moronic chatter of people who think they are still in their own living rooms. Such eye-watering lack of respect is deeply depressing. No wonder I hardly ever go to the pictures now.)
It is my contention that, in those TV shows from the 1970s, film did a much better job of building a fourth wall than video did. How so? For the moment let us consider in more detail the object that is becoming increasingly rare – real film. That is, long strips of celluloid with hundreds of thousands of individual images projected onto a screen at 24 frames per second to create the illusion of movement. There are several things about this old-fashioned stuff that, from a technical point of view, make it look different from digital video. By no means everyone considers them to be positive attributes and some even describe them as failures of film that only digital can rectify; but put me at the front of the queue to challenge that.
Firstly, “chemicals”. Film is a chemical process, which means that there is a certain amount of unpredictability when film is shot and developed. Even with a shot of still-life – a bowl of fruit, a vase of flowers – where the image doesn’t change from one frame to the next, the chemical development of film means that each frame will in fact be very slightly different. Colour, brightness and film-grain will vary by tiny amounts. This creates some subtle movement in the still-life, a shimmering gossamer curtain that is hard to consciously detect with the eyes but penetrates deep into the psyche. In other words, a fourth wall. With video, however, each frame of a still-life will be essentially identical. For all its lack of internal movement, you might as well be looking at a single photograph. Still-life? Well, it is still, but it is not alive.
Secondly, “motion-blur”. If you’ve ever taken a photograph of something that’s moving you’ll know what this is. Unless you use a very fast shutter speed on your camera, a moving object will create a blurred image. For technical reasons I don’t need to go into here, each frame of a 24-frames-per-second film is normally exposed to the light for 1/48th of a second (though it can vary). This is the equivalent of a relatively slow shutter speed on your camera. It doesn’t sound like much, but a lot can happen in this short space of time. Things can move a long way in 1/48th of a second – people, cars, tigers, rivers – and anything that’s caught on an individual frame of film will be blurred if it’s moving. This motion-blur creates another curtain to add to our fourth wall. In the early days of video this motion-blur was much reduced; in fact, by half. And so, likewise, was the sense of a fourth wall.
Thirdly, “gate weave”. A film projector grabs the strip of film by sticking sprockets into the film’s sprocket holes than run down both sides of it in order to pull it through the projector. (You will have seen these on any graphical representation of film. They have become a cliché, and still somehow manage to resonate even in our modern digital world where they don’t actually exist anymore – except in some esoteric circles, more of which later). The mechanism within the projector requires precision engineering to get this right, but it is not perfect. There is a fraction of “give” between the sprockets and the holes. Therefore, yet again, in our example of a still-life, each individual frame will be in a fractionally different position, and another fuzzy layer of curtain material is drawn across our field of view. Well, you guessed it, digital video doesn’t do this. Since video data is not physical, there is no “give”. Some research has shown that an audience’s emotional response varies most widely depending not so much on whether it was shot on film but on whether it is projected in the old-fashioned way, a screening method that now, essentially, no longer exists.
I could go on (interlaced versus progressive, anamorphic lenses, dynamic range) but I think you get the idea. There are significant technical differences between film and video. Or at least there used to be. Video technology has advanced over the decades since its invention and has increasingly moved nearer and nearer to achieving the “film-look”. This has been the holy grail for camera manufacturers and most film-makers alike and, by now, it has largely been achieved. I like to think I can still tell the difference but sometimes I get it wrong, and in any event I have reached the stage where I don’t usually feel the need to try.
It is significant that the aspiration to achieve the film-look on digital video exists at all. Where does it come from? There is nothing wrong with video in itself – indeed, in terms of sharpness and clarity of image, of the revealing of detail, it can be superior. I would argue that these so-called positives are the last thing a story-teller needs, and film-makers have rejected them in favour of the so-called limitations and inadequacies of film. That which makes film worse, makes it better.
It may sound like I’m suggesting that the old video look has disappeared off the face of the Earth. Far from it. Your Saturday night entertainment – Strictly Come Dancing, Match of the Day, X-factor – cling doggedly to the video-look. Why? Because they are – or wish to appear to be – “live”. The producers want you to feel the show is happening right now, in the present. This is achieved by various technical means that involve reducing or eliminating any qualities that could be construed as “filmic”. Soap-operas do the same, though this contains an interesting contradiction. Although they tell fictional stories, there is something about the never-changing, in-the-moment feel of these gossipy over-the-garden-fence stories that seem to benefit from a sense of being told now, in the present tense. After all, the characters rarely change or evolve, stuck in a loop of present tense. Industry aficionados give this appearance of video a rhetorical name: the “soap-opera look”. And then, believe it or not, there are shows that utilise a hybrid approach, somewhere in between the two different tenses. These are long-form soap operas, weekly hour-long episodes that reside somewhere in no-man’s-land between the full film-look and digital. The high-class nature or science documentary lives there too. They seem to need to be told in the past, but only just.
Some shows get it catastrophically wrong. Costume drama in particular is done no favours by shooting it in the sharpest, cleanest digital video. The costumes look like costumes, make-up like make-up, and, through no fault of their own, actors seem to be acting. This is beginning to force actors to “do nothing”, in case they get caught out. Worst of all, everything feels like it’s happening now. The justification in the minds of the producers may be to create a sense of immediacy and immersion, to feel true contact with the action. Or they may be contractually required to conform to certain technical specifications drawn up by boffins. Either way, it is a mistake. By making it so easy for us to step into their world, the actors can also trespass into ours. The one-way mirror is broken. But we want immersion in the story, not in the action. Without the lens of the past tense, there is no magic.
When they get it right, however, these decisions are made quite deliberately by film-makers who know, either consciously or intuitively, what is required, I’ve noticed that they tend to use a rhetorical justification – that they prefer the film-look because it looks better, and that it looks better because they prefer it. I’ve used the argument myself. This suggests that something is happening at a deep, emotional level that may ultimately defy description and cannot be talked about except in an oblique way. We can only picture a black hole by describing the effect it has on the stars around it. I believe the past tense might be our escape from this circular argument. By way of its unique characteristics that it has acquired largely through historical accident, film is able to build a fourth wall, and in so doing gives us a sense of the past. We prefer the film-look because it says: “Once upon a time.”
In my own film, LEAVE NOW, I realised early on in the process that when looking at the monitor there was a more important question than how it looked in terms of lighting and framing. I asked myself “Does it feel like I’m looking into the past?” Of course lighting and framing play their part in answering this question as well as other important narrative considerations, but I learned not to put the cart before the horse. On a low-budget project with minimal equipment and time, it wasn’t always possible to achieve this. But it was always the right question.
So where are we now? Well, we are re-introducing the technical “short-comings” of film. There is software that can emulate all the signature qualities of film within the digital domain. Film grain (though it needs to be more sophisticated than a simple overlay), gate weave, and chemical inconsistencies and idiosycrasies like ‘red halation’ are all at your disposal if you want them. Motion-blur is back like it never went away (though the battle continues – don’t get me started on 48fps, or high refresh rates on modern TV screens, which I detest). But digital still isn’t quite the same, and some film-makers, at least at the time of writing, continue to use real celluloid film – Quentin Tarrantino, Christopher Nolan, Steven Speilberg. They talk of film “texture”, of the “feel” of film; digital is “firm”, film is “fuzzy”. Spielberg described the outcome of digital filmmaking as too clean, while with film the resulting image, due to its texture and grain, creates a veil, a concrete surface of molecules that is a sort of imperfection but is also its greatest strength.
But it seems to me this is still a circular argument – they prefer it because they prefer it – and doesn’t get to the real heart of the matter. Spielberg likes the “veil” but can’t fundamentally say why. Well, if I may, here’s why I think he prefers it: the film-look draws a veil across the image, the veil builds a fourth wall, and the fourth wall tells your story in the past tense. “Once upon a time”. If you are a story-teller, this is how every story begins.
And how does my story end? I suspect the days of film are numbered, simply because it’s characteristic qualities will eventually be exactly emulated on digital cameras and post-production software. Meanwhile, we live in the present, waiting for the stories of our own lives to reach their inevitable conclusion. Stuck in the present, we wait forever. But we will always have to find ways to tell stories in the past tense because that is where they live and breathe, and ultimately come to an end. Even the future happens in the past. And they all lived happily ever after.