What is The Kuleshov Effect in Film?

While filmmaking has only been around for about 120 years, techniques and methods of storytelling are constantly evolving. Lev Kuleshov, a Russian filmmaker, introduced an editing effect that would change editing forever. By understanding the Kuleshov Effect, you can become a better editor and filmmaker. Let’s dive in.

What Exactly is The Kuleshov Effect

The Kuleshov Effect is a concept that two shots juxtaposed together are more powerful than one single standalone shot. Through these two shots, the audience can analyze the scene and sequence differently to change the meaning of the scene.

Initially starting as an experiment, Kuleshov sought to understand how audiences acquired meaning through the assembly of shots. 

What is a juxtaposition 

You may have heard of the word juxtaposition used in film banter, but what exactly is it? Juxtaposition is putting two or multiple objects’ beside each other to demonstrate similarities or differences. Juxtaposition can include various colors, shapes, and things to create contrast. Positioning conflicting shots next to each other can evoke emotional responses from the audience. 

In film, juxtaposition can happen in the screenplay, cinematography, and editing. 

Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022) is a great example of juxtaposition in all three. Placing its main character Evelyn, a middle-aged Asian woman, in the middle of her relationships with her conventional elderly father, Gong Gong, and her lesbian, rebellious daughter, Joy, the tug of war is constantly demonstrated through the screenplay and carried through cinematography and editing. 

Who Was Lev Kuleshov 

Kuleshov Effect - Lev Kuleshov

Lev Kuleshov was a filmmaker and film theorist from Russia. Often regarded as one of the first film theorists, he sought to explore what defined cinema as an art form outside of photography, literature, and theatre. He went on to help found the Moscow Film School, one of the world’s first film schools. 

He was interested in film editing, as editors held power to create meaningful emotional experiences for audiences. He was actively a part of the creation of the Soviet montage, a theory that connecting visual images can create complex ideas. It is a common belief that montage is what defines cinema from other art forms. Montage is now widely used in most television shows and movies. 

Kuleshov not only expressed interest in filmmaking and theory, but he also explored it through his work. In 1921, Kuleshov displayed his experiment by cutting between the same shot of a man and a shot of something different to explore what emotions would develop:

  1. A shot of a man, followed by an image of a child lying in a casket, illustrates sadness.
  2. The shot of a man, followed by a bowl of soup, displays hunger.
  3. The shot of the man, followed by a woman lying on the couch, demonstrates lust.

Through this experiment, Kuleshov could trick audiences into believing the man was looking at something he was not, creating different emotions. Even though the shot of the man remains unchanged, the change in shots afterward changed the scene’s meaning. This altered how editors understood they could evoke emotion by bringing shots together. 

In the following years, director Alfred Hitchcock elaborated on the Kuleshov Effect, creating what he called “pure cinema.” These three shots include close-up shots, point-of-view shots, and reaction shots.

Examples of The Kuleshov Effect in Film

Parasite (2019)

Parasite juxtaposes the depiction of class division through struggle and ease. It comes to a head in the film’s climax during a birthday party for the wealthy family’s son. The party itself is Native American-themed and erupts into a violent showcase.

The maid’s husband has been living in a dungeon in the wealthy family’s house, driven underground by poverty and financial struggle. By juxtaposing his battle for survival in the basement with the ease and excess of the wealthy families’ house and lifestyle, the scene sets the stage brilliantly for the reveal. 

Inside Out (2015)

Inside Out does a great job demonstrating the Kuleshov Effect. As the film predominantly takes place in the head of the human character, the audience experiences the influence of emotions from situations in the real world. Each character in her head demonstrates a different feeling and acts according to the stimulus of the outside world. 

Psycho (1960)

One of the most infamous uses of the Kuleshov Effect is the shower scene from “Psycho.” With the inclusion of close-ups of Janet Leigh’s reaction and quick frames of the knife, the audience can deduce the stabbing. The implication of violence at this moment raises the audience’s tension and fear without showing the scene’s full range of action.

Cerebral (2015)

In my film, Cerebral, we used the Kuleshov Effect to demonstrate the murder of a character. Cutting between one character atop another character with a pillow and an insert of the other character’s hand struggling, we were able to create an edit to demonstrate a murder. Completed during 48 hours on a budget, we had to get creative with our storytelling devices without showing gore and blood. The Kuleshov Effect came in clutch for us. 

Conclusion

Filmmakers have used the Kuleshov Effect for over 100 years, but there are always new ways to evolve storytelling. Through juxtaposition and the Kuleshov effect, you can manipulate emotions and feelings by creating contrast in your screenplay, cinematography, and editing. 

As a filmmaker, you create a unique experience for your audience, and you shouldn’t take that responsibility lightly! The Kuleshov Effect helps filmmakers remember to create reactionary moments for characters and film reaction shots on set and allows editors to create different emotions by adding in close-ups and reactions. 

Taking time to play around with what emotion you want your audiences to feel after enjoying your work will have a lasting impact on your film. Editing is much more than putting shots together to tell a story. Next time you are in edit, remember the power of changing shots to elicit audience reactions and change perceptions of the story.

Ashleigh Coffelt

Ashleigh Coffelt is a Filipina writer, director, and cinematographer. Passionate about collaboration and education, you can find her woodburning, creating art and playing emo music with her best friend. Ashleigh loves working with people to create beautiful things and is constantly striving to learn more so she can share her knowledge with the world.

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