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