Ever since I saw Moonlight I have been noticing arc shots more and more in film. They are a common device in the filmmakers tool bag, but I decided to find out what I could about them. By definition, an arc shot is a camera technique where the camera circles around the subject in a semi-circle, or arc. To visualize this, imagine that you are the subject and you are standing still and holding onto a length of string. The other end of the string is connected to a camera that is facing you. The camera then spins around you and maintains the same distance. It can move vertically up and down, but it stays the same distance away. A 360-degree tracking shot is an arc shot that rotates a full 360 degrees. This can create more complex and engaging scene’s by creating movement and changing the background. Arc shots can also be used to mark transitions, create suspense, add intensity or emotionality to a scene and much more.
This technique can be used subtly or overtly. A common example of a subtle 360-degree arc shot can be seen in Carrie. In this scene, Sissy Spacek and William Katt are dancing at prom.
Brian De Palma’s Carrie
The low angle arc shot creates an intimate scene and helps embellish the romantic ambiance. The low angle of the shot isolates the characters, like they are the only ones in the room, and highlights the setting by showing the ceiling as the backdrop.
The use of the arc shot can also be symbolism for shift or a transition, either in the story or within the characters themselves. The arc shot causes the camera to shift in the physical space and can signal a turning point. For example, toward the beginning of Fight Club Edward Norton’s character is being filmed while calling Brad Pitt’s character in a pay phone.
David Fincher’s Fight Club
The camera arcs to the right, perhaps signaling a shift in his mental state, as he is unable to get a hold of Pitt’s character. Norton hangs up the phone at the same time that the camera stops its motion. When he picks up the call from Pitt the camera begins to arc back to the left. As if to show he was unable to successfully transition mentally to a healthy place.
The arc shot can also be used to add suspense to a thrilling scene. Examples of this can be found throughout horror and thriller films. One example, can be found in Jurassic Park.
Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park
The arc shot in the scene above shows Joseph Mazzello as he narrowly escapes by being out of the field of view of the raptors. The arc allows the shot to stay continuous so that the suspense is not lost to an edit or cut.
Another common example of the arc shot, and more famous, is found in the matrix. The overt way the arc shot is used in this film is not standard. The camera does not actually circle the subject, but instead snapshots from hundreds of cameras are combined into one continuous shot.
The Wachowski’s The Matrix
The Wachowski’s use of the arc shot created some one of the most memorable sequences of the decade. The execution found in The Matrix allowed for an enormous amount of control over the shot. Film editors had the ability to adjust the speed and angle of the tracking shot in a way that was not possible before.
While on my search I also tried to find the oldest use of the arc shot. I had trouble finding any arc shots used before the early 70’s. The earliest I could find was in the opening scene of O Lucky Man!.
Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man!
I am sure this is not the earliest use of the technique, but I will keep my eyes peeled while I watch films from earlier than 1973. I am sure that director’s Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock used the technique at some point, or even predecessors. For now this will have to stand in as the oldest use in film, at least for me.
The arc shot has been in use for decades to accomplish everything from visual effects, to enhancing emotional impacts of a scene, even to help mark transitions. While not the most prolific advancement in film, it is still interesting to see how moving three-dimensionally in a scene can have such a huge impact.