Pri­or to the inte­gra­tion of sound, movies often dis­played text-based infor­ma­tion using title cards or inter­ti­tles. This form of com­mu­ni­ca­tion is known as diegetic con­tent, as the actors can­not see it.

How­ev­er, even after the inven­tion of the talkie, oth­er types of infor­ma­tion need­ed to be dis­played — such as trans­la­tions for a for­eign audi­ence. This was usu­al­ly done in a very per­func­to­ry way, with non-descrip­tive text (typ­i­cal­ly achieved using a font such as Times New Roman, with a black out­line to con­trast with any back­ground) on the low­er third of the screen. This text is exter­nal to the sto­ry, so it seemed nat­ur­al that it should be styl­is­ti­cal­ly dif­fer­ent.

In more recent years, there are increased demands on visu­al sto­ry­telling — small screen devices (e.g. mobile) and com­put­ers have start­ed to become part of the lan­guage of cin­e­ma (and, by exten­sion — the video and dig­i­tal screens on which they are ‘pro­ject­ed’). Addi­tion­al­ly, in today’s more mul­ti­cul­tur­al world, the require­ment to show mul­ti­ple lan­guages with­in the same film means that dif­fer­ent typo­graph­ic tech­niques can be used to enhance this aspect of the sto­ry. In fact, this is an exten­sion of tra­di­tion­al sub­ti­tles — where often sound effects and untrans­lat­ed lan­guages are still includ­ed.

As mobile and inter­net tech­nol­o­gy start­ed to appear on screen, an edi­tor would typ­i­cal­ly cut to a shot of the device — allow­ing the view­er to read the dis­play. As post-pro­duc­tion tech­nol­o­gy improved, TV’s require­ment for an increased speed of plot expo­si­tion, and prod­uct place­ment costs (and legal clear­ances) required a more gener­ic approach, this even­tu­al­ly evolved to show the inter­face direct­ly incor­po­rat­ed onto the visu­al frame.

Sub­ti­tles, cap­tions and inter­face design typ­i­cal­ly sits inde­pen­dent­ly on top of the con­tent as a lay­er added in post-pro­duc­tion — i.e. as a semi-trans­par­ent wall between the sto­ry and the view­er. Inte­grat­ing these titles to make them appear part of the con­tent can be quite a tech­ni­cal chal­lenge — espe­cial­ly when they need to be tracked to a mov­ing cam­era.

This over­lay­ing tech­nique was demon­strat­ed in movies such as Man On Fire (2004), Stranger Than Fic­tion (2006), Dis­con­nect (2012), and 2014’s The Fault In Our Stars, John Wick, and Non-Stop, as well as TV shows such as (per­haps most influ­en­tial­ly) Sher­lock (2010) and House of Cards in 2013.

There are two main types of ele­ments in mod­ern cin­e­ma: diegetic — any­thing that the char­ac­ters would recog­nise hap­pen­ing with­in their world (of the nar­ra­tive sto­ry) and non-diegetic — any­thing that hap­pens out­side the sto­ry (for exam­ple, this would usu­al­ly be open­ing cred­it sequences).

How­ev­er, (much like mod­ern media itself) on-screen typog­ra­phy has sur­passed mere­ly being inte­grat­ed visu­al­ly into the back­ground plate. It is now becom­ing increas­ing­ly self-reflex­ive, and blurs these diegetic lines. This is often referred to as “break­ing the fourth wall”, and is per­haps best demon­strat­ed in the open­ing titles to the 2016 film Dead­pool, where even the actu­al names of pro­duc­ers are sub­vert­ed into nar­ra­tive ele­ments.

For more exe­ge­sis of the die­ge­sis (sor­ry, I couldn’t help it), see Tim Carmody’s excel­lent 2011 SVA Inter­ac­tion Design pre­sen­ta­tion “The Dic­ta­to­r­i­al Per­pen­dic­u­lar: Wal­ter Benjamin’s Read­ing Rev­o­lu­tion”.

“A fourth wall break inside a fourth wall break? That’s like, six­teen walls.” — Dead­pool