What is Kuleshov Effect: Definition, examples and importance

What is Kuleshov Effect: Definition, examples and importance

The way filmmakers design and edit movies and television series to tell those stories from the past often wows many people. This is made possible by the Kuleshov Effect, which is a fundamental aspect of creating movie magic.

kuleshov effect

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Have you ever wished you could change the way someone felt or the way they perceived something, as if by magic? Editors of films and TV shows do this every day, only not by casting spells. They simply apply a principle known as the Kuleshov Effect.

Kuleshov Effect definition

This term refers to a cognitive event in which viewers get more meaning from the interaction of two sequential shots than from a single shot in isolation.

It is the single most important concept in editing, directing, and even screenwriting. In recent years, cameras and special effects have become so good that they can make even the most ambitious ideas look like reality, thanks to the Kuleshov Effect.

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What was the central principle of the Kuleshov Effect?

A montage is the central principle that defines any film as an art on its own. The basic premise of this technique is that cinematic meaning is a function of the edited sequence rather than of the individual shot.

History of the Kuleshov Effect

Through it, we can suggest meaning and manipulate both space and time. Lev Kuleshov, who lived between 1899-1970, was a Russian filmmaker, who is considered to be the first film theorist in the 1910s.

He questioned what made cinema a distinct art that was separate from photography, literature, or theatre.

Kuleshov discovered that art is made of two key elements, that is, the material itself and the way in which the artist organizes the material. He then discovered that the organization of individual shots in a montage is what makes a film to stand apart.

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In 1921, he conducted the Kuleshov experiment that involved projecting the face of a well-known actor in an expressionless state followed by the shot of a bowl of soup.

He then showed another shot of the same expressionless actor followed by that of a girl in a coffin. The final one was the actor’s face followed by an attractive young woman lying on a couch.

Although the shot of the man was unchanged each time it appeared onscreen, the audience’s perception of his expression changed based on either the bowl of soup, the attractive young woman lying on a couch, or the girl in a coffin.

kuleshov experiment

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The first set of images showed hunger while the second signaled sadness. People reported that the third set showed lust.

After analyzing people's reactions to the images, he concluded that the ordering of the shots made two separate places seem to be one whole continuous location to the audience.

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His contemporaries explored the power of montage and the resulting innovations paved the way for contemporary filmmakers. He proved that a film is simply the juxtaposition of two shots sewn together to create emotions.

He found out that shot length, movement, cuts, and juxtaposition were filmmaking techniques that could emotionally affect audiences. As a result, manipulating space and time was possible through the use of editing.

Importance of the Kuleshov Effect

Why is the Kuleshov Effect important? It is very important because it transformed film editing into a well-respected art form with endless possibilities for creativity. To date, it allows editors to better control the tone and meaning found in their films.

How an editor organizes shots helps filmmakers to create new meaning by juxtaposing unrelated images. With the illusion of condensing space, for instance, they get the ability to create new worlds and to connect places that were previously separate.

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Besides being very important in filmmaking, the effect is also commonly used today in meme creation. When you make a meme, you are basically taking content that was produced for one purpose and meaning and giving it a new purpose and meaning, usually for comedic effect.

Kuleshov Effect examples

Examples of this effect are evident in the following films:

1. Arrival

kuleshov effect definition

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In the film titled Arrival which was released in 2016, Louise is a mother in mourning after losing her young daughter to cancer.

At the beginning of the film, viewers see a montage of Louise and Hannah that shows that Hannah dies of cancer.

This information makes viewers to incorrectly decipher the next scene as they misinterpret Louise’s lack of interest as sadness until it is revealed that the events in the opening scene have not occurred yet.

After this realization, viewers get a whole different perspective of her life. Since the film ends in a scene with similar images as the montage we see at the beginning, the theme of time and human perception of time is solidified even more.

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2. The Dark Knight Rises

In The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan uses this effect to show Catwoman’s regret as she watches Bane beat Batman black and blue.

3. Se7en

In the scene, What's in the Box, from the movie titled Se7en, there is cutting back and forth from the box to each person's reactions. Fincher uses three completely separate emotions, and all refer to the box.

Brad Pitt expresses horror, Morgan Freeman shows fear, while the killer shows elation.

How to apply this technique in film production

The technique can be used in the modern era in the following ways:

  • To pen big reactions into scripts: If you are writing a script, you can give your characters the chance to react to every important piece of dialogue and reinforce their emotions, beliefs, and world views.
  • To get reaction shots from close-ups: Directors can use close-ups to focus on one character’s face and to emphasize their emotional reaction. Doing this, in turn, tells the audience how to feel about a specific on-screen action.
  • To emphasize emotions in the postproduction phase: Having many strong close-ups and reaction shots can provide editors with the freedom to cut together scenes in a fashion that guides the viewer towards a specific feeling.
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The Kuleshov Effect is all about using the power of a montage to induce different meanings and emotions from the interaction of two shots in a sequence. It has revolutionized filmmaking and editing.

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