What is an Arc Shot in Film? Definition, Effects, and Examples

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In an arc shot, the camera moves around a stationary object, subject, or group in a circular or semi-circular path. The arc shot directs our attention toward the scene’s center while capturing it dynamically from different perspectives. The arc orbit can be executed on a horizontal plane, vertically, or even diagonally. Common gear involves a camera dolly on a 180-degree semi-circle or 360-degree full-circle track, a Steadicam, gimbals, cranes, and jibs.

Arc shots are particularly useful for interestingly and dynamically capturing stationary character interaction. They can also be used to create dizziness. Arc shots are also common in advertising to show a product from multiple angles.

Below is a breakdown of different use cases with examples from famous movies.

Table Scenes Dynamics

Semi-circle or full-circle arc shots are regularly used to add dynamics to scenes where a group is gathered around a table. Examples include a dinner table conversation, a strategic meeting (business, heist, or war), or gambling. The arc shot is handy in situations like these with little movement or blocking.

Example: In Death Proof (2007), Tarantino uses an arc shot around dinner conversion between the four women. It captures Abernathy’s (Rosario Dawson) story from multiple angles, shows the friend’s reactions, and conveys that the group is close friends.

Slow-motion in Action Sequences

Arc shots are sometimes combined with slow motion to make action sequences more dynamic. By slowing down time, we understand that a lot is happening quickly, and by moving the camera around a subject, we can see our hero’s heightened sense of alertness to all the chaos around him.

Example: In The Matrix (1999), the bullet-time arc shot around Neo during his iconic bullet-dodging scene enhances the heightened perception of those who know that The Matrix is a virtual world. The rotating camera underscores Neo’s superhuman abilities and the bending of physical laws within the Matrix.

Show Grandeur

Arc shots work great to reveal the grandeur of a moment, especially when transitioning from a close-up of a subject’s emotional reaction to revealing a vast scene or vice versa.

Example: The Lion King (1994): During the “Circle of Life” sequence, an arc shot around Pride Rock as Simba is presented to the animal kingdom, emphasizing the grandeur and significance of the moment. The shot transitions from a top-down view showing the kingdom Simba shall rule over to a bottom-up view of the newborn, stressing that he is a king but also overwhelmed by what he sees in one sweeping motion.

Intensify Emotional Moments

Arc shots are great for intensifying emotional moments and building tension or suspense when there’s much at stake. They focus our attention on the character dynamics and the emotional tension or conflict. By encircling the characters, you can create a small “bubble” in space and time where all our attention is directed towards.

Example: In The Dark Knight (2008), Christopher Nolan uses an arc shot to carve out a small bubble from the rest of the party where The Joker and Rachel Dawes are locked in a tense moment. First, he uses a semi-circle tracking shot of The Joker before reversing the direction and doing a full-circle counter-move.

Because the camera moves in the opposite direction, the background appears to move faster, blurring it in a dizzying motion. This enthralls us (and Rachel) in Joker’s mesmerizing and dangerous space.

All of the above

I wanted to close with this scene from The Avengers (2012), which assembles (pun intended!) all of the above in a single awesome arc shot. It establishes the team as a dynamic group, shows their individual reactions, is a moment of grandeur, and carves out a bubble in time and space (the calm before the storm) before the climax of the final part of the battle.

Summing Up

Arc shots in film involve the camera moving in a circular or semi-circular path around the subject. By changing the perspective and background as the camera moves, arc shots heighten emotional intensity, highlight a character’s or moment’s importance, create a spatial and temporal bubble, or reveal critical details in the environment. Arc shots are often used in action sequences, dramatic moments, and scenes requiring heightened energy or tension.

Author

  • Jan Sørup

    Jan Sørup is a indie filmmaker, videographer and photographer from Denmark. He owns filmdaft.com and the Danish company Apertura, which produces video content for big companies in Denmark and Scandinavia. Jan has a background in music, has drawn webcomics, and is a former lecturer at the University of Copenhagen.

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