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 subtle use of the arc shot can create a more dynamic and immersive shot sequence. The shot’s purpose is to make the camera part of the experience. The viewer is thus following the subjects or following the gaze of a character. An example of a subtle 360-degree arc shot can be seen in Carrie. The scene where Carrie, Sissy Spacek, and Tommy, played by William Katt, are dancing at prom. We are following the two characters as they slowly dance to the music. A stationary shot would have conveyed the plot point, two people dancing at prom, but the arc shot makes the viewer experience the moment with the characters.
Brian De Palma’s Carrie
This 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. Had 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.
Arc shots can also emphasize the suspense of a scene. Examples exist throughout horror and thriller films. One specific example is a class scene from Jurassic Park. The setting is a commercial kitchen. Two kids, Tim and Lex, are attempting to evade two raptors that have found their way into the building. They are trying to find a way out or a hiding spot as quietly as possible while the raptors sniff them out.
Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park
The arc shot in the scene above shows Tim, played by Joseph Mazzello as he narrowly escapes being discovered, by being out of the field of view of the raptors. The arc allows the shot to remain continuous, while tracking just how close the two are to one another. Editing this into two separate shots and 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 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.
The Wachowski’s The Matrix
Dissociation & Internal Shifts
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 or internal struggle within the character.
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
The mental shift portrayed here is highlighted by the arc shot. The camera moving back and forth creates a dizzying effect. We are becoming discombobulated much like Tyler Durden’s brain. Fight Club is not the only example of this use of the arc shot.
Another scene that helps illustrate this shift is in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Sméagol is seen talking to himself while the two hobbits sleep. His internal battle is being put on display for the viewer. The arc shot helps show that he is making a mental transition to a separate personality. After a couple of pivots, Jackson changes to cuts to highlight the contrast more. The arc shot helps ease the audience into the transition so that Jackson is able to then transition to a faster cut that can help emphasize the culmination of the argument.
Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
The effect of arc shots in a transitional phase allows the audience to catch on that something is happening internally to the character. It also allows for the actor, in this case CGI, to make their own transformation. Keeping the shot stagnant would still tell the story, but it would not immerse the audience in the way that an arc shot can.
While on my search I have tried to find the oldest use of the arc shot. So far, I have not been able to find any true 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 did stumble on a shot that is similar to the arc shot and is used in a way to help advance the emotion of the story. Jean Renoir’s 1931 film, La Chienne, features a tracking shot that moves parallel, left to right, of the action. As the camera moves through the scene, it stays focused on the protagonist, Legrande (played by Michel Simon), who is stationary on the left side of the screen. This, in an essence, accomplishes the same thing as an arc shot would. The only difference being that the camera does not move in a circular motion around the subject.
Jean Renoir’s La Chienne
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.
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