Its Impact on the Viewer’s Emotions


Let’s explore everything you need to know about the Kuleshov Effect and how it impacts the viewer’s emotions.

Out of all the mysterious and powerful tools in a filmmaker’s cinematic belt, there’s truly one technique that is the most awesome. No, I’m not talking about the dolly zoom, or the jump cut, or even using Soviet Montage Theory to its full effect (although you could argue this trick is a part of that technique).

No, today we’re talking about the Kuleshov Effect and how it shapes the very essence of how films are made and perceived by audiences—big and small.

Do you ever wonder why a particular shot makes you feel a specific way? Or, how come you can feel the uncanny effects of a certain cut when watching a tense sequence?

Well, that’s because the best filmmakers worldwide understand the Kuleshov Effect and know how to use it with cinematically sharp precision.

But, what is this mysterious filmmaking tool? Where does it come from, and how can you use it?

Let’s find out.

What Is the Kuleshov Effect? 

So, what is the Kuleshov Effect, and how does it work?

Developed in the 1910s and 1920s by Russian filmmaker Lev Kuleshov (more on him below), the Kuleshov Effect is one of the main principles of editing and montage theory—as well as a fundamental building block of film theory itself.

Simply put, the Kuleshov Effect is a film editing technique that explores the mental phenomenon of how viewers can extract more meaning from the interaction of two connected shots than from a single static image.

Who Was Lev Kuleshov?

To understand the Kuleshov Effect, we need to understand the man behind this experimental technique.

Born into a Russian intellectual family in 1899, Lev Kuleshov was a classically trained artist who became a pioneer of modern filmmaking—and film theory—at its rise at the turn of the century.

A contemporary of other influential Soviet filmmakers and theorists like Sergei Eisenstein, Kuleshov is considered a leader of the group who first introduced the Soviet Montage Theory, one of the most iconic editing techniques of film editing ever explored.

Along with these basic concepts of montages, Kuleshov is most famous for his work experimenting with how shot sequencing can make a viewer feel different emotions—based simply on how different images are juxtaposed together.

What Did the Kuleshov Effect Prove? 

Now that we’ve covered who Lev Kuleshov was and how this cinematic effect operates in theory, let’s explore how it works in the world of film and video. As you can see in the video above, the Kuleshov Effect is really experimentation in juxtaposition.

By showing a character with a neutral facial expression proceeded by a bowl of soup, the viewer feels a bit bland—if not a little hungry—and perceives the character to feel that way.

However, when shown that same character with a neutral face before cutting to footage of a child in a casket, the viewer perceives sadness in the character’s expression.

The same is true with the juxtaposition of the neutral face and the pretty woman as we perceive love and affection in that same look.

As you can imagine, the discovery of this effect and its power over a viewer’s emotion and cinematic understanding was indeed a significant breakthrough and building block in how all film and video would be edited after.

Why Is the Kuleshov Effect Important? 

Once the Kuleshov Effect was introduced and implemented into early Soviet films of the 1910s and 1920s, the effect would go on to become a popular technique used by filmmakers near and far.

When combined with Soviet Montage Theory, for example, most notably in the Odessa steps sequence from Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, we see how this effect can be used to juxtapose many different shots together to create a cacophony of emotion, which can very much overwhelm a viewer with fast cuts and deep panic.

The Kuleshov Effect also goes on to prove that no shots in a film are ever truly throwaways or meaningless. From the uninfected shot to gutter editing, filmmakers and film editors alike would learn that every shot is uniquely important in how it’s placed within a sequence. (And then, how a sequence is placed within a scene, and so on, until an entire film or project is constructed.)

Truly, the modern movie montage style was developed in part due to this early exploration and uses the Kuleshov Effect to inform how every major blockbuster film and small video project would be constructed ever since.

How Hitchcock Uses the Kuleshov Effect 

Speaking of renowned filmmakers who have made use of the Kuleshov Effect over the years, we have to spend some time talking about the legendary Alfred Hitchcock.

While by no means a contemporary of Lev Kuleshov, Hitchcock was a direct descendant of the famous Soviet filmmaker’s ideology. He was one of the first (if not the greatest) filmmakers to further experiment with the Kuleshov Effect in action.

Known as the “master of suspense,” Hitchcock took the Kuleshov Effect and Soviet Montage Theory many steps further. He integrated these filmmaking principles into how he constructed scenes and choose edits as a way to build tension and suspense.

You can see stellar examples of this technique by watching scenes from some Hitchcock cinema classics like Rear Window or Psycho. In particular, in the scenes in Rear Window, we get quick cuts between our watching protagonist’s face and the scenes he (and the viewers) perceives.

Also, as you can see in the video above, Hitchcock was a great teacher of film. His explanation and examples of the Kuleshov Effect, which he shared with fellow filmmaker Fletcher Markle in 1964, is still used as textbook fodder for film school students across the world to illustrate this technique.

How Spielberg Uses the Kuleshov Effect 

Expanding on Kuleshov’s initial experimentations, and new styles and ideas put forward by filmmakers like Hitchcock, elements of the Kuleshov Effect have been in heavy use throughout Hollywood film history.

Look no further than the films directed by Steven Spielberg to trace how these shot juxtapositions can be quickly and cinematically make emotional and thematic connections in different scenes.

In particular, Spielberg is famous for using point-of-view (POV) shots to further immerse a viewer in a film’s world.

He also experiments with a point-of-thought approach in films like E.T., Jurassic Park, and Indiana Jones to better connect audiences not only with the images they see on the screen—but even more so with how the characters in the scenes are feeling to their core.

The Kuleshov Effect in Modern Films 

However, as with any film technique that owes its origins back to the early days of cinema, the art form is quick to adapt and even quicker to subvert. Just because we’ve seen these standard shot-reverse-shot styles of juxtaposition over the years doesn’t mean these rules aren’t meant to be broken.

Just as Kuleshov and Eisenstein did in their original experimentations, every filmmaker has searched to find new ways to use the medium of film to tell stories that feel as real, immersive, and emotional as possible.

Take modern filmmakers like Denis Villeneuve with Arrival, Christopher Nolan with The Dark Knight Rises, or Chloé Zhao with Nomadland as excellent examples of how filmmakers can try out new and innovative ways to connect with their audiences visually and with their specific cuts and scene constructions.

The Kuleshov Effect in Post-Production 

And, while we’ve covered the Kuleshov Effect as a filmmaking principle, we must spend time talking about this effect as an editing principle. After all, at its core, the juxtaposition of shots together is the art of editing itself. The Kuleshov Effect is a deeper way of looking at the basic logic of shot-by-shot scene construction.

As any successful film or video editor will tell you, while you want to follow some basic film editing rules like match cutting, scenes should really be edited together by feeling and emotion. Almost as if you, the editor, are also a viewer of the film judging your own emotions.

This is especially true and prevalent when editing montage-style scenes where there are a lot of shots quickly cut together that don’t always come from the same time or place.

These quick-cutting montages are the Kuleshov Effect at its most raw, and also the best opportunity for editors to make strong emotional connections with the audience with their choices of edits.

Should You Use It?

Wrapping things up, it’s exciting to think about how these basic filmmaking principles—founded over a hundred years ago—might change and evolve over the next hundred years. The art of filmmaking has become much more open and accessible over the past few years as digital video technology has exploded.

Nowadays, we see video as a tool for content creation, whether for YouTube, TikTok, or other social video platforms. Yet, at its core, video content still uses these same rules and principles of filmmaking.

And, if you’re serious about improving your skills overall, studying these basics will give you even more opportunities to experiment with techniques like the Kuleshov Effect.

For more filmmaking insights and theories, check out these additional articles.


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