Ever since I saw Moonlight I have been noticing arc shots more and more in film. An arc shot, or 360-degree tracking shot, is a common device in the filmmakers tool bag. 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 you as the focal point. It can move vertically up and down, but it always stays focus centrally on you.
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 are 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 emphasize the romantic ambiance. The low angle of the shot isolates the characters. They could be the only ones in the room. If the shot been more static, then the scene would have felt more flat and less engaging. The audience is able to join the actors in the dance and feel the uneasiness and dizziness that the characters themselves are feeling.
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.
A great example of this can be seen early in Fight Club. Edward Norton’s character is being filmed while calling Brad Pitt’s character in a phone booth. 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.
David Fincher’s Fight Club
Arc shots also add suspense. Examples exist throughout horror and thriller films. One specific example is a class scene from 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 remain continuous. Creating a cut in the sequence would deteriorate the building suspense.
In the Matrix, the 360 degree tracking shot is used to emphasize the miraculous moves by the character’s. The techniques used by the Wachowski’s were revolutionary for the shot. Their technique required a camera to move so quickly that instead of making the camera move faster they changed the number of cameras. Resulting in the use of hundreds of cameras combined into one continuous arc 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.