Film is emotion, and at the heart of it is one of cinema’s most popular: the 360-degree shot.
It is a common device in the filmmaker’s tool bag, one that serves to more than just make you dizzy. But first, what does it mean?
A 360-degree shot refers to any shot in film that goes around the subject in a full circle, with the subject remaining the point of focus throughout. Typically, the camera moves but the subject remains stationary. However, it’s also common for both of them to be moving but it takes great coordination to execute.
The 360-degree is also known as the 360-tracking shot because it follows the subject. In some circles, the 360-degree shot is known as an arc shot.
The arc shot derives its name from mathematics, where an arc is used to define part of a curve. A dolly helps to keep the frame steady as the camera goes around the edge. In recent times, a Steadicam may be implored as well for places without tracks.
Additionally, filmmakers may fire up the arch shot by varying the camera’s height during its motion. That creates more disorientation while adding excitement as well to static shots.
The 360 is a filmmaker’s go-to for a walk in the shoes of a character who is freaking out. It can assist in helping the audience understand the internal conflict of a character.
Let’s paint a picture:
A young boy walks home from school. He discovers the house is a mess and his mother is missing. As he searches frantically across the rooms, following a trail of destruction, a 360-degree shot gets us into his mind.
His head is spinning and he is out of his wits as his calls go unanswered. When he reaches a conclusion, a 360 sets in. In really tense situations of panic such as this, the arc shot simulates that dizzy sensation of dread and confusion. It can help viewers get into the headspace of a character that has received bad news such as the death of a loved one. It can also simply signal that the character has realized something’s wrong.
Additionally, the 360 shot can simulate a character’s perceived perspective after injury. It reflects internal conflict or state of mind after a traumatic event. E.g. when someone is struggling out of a car wreck, the arch shot may show us his disorientation.
In instances of drug use or a character being drunk, it can also replicate the same sensation. When the 360 comes to a halt, it usually means that the feeling has passed and the character has regained his composure once more.
The 1999 hit sci-fi The Matrix has influenced cinema, particularly action and superhero movies, in many ways since its debut over twenty years ago. One of the concepts it made popular was bullet time, where filmmakers slow down the events in a movie just enough to perceive extremely fast action. For example, audiences being able to see bullets fizzing through the air. The name became popular due to its reference as such in the script.
The bullet time scene was made even more epic by the emotive cinematic technique that’s in the spotlight today. Cinematographer Bill Pope and his team use the 360 shot to make the hero look as cool as a cucumber as he casually evades speeding bullets.
It sets in about 38 seconds into the scene:
Had the camera work played out from a single angle, we wouldn’t be able to trace the bullets breaking the sound barrier as impressively as we do because of it. Neo’s sleek black coat fluttering in the heat of the action also wouldn’t have been as mind-bending.
The root top scenery as well wouldn’t have been as spectacular. This also highlights another purpose of the 360: to establish where a character is and the extent of his surroundings. That creates a depth in detail.
At this point in the film, Neo is just discovering his powers. He is unsure of what he can do and it is the first time in the movie that he has truly tapped into his god-like abilities. Unwillingly tasked with the burden of being mankind’s savior, it is at this point he comes to terms with destiny.
The 360 shot captures this first pivotal instance that goes on to unlock his potential. It heightens the tension and elevates an important moment on his journey.
It took painstaking work to execute the arch shot, as it required 120 still cameras set up around the circumference with Keanu Reeves’ character as the pivot. A high-motion camera at the time was still unheard of.
The team had to stitch each shot via a technique called interpolation to enable the smoothness of movements and steadiness of the frame.
Since then, the 360 has become the staple of many movies, especially in the superhero niche. A newly assembled team posing gloriously in front of a spinning camera. Or, a hero standing victoriously over a cityscape as the lens orbits his presence. In the latter case, the arch shot implies the hero’s power and control over the city.
Two characters standing about talking seems usual and pretty standard. The dialogue appears easygoing and completely ordinary. However, when the camera starts taking laps around them, you instantly know things are about to get out of hand. Even if you can’t hear the conversation, the arch shot speaks to us that conflict is knocking at the door.
The 360 shows that temperatures are rising and a confrontation is probably not too far off. Alternatively, it simply spices up an argument to make it more captivating.
Case in point, when the joker crashes Bruce’s party in The Dark Knight and ends up in a conversation with Rachel. As the two get talking, with the joker doing most of it, the cinematography follows a very dizzying pattern.
The 360 shot even reverses direction twice to swing the motion the other way. It serves two purposes and the first is to hint that the joker is about to do something bad.
The arch shot creates a certain expectation as things are about to turn ugly. It also capture’s Racheal’s fright as she waits on the villain’s actions. Secondly, it isolates the pair from the crowd. In a room full of people, the fast swivels ensure all our attention is on them and we aren’t distracted by the backdrop. It creates a certain kind of intimacy where the subjects are trapped in a world of their own.
In the horror movie Carrie, filmmakers use the 360 to establish a point in Carrie White’s life when she finally feels accepted. After years of rejection, she feels part of the pack and the arc shot cements that.
Adapted from the Stephen King novel of the same name, the plot revolves around a teenage girl who is under the thumb of an overly religious mother. Her life is under extreme scrutiny and every little wrongdoing is blown out of proportion. Things aren’t any better at school either, where Carrie often gets teased and bullied. She is constantly the laughing stock, has few friends, and is the furthest thing from popular.
The arch shot kicks in when Carrie dances with Tommy at the prom, otherwise known as the famous spinning dance scene. Tommy has begun noticing Carrie in a different light. We get to view her from his POV or perspective.
What started initially as a prank, takes a turn as he begins to care for her and see her for the person she is. As the couple shares the dance, the camera slowly goes around them, first of all, to reflect how they must have been feeling actually going around in circles.
The shot also establishes the rather nice scenery of the prom. Different shades of lights glowing into the lens help set the romance. The camera angle as well, you’ll notice the camera is titled during the rotation, isolates the pair from the rest of the party. This is Carrie’s first-ever dance in her life and she feels like she’s on top of the world.
After they kiss, the camera starts moving a lot faster as the dance nears its end. It does so to simulate the rush of emotions between two characters. The increased speed also reflects the increased pace of both dancers.
Director Micheal Bay has a fondness for the 360, so much so that it has defined his career. It has become his signature and one that rarely misses from his films. Characters often rise from below the frame to meet a revolving camera, and he typically does this to create heroic moments. He takes things up a notch with his epic action-comedy.
Bad Boys II offers one of Bay’s most iconic 360-degree shots as he holds tension and explores the characters’ surroundings quite skillfully.
A little bit of CGI aids the camera to maneuver through tight spaces, such as gaps in window panes, to maintain the flow of motion. The result is a bewitching shootout that has gone down as one of the best action sequences in cinema.
Detectives Mike and Marcus have trailed a gang to its hideout. The two find themselves outnumbered and a brief stalemate ensues between the detectives and the criminals. Each side is separated by a wall, and the arch shot orbits the edges to give us fleeting views of both parties.
Tensions are rising and the spinning adds to the anticipation of the gunfight that’s on the horizon. The arch shot sets the stage for the conflict ahead, and also shows the extent of opposition that the two cops are up against. They seem outnumbered and the 360 establishes that and the layout of the setting as well.
Mike is held up in between two doors, a gun aimed in each direction. The criminals are held up on the other side and it’s only a matter of time before they start shooting. He is unsure of where exactly the threat will come from, as evident from how he keeps glancing either way. The arch shot reflects his state of mind in this heart-pounding moment of uncertainty.
The 2017 film is the second installment in the franchise and follows up its predecessor’s success with another impressive take. At the 90th Academy Award, the film was up for many awards, eventually taking home the crown in the Best Visual Effects category.
The opening scene of GOTG 2 is a beautifully crafted one and features a series of intermittent arch shots that pivot around an adorable baby Groot. The rotation pauses briefly across points of interest to set up comedic relief as a carefree Groot dances about in the foreground of all the chaos around him.
On a mission to slay an inter-dimensional monster, the rest of the team has its hands full with the tentacled creature. Groot couldn’t care less as he waltzes about to some Mr. Blue Sky and his playful sides consumes him.
This scene illustrates yet again how filmmakers can use the 360 to serve their purpose at particular moments. James Gunn makes use of the arch shot on a lighter note, no doubt aided by the feel-good music, to lighten what would have been a very serious scene. Strip off the catchy tune and sub in static shots and the action sequence would be the furthest thing from funny.
Gunn also utilizes the 360-tracking shot to keep up with Groot, and at the same time give the audience the full scope of the fight in the background. Groot needs to remain in the frame constantly to offer the hilarious contrast of situations as his teammates get clobbered. However, we’re still interested to see what’s going on behind him.
The arch shot kills these two birds with one stone. It slowly opens up the scene to reveal who’s doing what, and further works to put us in Groot’s headspace as he is detached from the events in his surroundings.
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