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Painting the Medium
aka: Painting The Fourth Wall

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A circus barker speaking in a circus poster's typeface.

Painting the Medium is modifying the presentation of a story in order to convey information about the story. A comic book might give a character special-looking Speech Bubbles that reflect on their personality. A TV show might change to black-and-white or sepia-tone during flashbacks. A video game might change its GUI to show a change in the player character or the setting.

By Painting the Medium, a creator turns a transparent tool—meant to show the work behind it—into a part of the work.

This is typically done for one of several reasons:

Some of the most popular variants have become so conventional that we stop noticing them completely — for example, dialogue written in ALL CAPITAL LETTERS is shouted. (That is, if not in a medium where all caps is the norm, like most comic books — in which case lowercase letters can be used to indicate an unusually soft-spoken character.)

Heck, even we do it (check the entries in Self-Demonstrating Article why not?)

See also Rule of Perception. Unless the characters themselves remark or interact with the audio or visual effects, then it can't be concluded they occur within the setting, so they must only be presented to the audience's side of the fourth wall. The characters who do remark on these tropes may be uncommonly Medium Aware, or they may know that their particular universe is governed by metafictional laws, in which case the 'paint' isn't just on the medium, it's integrated into the text.

Please note: This trope is not 'Character interacts with the pages of the book/panels of the comic/film camera/suitable alternative for their story'—that trope is Medium Awareness. This trope is 'The setup, layout or presentation of the book/comic/film/whatever is changed to reflect a change in the characters' situation'. Please don't put incorrect examples on pages they shouldn't be on, thank you. Splatter on the camera lens may be acceptable as a way of showing just how much rain/blood/liquid is flying around the scene at that point.



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  • At one point during the video of Bo Burnham's live show what., he starts to make an insulting joke about video editors, only to be suddenly cut off by a mysterious Jump Cut.
  • In the vinyl album version of the Monty Python sketch The Piranha Brothers, the voice-over announcer for the skit is being menaced by one of Dinsdale's thugs, and told that the sketch has gone on too long. When he protests, the thug "scratches the record", ending the bit. We fade out to: "Aw! Sorry, squire! I've scratched the record —orry, squire! I've scratched the record! —" over and over. Infinitely, as this part ran on an actual loop on the LP.
  • Cheech & Chong's self-titled first album features Tommy Chong attempting to put a vinyl record (supposedly the very one this skit is on) on the phonograph and failing miserably, the skit (and this side) ending in a fluster of wild record needle scratching.
  • The first of Stan Freberg's Dragnet affectionate parodies, St. George and the Dragonet, opens with this disclaimer: "The legend you are about to hear is true. Only the needle should be changed to protect the record."
  • In Robin Williams's Weapons of Self Destruction special, he tells a story about Dock Ellis's no-hitter game while on LSD. While he tells it, the camera blurs the screen and adds motion trails and other hazy effects.

    Films — Animation 
  • Here's a really meta one: the early Disney Winnie the Pooh shorts were played out as readings of the books, down to the animated characters being able to walk on the text, a hurried page-turning at one point to keep Pooh from flying out of the book, and so forth. Thus it played with the concept that it was a book, when in fact it wasn't. All this in a cartoon for children.
  • At the end of The Thief and the Cobbler, the Thief comes out and takes the letters from the THE END title. Then he goes and takes the very film he is on out of the projector as it is rolling, rolls it up and runs off into the now blank screen. Gives new meaning to the term "scene stealer".
  • In Disney's Brother Bear, when Kenai is transformed, the movie changes its aspect ratio to subtly tell the viewer that he's seeing through different eyes now.
  • In The Emperor's New Groove, Kuzco-the-narrator freezes the frame and literally paints on the screen to bring the story back to himself. He then continues to interrupt the story so it focuses on himself. Later on in the story, Kuzco-the-character yells at Kuzco-the-narrator to stop talking and leave him alone. From then on, the movie is un-narrated.
  • Ralph Bakshi's animated The Lord of the Rings also has blood splattering the camera during battles.
  • In Tangled, Rapunzel literally paints the fourth wall.
  • In one scene, Ratatouille uses splashes of color to convey the indescribable qualities of tastes that harmonize well, and the differences in taste perception by Rémy and his brother.
  • In Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders, Batman gets drugged by Catwoman to turn him evil. As his disposition gets harsher, his Hit Flash onomatopoeia shifts to words like "BLUDGEON" and "FRACTURE" to reflect the fact that he is delivering a No-Holds-Barred Beatdown rather than merely subduing his foes as usual.
  • The Eraser Bombs in The Drawn Together Movie: The Movie! essentially undo the process of animation. They first render objects to sketches, then the objects disintegrate, leaving a blank white space where they used to be.
  • In Turning Red, when Mei spots the posters Tyler has put up the camera's screen cracks.

  • Autotune was first used to correct errors in pitch. Many modern musicians use it to deliberately distort their voice so it's obvious that they're using Autotune, as well as for aesthetic effect, even when they're fully capable of singing themselves. Some people have expressed their distaste.
  • The Dresden Dolls use some quirky, but meaningful, production techniques in the song "Coin-Operated Boy", which is about the superiority of vibrators to real boyfriends. The mix begins monophonic, but it abruptly widens to stereo during the line "I turn him on / And he comes to life". The performers imitate a Broken Record over the line "And I'll never be alone", signifying that this is the narrator's false repetition to herself. The end of the bridge features an intense rallentando to evoke the tapering end of an orgasm, a battery-powered device running out of juice, or more likely both.

    Music Videos 
  • The music video for Kanye West's "Love Lockdown," if watched on a standard-definition TV or Youtube, is letterboxed. At about one minute in, a character in the video races towards the camera, then actually jumps out of the letterbox.
  • "The TV Show"'s central conceit it that it's showing us a series of TV shows being viewed by two guys in a control booth. Then one falls asleep on a console, and elements from some of the shows start interacting with each other, the camera, and the producers. Hilarity Ensues.
  • "Madvillain – All Caps." It's an animated comic book—literally.
  • The video for Justice's remix of Lenny Kravitz's "Let Love Rule" feature the end of a fictitious movie and its credits sequence. Early on, the lead character's sleeve gets caught on one line of the credits. At first, things are fun, but then the video deconstructs the idea of having a credits sequence be a physical part of the world.
  • In Nanowar of Steel's "And Then I Noticed That She Was a Gargoyle", the captions get interrupted when the main singer's character gets attacked during the video.

  • In Arnold Schoenberg's opera Moses und Aron, the composer illustrates the two lead characters' differences by a radical break with the basic convention of opera:
    • The tongue-tied Moses, whose direct contact with the God of Israel has shown him the inadequacy of human words to describe Him, never sings a note. Instead, he speaks in ordinary non-musical prose throughout.
    • By contrast, Moses' brother and spokesman—the plausible, tactful, crowd-pleasing Aaron—sings in a gorgeous tenor.

    Print Media 
  • The literary journal Timothy McSweeney's Quarterly Concern is as much a vehicle for editor Dave Eggers to play with the magazine format as a collection of fiction. The format changes with each issue, from paperback to hardcover to a collection of smaller booklets containing individual stories. One of the more elaborate issues (#17) was published as a bundle of misdelivered mail, containing some stories in individual envelopes and some in the fictitious magazines that the fictitious intended recipient subscribed to. Sometimes stories take advantage of the flexibility of the format: "Heart Suit", in issue 16, was printed on a deck of oversized playing cards and readable in any shuffled order. On a smaller scale, Eggers will sometimes put long rambling asides in the copyright notice and other bits of paratext.
  • In the book Color: A Natural History of the Palette, author Victoria Finley describes an ukiyo-e print (likely this one) that shows the famous kabuki actor Onoe Kikugoro V portraying a ghost. The brown spot on the ghost's head was once green malachite pigment; Finley theorizes that the artist deliberately used the corrosive mineral to illustrate the ghost's supernatural power and malevolence as it literally burned through the canvas.
  • A humorous poem appearing in a 1924 edition of the Feather River Bulletin reads:
When her mother is in the parlor we sit
But after mother retires we always sit
And sometimes (don't be shocked) we sit

    Professional Wrestling 

    TV Tropes 

    Real Life 
  • Universal Studios' The Incredible Hulk Coaster suddenly hurls the passengers forward during the climb up the first hill, right when the audio says the experiment they're listening to goes wrong. The engineer says this represents the sudden surge of uncontrollable power experienced by Bruce Banner upon turning into the Hulk.


Video Example(s):

Alternative Title(s): Painting The Fourth Wall


Tower Controls The Narrator

The Tower is able to perceive the Interactive Narrator, and use her commanding voice to make him obey her as well. The combined text of the Narrator and the Tower will be in the Narrator's font, but the Tower's color.

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