The Kuleshov Effect Explained. An Illustrated Guide

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If you’ve ever wondered why an image of an inanimate object on screen made you cry, you probably have Lev Kuleshov to thank. 

Lev Kuleshov was a Soviet filmmaker in the early 1900s that made famous, through a camera test where he cut a man’s neutral expression with different objects, that you can change the way an audience experiences an image by juxtaposing it with another image.

The definition of The Kuleshov Effect can be written like this:

The Kuleshov Effect is an editing rule which dictates that audiences receive more emotional meaning from the combination of two shots in sequential order than from one shot on its own. Filmmakers use this effect to help them subtly direct the audience’s attention to and from specific details in contrasting frames throughout their films. This gives the details more importance and helping to tell both the plot mechanics of the story and the emotional journey of the character’s story.

Pretty simple in theory, right? But does it actually work? It does indeed – but there’s no better way to demonstrate it than with an illustrated guide! 

Join us as we venture into the world of cinema for great cinematic examples of the Kuleshov Effect in full effect!

The original Kuleshov shot.

This video, by Youtuber esteticaCC, is of the actual Kuleshov test footage. In the original camera test, Kuleshov uses a shot of Russian silent film star Ivan Mosjoukine which he then juxtaposes with other images to imbue his neutral expression with new meaning.

See how the shot is exactly the same but seems to change in subtle ways depending on what he is looking at? It’s somewhat hard for me to fully grasp just based on this video alone, especially because I know the shot is the same shot every time. It does ruin the illusion to me.

Just look at that face! What expression is he making to you?

Hitchcock took the explanation of the Kuleshov effect a step further

In the now-famous “Definition of Happiness” interview where Hitchcock talks about editing to Fletcher Markle, Hitchcock explains the final and pure form of cinematics with the Kuleshov effect.

Basically what Hitchcock is doing here is explaining the most important concept in editing: He looks, he sees, he thinks.

In the first example, we first see Hitchcock himself squinting, and then we cut to a woman with a baby. We then cut back to a smiling Hitchcock.

This particular sequence gives the impression that Hitchcock is a smiling granddad that looks at his daughter and grandchild. Or in his words, a kind old man.

In the second example, instead of cutting to the woman and child, we cut to a bikini-clad lady. This gives the impression that he is a dirty old man.

Did Kuleshov really discover the effect?

While it’s safe to say that Kuleshov was the one that discursively constructed (just a fancy way of saying he made it famous) this type of editing, he was not the one to actually discover it.

As Dr. Karen Pearlman from Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, explains in this interview with Sven from This Guy Edits women played an essential role in film editing and used this effect long before Kuleshov made it famous:

Taking it a step further. 

Now, what if you were to take the same footage, all the same shots, but edit them in a different order? Following the logic of the Kuleshov effect, it would change the meaning of the scene.

Here’s a fun video from Youtuber ealdana10 that demonstrates this idea perfectly: 

In the video, ealdana10 uses the same footage in Version 1 and Version 2, but by cutting them together in a different order, they are able to change the context of the story dramatically.

See how in Version 1, the story plays out a certain way that is then dramatically different when played out in Version 2? 

Now, you’ll also notice that the filmmaker didn’t just use The Kuleshov Effect to pull this off – they also used color grading to make the footage look more gray and ominous, which for the sake of this visual guide is actually helpful in demonstrating the difference. 

They also used music and the atonal sound effect of a ringing in the ear to sell the tension of the poisoning, but do you see how those subtle directorial elements help sell support the Kuleshov effect in action?

Time for some Kuleshov effect in some of your favorite movies.

Here’s a few cinematic classics, as well as a few newer favorites, that demonstrate the Kuleshov effect in action! 

The Graduate. 

I had to. It’s one of the most iconic shots in cinema history, let alone a great example of the Kuleshov effect. No need to even show the reverse… this shot (almost) says it all.

Source: FilmGrab – The Graduate

Besides the famous leg shot, there are some other great Kuleshov moments in Mike Nichol’s classic film The Graduate that don’t immediately come to mind, like this one contrasting Dustin Hoffman’s character Benjamin staring at a fish in his aquarium, then staring out the window at the people below. 

Source: FilmGrab – The Graduate

With the pool behind them and the glass between them, it creates a similar contrast – and causes us to draw a connection between both images, whether consciously or unconsciously.

Here’s another one that’s a little more obvious, but works in tandem to continue the feeling from the shots above – the scene where Benjamin dons his scuba suit out into the pool party.

Source: FilmGrab – The Graduate

Fantastic Mr. Fox. 

Wes Anderson is himself a “fantastical” director, creating an elevated visual style that is as iconic and recognizable as any other. But the best example of his use of the Kuleshov effect is in his wonderful little animated film Fantastic Mr. Fox.

By using wide close-ups on the characters, he is able to use the Kuleshov effect to bring the stop-motion animated characters to life in wonderful display, imbuing their inanimate eyes with meaning and the depth of connection by cutting between their faces, making them feel alive with expression. Here are a few examples:

Source: FilmGrab – Fantastic Mr. Fox

The three shots, all cut together, recall a familiar cinematic standoff that makes just as much use of the Kuleshov effect in action. Speaking of…

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.

The whole final standoff in the classic Sergio Leone western The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly is like a masterclass in Kuleshov. Here are a few iconic shots from the fight, each one imbuing the other with more and more tension.

Drawing the contrast between the guns and the eyes, it all becomes about who is going to make the first move…

Source: FilmGrab – The Good The Bad and The Ugly 

Us.

While action movies use the Kuleshov effect to build tension and drama use it to draw visual metaphors and emotional significance, no genre is better at using the Kuleshov effect to completely lure in unsuspecting victims, I mean viewers, like the horror genre. 

It’s one of the reasons why I love the director Jordan Peele and the way he writes and directs horror.

His second film, Us, is no exception. Here are a few extremely tense shots using the Kuleshov effect, used masterfully to just creep you the hell out – and put you in the emotional shoes of the protagonists.

Source: FilmGrab – Us 

I think this performance by Lupita Nyongo will definitely go down in cinema history as one of the creepiest villains in any horror movie. She’s so talented, especially because she’s playing two different characters – which wouldn’t be possible without the Kuleshov effect, by the way! 

Source: FilmGrab – Us 

No Country for Old Men. 

While it’s not a horror movie per se, the Coen Brothers No Country for Old Men is one hell of a creepy movie.

One of the best ways to instill dread in your audience is by editing anyone’s expression juxtaposed by Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh. Just look at his face!

Source: FilmGrab – No Country for Old Men

As a representation of death itself, Anton is supposed to be this surreal, otherworldly presence that makes everyone he encounters uncomfortable.

The Coen Brothers are so good at capturing this dude’s creepy aura, they even used the Kuleshov effect to creep us out with his reflection in a TV! And I thought the shot of the TV in The Ring was scary…

Source: FilmGrab – No Country for Old Men

Lady Bird. 

Greta Gerwig is a very talented director with a very specific visual aesthetic.

Her works strike me as being all about details, and even though her editing style frequently uses a lot of fast cuts, the cuts she uses always seem to take the Kuleshov into effect.

It’s how she’s able to convey so much in such a succinct way so quickly. 

Here’s a great example from her film Lady Bird. In these shots, the two characters of Lady Bird and Julie are seen marveling at a big blue house.

Source: FilmGrab – Lady Bird

These two shots utilizes the Kuleshov effect to convey so much about the characters’ child-like idealism, and it’s made even better once we meet the character who actually lives in that house, and how his storyline converges with Lady Bird’s to work to shatter that naivete in certain ways. 

It’s a great coming of age story for that particular reason – Greta imbues places, objects, and ideas with important meaning to her characters, then shows how as the characters change, those meanings change as well, especially in relation to growing up and leaving home.

Source: FilmGrab – Lady Bird

Shaun of the Dead. 

One genre area we haven’t touched on yet is comedy. The Kuleshov effect is actually incredibly important for comedy. While many comedy writers will write jokes into their material, be it dialogue or slapstick action, the best comedy directors and editors know how to use the camera to land the joke. 

That’s why Edgar Wright and his first feature film Shaun of the Dead is such a masterclass in both directing comedy and editing utilizing the Kuleshov effect.

Source: FilmGrab – Shaun of the Dead

Take for example the way Edgar Wright plays with audience expectations of the zombie genre with his opening sequence, then contrasts it with this great shot of the character Shaun waking up and yawning.

In fact, every character introduction is in some way hinting at what’s to come while playing with audience expectations of the genre. For example, you can use the Kuleshov effect to contrast images even if they aren’t cut sequentially. The audience will still pick up on it the second time.

Like this introduction of Shaun’s step dad Phillip as a cold standoffish… well, zombie!

Source: FilmGrab – Shaun of the Dead

You can also use repetition of shots, like Edgar Wright does, to create expectations and show contrast in overt ways, like how Shaun and Ed keep seeing zombies and thinking they are drunks…

Source: FilmGrab – Shaun of the Dead

…or how in Shaun’s fantasy, he sees the same scene playing out under different scenarios with the same visual ending beat: 

Source: FilmGrab – Shaun of the Dead

To understand what I mean, it’s easier to watch the scene as opposed to beating it out in stills, so for the full sequence, check out the clip from Youtuber ReferencingMovies here:

All in all, Shaun of the Dead is one of the most clever movies I’ve ever seen, both in the writing and in Edgar’s use of editing to create visual gags, so it’s worth watching for a masterclass in editing comedy. But don’t take my word for it – Edgar told us himself!

Source: FilmGrab – Shaun of the Dead

Or, you know – you can watch Tony Zhou’s Every Frame a Painting episode on the subject here: 

If Beale Street Could Talk.

I want to talk lastly about how the Kuleshov effect works best – contrasting faces with images to create emotional resonance in an audience. 

Even though Barry Jenkins is a relatively new director, he’s one of my favorites, and that’s because of his masterful use of unmasking actors and allowing them to be emotionally vulnerable on screen. That was true in Moonlight but even more so in his follow-up feature, If Beale Street Could Talk.

In the spirit of how Lev Kuleshov used Ivan Mosjoukine’s face alongside contrasting images to tell different stories, sometimes the best way to tell a human story is to let two humans contrast each other. 

So much can be conveyed between two people just by letting them look at each other, as we see here with the lead characters of the film, Alonzo and Tish:

Source: FilmGrab – If Beale Street Could Talk 

Compare these two in this moment as they look at each other with a change of setting and circumstances that happens soon after… 

Source: FilmGrab – If Beale Street Could Talk 

Notice how in one pair of shots, we are close to him and she is at a distance? Now it is reversed – we are close on her, and he is at distance, the pair separated behind a wall of glass and a prison system that’s keeping them apart.

This recurring visual image of faces, down to the exact framing, is something that is a visual motif throughout the film, even with other characters in the movie.

There’s a specific reason for this, of course.

Inherent in the conceit of this film is the very real dehumanization of black people in America, which is why I believe Barry Jenkins purposefully focuses his lens on the faces of his characters, straight on, to remind the audience that they are human beings first and foremost.

Compare those images now to the image of the cop, shown at a distance, a visual metaphor for how he has distanced himself from the humanity of Alonzo and others like him. He does not get a loving close-up showcasing his humanity, because, in this story, he doesn’t have any.

Conclusion

There’s a reason the Kuleshov effect works – just like there’s a reason we can identify with a toy or a robot or a plastic spork in a Pixar movie.

We want to be able to connect with the characters we’re watching. We want images to have meaning because then we too have meaning. 

By using the Kuleshov effect to give your juxtaposing images meaning, you are directing your audiences in subtle ways towards what’s really important in the story – and in life.


Grant Harvey is a freelance writer, screenwriter, and filmmaker based out of Los Angeles. When he’s not working on his own feature-length screenplays and television pilots, Grant uses his passion and experience in film and videography to help others learn the tools, strategies, and equipment needed to create high-quality videos as a filmmaker of any skill level.

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