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What Is the Kuleshov Effect?
The Kuleshov Effect was a film experiment conducted by Soviet filmmaker Lev Kuleshov. It explored how audiences ascribed meaning to and understood shots depending on the order in which they were assembled. The experiment signaled to directors and film editors that shot length, movement, cuts, and juxtaposition are filmmaking techniques that can emotionally affect audiences.
The Origins of the Kuleshov Effect
Lev Kuleshov was a Russian filmmaker who worked as a newsreel cameraman during the 1917 Russian Revolution. After the revolution, he founded the Kuleshov Workshop, an arm of the Moscow Film School that attracted students interested in pushing boundaries and experimenting with creative editing techniques.
While teaching at the Moscow Film School, Kuleshov conducted an experiment to demonstrate how a viewer’s interpretation of a character's facial expression can be influenced through juxtaposition with a second image. He edited a close-up of an expressionless man, Tsarist silent film actor Ivan Mosjoukine, together with three alternate ending shots: a dead child in a coffin, a bowl of soup, and a woman lying on a divan. Then, Kuleshov showed the three miniature films to three separate audiences and asked viewers to interpret what the man was thinking.
Audiences who saw the image of the dead child believed the man’s expression indicated sadness. When followed by a plate of soup, they interpreted the man’s expression as hunger. And when paired with the image of the reclining woman, audiences assumed the man experienced lust.
In reality, the man’s expression was identical in all three miniature films, but how audiences interpreted that expression—as sadness, hunger, or lust—depended entirely on the image that followed. From then on, filmmakers had the language to describe how audiences interpret facial expressions based on the larger context of the scene.
Alfred Hitchcock and the Kuleshov Effect
Years after Kuleshov created his experiment, director Alfred Hitchcock adapted the Kuleshov Effect into his own concept that he called “pure cinema,” which consisted of three shots:
- Close-up shot
- Point-of-view shot
- Reaction shot
Hitchcock’s addition of the reaction shot further clarifies for the audience what the character thinks or feels about what they just saw.
In a 1964 interview for the show Telescope, Hitchcock shared his insights into cinematic storytelling, ending with an example of pure cinema: Picture a close-up shot of Hitchcock squinting juxtaposed with a POV shot of a woman with a baby. His feelings toward this maternal pair are ambiguous until the reaction shot appears, showing his expression change to a smile. The audience concludes that he’s a kind and sympathetic man. Switch the POV shot out, however, so that Hitchcock is watching a woman in a bikini instead, and the audience shifts to perceive him as “a dirty old man.”
How to Use the Kuleshov Effect in Film
The Kuleshov Effect informs the way modern filmmakers make movies:
- Pen big reactions into scripts. If you’re writing a script, give your characters the chance to react to every important piece of dialogue, reinforcing their emotions, beliefs, and world views. These reactions will be invaluable in the edit.
- Use close-ups for reaction shots. Directors use close-ups to focus on a single character’s face to emphasize their emotional reaction, which in turn tells the audience how to feel about the on-screen action.
- Emphasize emotions in postproduction. Having an abundance of strong close ups and reaction shots in the can will give editors the freedom to cut together scenes in a way that guides the viewer towards a specific feeling. Learn more about the postproduction process here.
Why the Kuleshov Effect Still Matters
The Kuleshov experiment was revolutionary for its time, as the first to demonstrate the importance of the juxtaposition of shots. While a cinematographer can light a scene perfectly and an actor can deliver a flawless performance, without proper juxtaposition of the shots, the scene still may not successfully convey emotion.
Today, the Kuleshov Effect reminds filmmakers, particularly editors, that the context in which an actor’s face appears affects how that face is perceived. Editing is more than compiling shots to tell a story; it’s carefully selecting the shots and angles that manipulate the audience’s perception of the story. Something as simple as a reaction shot or a close-up can make a big difference in how an audience perceives the action and message of a film.
Learn more about the art of film editing with David Lynch.