What Is the Kuleshov Effect?

Discover the power of juxtaposing shots.

“The dramatic effect of a film was found not in the content of its shots but rather in the edits that join them together.”

Have you ever wished you could change the way someone was feeling, or the way someone perceived something, as if by magic? Film editors do this every day, only they’re not casting spells… They’re simply applying a principle known as “The Kuleshov Effect”.

To understand The Kuleshov Effect, we need to establish the historical context of its discovery. The man behind the principle, Lev Kuleshov, was born in January 1899. As a child, his favorite food was… Just kidding. We don’t need to go that far back. To borrow a term from the VCR age, let’s fast-forward, all the way to Kuleshov’s work as a Russian and Soviet film theorist!

He directed his first movie in 1917, worked with a documentary crew covering the Russian Civil War from 1918 to 1920, and headed the first Soviet film courses at The National Film School, where he became a leader in Soviet Montage Theory.

Kuleshov was fascinated by the power of film editing to manipulate emotion. He put a lot of thought into the juxtaposition of shots, epitomized in a short film demonstration known today as “The Kuleshov Effect”. Kuleshov intended for his short film to show how an audience’s perception of something onscreen changes, depending on what they see in relationship to that thing.

Specifically, he showed a single shot of a man, purposefully expressionless, intercut with three other shots: a bowl of soup, a girl in a coffin, and a woman lying on a couch:

The original shots in Lev Kuleshov's short film.

Kuleshov alternated the shot of the expressionless man with these three shots. Although the shot of the man was unchanged each time it appeared onscreen, the audience’s perception of his expression changed. When paired with the soup, the audience saw hunger. When paired with the girl in the coffin, the audience saw sorrow. When paired with the woman on the couch, the audience saw lust.

By pairing the image of the man – essentially a human “blank slate” – with each of these images, Kuleshov manipulated the audience’s idea of and reaction to what they were seeing, simply by implying that the man was “looking at” whatever was shown. In other words, “the dramatic effect of a film was found not in the content of its shots but rather in the edits that join them together.” Michael Toscano elaborates, revealing how profound this discovery was:

“Kuleshov was right to emphasize the power that editing has over motion pictures, even to the point of bending the inner ‘reality’ of shots. What stunned Kuleshov was the incredible flexibility of the medium, and, with that in mind, the power it granted him to provide moving pictures with new contextual meanings. Such authority over meaning strikes us as obvious today, but at the time the ‘photographic’ image was held to be a totally faithful, ‘concrete,’ inviolably ‘true’ artifact, free of the shortcomings of subjectivity.”

Kuleshov’s legacy isn’t his contributions as a filmmaker so much as his groundbreaking contributions as a film theorist. Many of his students – including Sergei Eisenstein! – applied and built upon his principles, making films which today are regarded as classics.

Alfred Hitchcock and The Kuleshov Effect as “Pure Cinematics”

Legendary film director Alfred Hitchcock went so far as to call The Kuleshov Effect “pure cinematics”. In this interview, Hitchcock goes one step further than Kuleshov did in his short film, by assigning a change in expression to the man.

The implication? A “blank slate” is not required for an audience to attribute different emotions to a character onscreen! Again, it’s all about what the character is looking at:

A great example is Hitchcock’s own classic, Rear Window, a film about looking. Justin Morrow explains it well:

“Stewart’s character, a photographer, is a voyeur by profession; in the film’s story, he is a voyeur, peeking through his window into people’s private lives; in the framing of the shots, Hitchcock always makes sure to keep his POV shot aligned with Stewart’s eyeline. Rather than an objective POV shot, we are seeing what Stewart sees, so we as audience members become even more voyeuristic than we already are (because movies are nothing if not exercises in voyeurism, in looking into other people’s lives).

 

Hitchcock’s technique was so effective, that, in an interview, Stewart later claimed not to remember playing the role the way he had seen it on-screen. The fact was, Hitchcock’s manipulation of the Kuleshov Effect was so masterful that he could alter the montage and create completely different meanings. So what Stewart was looking at during filming (or what he was supposed to be looking at) may very well not have been what he thought he was supposed to be looking at. Which is all kinds of weird.”

The Kuleshov Effect Is Everywhere!

When you stop and think about it, you’ll realize that The Kuleshov Effect is fundamental to the language of film.

Consider the reaction shot, a staple of traditional “continuity editing”, in which shot transitions are de-emphasized so as to create the impression of continuous, chronological time. A reaction shot shows a character looking at another character or subject, usually offscreen in another shot/in reflection in the same shot. Either way, that character or subject informs the character’s reaction in the reaction shot, revealing something about them and the story.

This video essay about the reaction shot essentially showcases The Kuleshov Effect, with examples from more modern films to illustrate:

“Pure cinematics” is all well and good, but The Kuleshov Effect can do far more than serve as a pillar of film language. For example, in Denis Villeneuve’s 2016 Arrival, The Kuleshov Effect actually plays a role in driving home the film’s themes. 

Consider this a SPOILER ALERT! In order to show how The Kuleshov Effect functions in Arrival, we need to unpack the story. You’ve been warned! Arrival opens with flashes of the protagonist Louise’s life. Through what we see, we understand that Louise is a mother in mourning, having lost her young daughter to cancer. As the story continues, we learn that Louise is also a linguistics expert who gets recruited by the government to assist in communicating with aliens.

A still from the film "Arrival", in which the protagonist must learn to communicate with aliens.

Arrival | Paramount Pictures, 2016

Eventually, the aliens teach Louise that time can be experienced non-linearly. She grasps this and realizes that she and her coworker on the government’s mission, a physicist, will fall in love and have a daughter. This daughter will die of cancer as a child. What we see at the beginning of the film is not the past – it’s actually the future. And it’s a future that Louise accepts, despite knowing what will happen. ?

Samartha Ingle argues that our misperception of the film’s opening is actually The Kuleshov Effect at work:

The movie opens with a montage of Louise and Hannah at the end of which we see that Hannah dies of cancer. With this information we read the next scene incorrectly. We misinterpret Louise’s disinterest as sadness.

 

And we constantly see Louise through this lens throughout the film until it is revealed that the events in the first scene have not occurred yet. Thus completely shattering our previous conception of Louise’s character and we suddenly see her in a whole different perspective. Also, the movie ends with a vision in which Louise witnesses scenes similar to the montage we see at the beginning. This solidifies the narrative’s theme of time and our perception of time even more. Masterfully achieved through clever editing and excellent acting.

Let that sink in.

The Kuleshov Effect reaches even beyond filmmaking… In fact, it could be argued that the memes we see all over social media and around the internet are The Kuleshov Effect in action! When you make a meme, you’re basically taking content that was produced for one purpose and meaning and assigning it a new purpose and meaning, often for comedic effect.

Let’s take this guy blinking. I’m sure you’ve seen him around:

Different people have used this guy blinking to express different feelings about a range of topics.

For example, Ava DuVernay used it when President Trump made a remark about Sweden having troubles it seemingly didn’t have. Here, we read this guy to be in disbelief. Almost like he’s saying, “I’m sorry, what now?” Stephen Colbert used this same GIF to express his discontentment with the Trump administration. Here, we read the blinking guy as annoyed – like he’s saying, “How could you have thought that?” And in a third example, Twitter user @eskbl uses the GIF to express confusion and overwhelm. This was the tweet that really went viral and catapulted Blinking Guy to the heights of meme fame.

Bottom line? Depending on the context Blinking Guy is paired with, we read his feelings differently.

Thanks to The Kuleshov Effect.

What Do You Think?

Can you recall a film that moved you with a clever juxtaposition of shots? Or have you juxtaposed shots yourself as a filmmaker, perhaps combining unrelated images to create a memorable reaction?

Either way, we’d love to hear about your encounters with The Kuleshov Effect in the comments below!

 Lauren McGrail, with


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