January 30, 2019

The Kuleshov Effect: Everything You Need To Know

The Kuleshov effect is the essential concept of editing, if not all of filmmaking. Do you know how to use it?

We all know that film is a visual medium. But we often forget that it's not that old. We've only had Hollywood movies for about 100 years. And while storytelling is as old as time, the way we design and edit movies and television to tell those stories is relatively new. Techniques are developed all the time. 

And most of them are based on the Kuleshov effect. 

Today, we're doing to dig into the Kuleshov effect and check out a video made by Senior Post about the Kuleshov effect's importance to editing and cinema. 

Let's cut right to it.  

What is the Kuleshov Effect? 

Lev Kuleshov was a Russian filmmaker and considered to be one of the first film theorists. In 1910, Kuleshow posed this question to filmmakers: 

"What made cinema a distinct art, separate from photography, literature or theatre?" 

While this seems simple to answer now, Kuleshov wanted to create a real distinction between the artistic mediums. 

Kuleshov answered that art was defined but what it was made of and how those materials were organized.

Yes, it does sound like he took all the fun out of filmmaking, but stick with me.  

The Kuleshov effect would never have happened without that question and answer. 

The Kuleshov Effect Definition

The Kuleshov effect is a film editing effect. It is a cognitive event in which viewers derive more meaning from the interaction of two sequential shots than from a single shot in isolation. 

The films referenced in the Senior Post video are: 

“A Clockwork Orange” (1971) dir. Stanley Kubrick
"American Psycho” (2000) dir. Mary Harron
“Apocalypse Now” (1979) dir. Francis Ford Coppola
“Arrival” (2016) dir. Denis Villeneuve
“Back to the Future” (1985) dir. Robert Zemeckis
“Barney Oldfield’s Race for a Life” (1913) dir. Mack Sennett
“Big Fish” (2003) dir. Tim Burton
“Birth” (2004) dir. Jonathan Glazer
“Breathless” (1960) dir. Jean-Luc Godard
“Brokeback Mountain” (2005) dir. Ang Lee
“Catch Me If You Can” (2002) dir. Steven Spielberg
“Dog Day Afternoon” (1975) dir. Sidney Lumet
“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004) dir. Spike Jonze
“Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” (1985) dir. John Hughes
“Friday the 13th Part III” (1982) dir. Steve Miner
“Guardians of the Galaxy” (2014) dir. James Gunn
“Home Alone” (1990) dir. Chris Columbus
“Inglourious Basterds” (2009) dir. Quentin Tarantino
“Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015) dir. George Miller
“Memento” (2000) dir. Christopher Nolan
“Mulholland Drive” (2001) dir. David Lynch 
“Pulp Fiction” (1994) dir. Quentin Tarantino
“Slumdog Millionaire” (2008) dir. Danny Boyle
“Taxi Driver” (1976) dir. Martin Scorsese
“The Beguiled” (2017) dir. Sofia Coppola
“The Conversation” (1974) dir. Francis Ford Coppola
“The English Patient” (1996) dir. Anthony Minghella
“The Florida Project” (2017) dir. Sean Baker
“The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” (1966) dir. Sergio Leone
“The Kuleshov Experiment” (1921) dir. Lev Kuleshov 
“The Royal Tenenbaums” (2001) dir. Wes Anderson
“The Shawshank Redemption” (2004) dir. Frank Darabont
“The Silence of the Lambs” (1999) dir. Jonathan Demme
“Titanic” (1997) dir. James Cameron

How Did Kuleshov Prove His Effect? 

In 1921, Kuleshov set up a series of cinematic demonstrations that cut back and forth between a man and three different things to see what emotions could be created with the contrast.  

The soup showed hunger. 

The dead kid showed sadness.

The woman showed lust.

Kuleshov's effect defined film and film editing. It proved that a film is just the juxtaposition of two shots, sewn together to create emotions. These shots can manipulate space and time. And manipulate the audience's reaction to each of them. 

With this deduction in place, all of the film world moved forward as an artistic medium. Now modern filmmakers knew they could elicit anything they wanted from the watching audience just by editing new shots. And from those editing techniques grew a whole slew of different creative camera angles that could complement the editing and be used to tell stories.  

Filmmakers across the world were excited by the Kuleshov effect. And it kept influencing people even as the 1920s passed. 

Even Hitchcock got in on it. 

The Kuleshov Effect Examples

While the Kuleshov effect seems like a no brainer in today's film world, I wanted to go over three Kuleshov effect examples to help show how the definition of the Kuleshov effect can inspire your editing, direction, and even screenwriting. 

First up, let's look at the cuts in the "What's in the box" scene in Seven

This scene is built around cutting back and forth from the box to each person's reactions. What's fun here is that Fincher uses three completely separate emotions to all refer to the box. There's Brad Pitt's horror. Morgan Freeman's fear. And the killer's elation. 

These distinct emotions all work when you cut back and forth to the box because the audience needs to know all three points of view for the scene to progress. Fincher is a master of audience control here. We are made to feel our own reaction to this scene. We are steeped in shock and awe as we realize the villain has won. 

What about using the Kuleshov effect to trick the audience? 

In Jonathan Demme's The Silence Of The Lambs, we use the Kuleshov effect and cross-cutting to set us up for am emotional reveal. By going back and forth from Buffalo Bill to the FBI, we have tensions rise. 

The best part about this is how the rug gets pulled out from under us. As an audience, we had something like 70 years of Kuleshov effect editing to lull us into thinking the killer had been found. But the payoff of this scene, they the FBI and reinforcements are miles away from Clarice Starling, who is now in mortal peril, is epic. 

What about a movie that uses the Kuleshov effect over and over as a major plot point? 

I'm talking about Inside Out.  

Inside Out Is a movie built on what goes on inside out head, and how that makes us feel. So in a lot of parts of this movie, we use what the human character is seeing to then influence how the characters inside her head feel. This is a clever take on editing because we handle multiple perspectives an emotions, just like in Seven, but this time it carries for the whole movie. Everyone is constantly reacting to the way the girl feels and in different ways. 

This is not only a genius use of the Kuleshov effect on the plot, but also an incredibly deep read on audience perspective and complex characterization. 

Leave it to Pixar to deliver another storytelling homerun. 

So what did we learn from these Kuleshov effect examples? 

Summing Up The Kuleshov Effect  

The Kuleshov effect may have influenced every filmmaker that came after it, but there are new ways to employ it in your editing, direction, and writing. 

The biggest takeaway from these Kuleshov effect examples and definition is that you are always in control of the audience. The best filmmakers exploit that control, subvert that control, and respect that control. 

So the next time you sit down at the editing bay, ask how you want the audience to feel. 

Then edit for that. 

I can't wait to watch what your dream up! 


Senior Post is an award-winning Brooklyn-based post house that provides full post production services for film, television, web, and branded content. Their work has screened at Sundance, Slamdance, Tribeca and SXSW and they've worked with clients such as HBO, Hulu, A24, Apatow Productions, Comedy Central, Vice, Vevo and Refinery 29. They are currently completing the second season of 2 Dope Queens, which returns to HBO on February 8th at 11pm.

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