The Kuleshov Effect

Creating relationships and larger meaning with shots.

Misha Tenenbaum avatar
Written by Misha Tenenbaum
Updated over a week ago

Film editing is a powerful tool as it's a medium that can engage the viewer both mentally and emotionally. As you build your edit, the viewer unconsciously associates relationship and meaning between juxtaposed shots. Each individual shot, by itself, gives some type of story information to the audience. But it isn't until the individual shots are put together in a sequence, with other shots, that they create a larger meaning. The idea that individual shots placed next to each creates a new meaning is often attributed to concept called The Kuleshov Effect.

The Kuleshov Effect

Soviet film theorist, Lev Kuleshov, conducted visual experiments which showed how shots can be assembled to create a new meaning. He took a neutral shot of an actor and juxtaposed it with a different proceeding shot each time to illustrate this concept. The first series juxtaposes a shot of an actor and a bowl of soup conveying a sense of hunger. The second time he takes that same shot of the actor and combines it with a shot of a child in a coffin, and the viewer feels sadness in his expression. In the final series, the actor is assembled with that of a woman, and we get an implied sense of desire in his look.

The shot of the actor never changes in each iteration, but we perceive a different emotion when combined with a different shot. In essence, the experiment surmises two shots don't have to be related to one another but through the act of editing we infer an implied relationship from its' collision resulting in a new idea for the viewer.

Keep in mind, film is rarely shot chronologically and the job of the filmmaker is to try to create the illusion of continuum from inherently separate elements. A major goal of any edit is to get the audience to not be conscious of the inherent discontinuous nature of film and one of the ways this is achieved is by misdirecting the audience mentally and emotionally through The Kuleshov Effect.

Should we be calling it The Kuleshov Effect?

Filmmaker and scholar, Dr. Karen Pearlman, proposes the film community to reevaluate using the term The Kuleshov Effect and rebranding it The Editors Effect. The practice of this phenomenon was utilized by editors before Kuleshov conducted experiments to shed light on the concept. Often, those early editors were women as editing was traditionally considered the job of a woman. By frequently crediting Kuleshov with this filmmaking concept, we may be further repressing women's historical contributions to cinema in a world were their contributions are frequently underrepresented and egregiously overwritten.

In this episode of This Guy Edits: Coffee with Editors, Dr. Karen Pearlman expands more on this concept.

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