Why stillness creates better tension in film

screenshot of main protagonist in ANTIVIRAL (2012)
screenshot of main protagonist in ANTIVIRAL (2012)

If someone were to direct you and tell you to act tense, what would you do? Do you fidget or run around nervously? Or sit absolutely still in silence? I know there is no right or wrong for how to BE when you feel tension — we all deal how we deal. But what creates the most pure recreation of that feeling on screen?

Last night I got around to watching Antiviral (2012) directed by Brandon Cronenberg, a twisted, sterile Sci-Fi film about a world where crazed fans buy the meat & contagious viruses cultured from the cells of their most adored celebrities from private companies. Sound gross? It was. And it was also fantastic. Besides the strictly all-white rooms and furniture in the majority of the film which created an eerily futuristic, sterile and congested environment, the lack of camera movement and carefully constructed framing decisions made a world of difference in how I felt when watching it. And getting to my main point, for the entire film my main emotion was: what the hell is going on mixed perfectly with the intrigue of wanting to know. To be fully informative I was pretty delirious from sleep-deprivation and borderline flu-symptoms when I watched which added a whole other dimension to the film and is another story.

I am so used to tension being produced by eerie music, close-ups on the fidgets, the sweat, the shifting eyes, the hand under the table. Antiviral is one of the first films I personally saw that proved to me that tension and suspense is often if not always the purest in stillness. Think about the eye of a storm, the split moment before you think something may attack you, the wretched stillness a person dwells in the moment after they receive terrible news. Think about being in the E.R. waiting room. Stillness. Tension. Not knowing. I find the most awkward and tense moments while watching a movie in a theater especially is when the film cuts the background sound and it is absolutely nothing — suddenly you can hear the actual stillness of the room, people breathing, you become aware of the sound of yourself.

I know that chase scenes in films will mainly remain by having the camera shakily follow them as if the camera-man is running haphazardly with the actor. Jerky camera movements and quick-edited close-ups will continue to dominate the filming choices for a hectic scene where a tense character is panicking. And, to each film its own.

What I am walking away with is a new-found appreciation for true tension in the eerie-ness of being still, in watching a character in a wide-shot, seeing them in their environment for an almost awkwardly long period of time. Tension in having enough space in the frame and in our minds to wonder and think what is going on in the character’s head, what dismay may be coming next.

If you ask an actor to emote “sadness” or “anger” they may, on impulse boo-hoo and loudly cry or yell and scream. (And I fell into this trap in an acting class myself) But I learned, perhaps a truer display of sadness would be stillness, or something more passive-aggressive; then dark and calm for anger. In the same way, I believe tension can be strongly conveyed in stillness and not only haphazard movement and fidgets.

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