The Kuleshov Effect Explained. An Illustrated Guide

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Definition: The Kuleshov Effect is a film editing phenomenon that demonstrates how viewers derive more meaning from the interaction of two sequential shots than from a single shot in isolation. Named after Soviet filmmaker Lev Kuleshov, who explored this concept in the early 20th century, the effect highlights the critical role of editing in shaping a viewer’s perception and emotional response to a scene.

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

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 helps to tell both the plot mechanics of the story and the emotional journey of the character’s story.

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

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 the same but seems to change subtly depending on what he looks at? It’s hard for me to fully grasp based on this video alone, especially because I know the shot is the same every time. It does ruin the illusion to me.

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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 cinematics’ final and pure form with the Kuleshov effect.

Hitchcock 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 who looks at his daughter and grandchild. Or, in his words, a kind old man.

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

Did Kuleshov discover the effect?

While it’s safe to say that Kuleshov discursively constructed this type of editing (just a fancy way of saying he made it famous), he was not the one to 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. They used this effect long before Kuleshov made it famous:

Taking it a step further. 

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 scene’s meaning.

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 cutting them together in a different order can dramatically change the story’s context.

See how, in Version 1, the story plays out a certain way that dramatically differs from when it 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, helps demonstrate 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 support the Kuleshov effect in action?

It’s time for some Kuleshov effect in some of your favorite movies.

Here are a few cinematic classics and newer favorites demonstrating 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. There is no need to show the reverse… this shot (almost) says it all.

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. 

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Source: FilmGrab – The Graduate

The pool behind them and the glass between them create a similar contrast – and cause us to draw a connection between both images, whether consciously or unconsciously.

Here’s another one that’s slightly 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.

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Source: FilmGrab – The Graduate

Fantastic Mr. Fox. 

Wes Anderson is 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 can 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:

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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 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 imbuing the other with more and more tension.

Drawing the contrast between the guns and the eyes, it becomes about who will make the first move…

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Source: FilmGrab – The Good The Bad and The Ugly 

Us.

While action movies use the Kuleshov effect to build tension and drama uses it to draw visual metaphors and emotional significance, no genre is better at using the Kuleshov effect to lure in unsuspecting victims completely, 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 creep you out – and put you in the emotional shoes of the protagonists.

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Source: FilmGrab – Us 

I think this performance by Lupita Nyongo will 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! 

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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!

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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 that they even used the Kuleshov effect to creep us out with his reflection on a TV! And I thought the shot of the TV in The Ring was scary…

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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 Kuleshov into effect.

It’s how she can convey so much in such a concise 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.

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Source: FilmGrab – Lady Bird

These two shots utilize 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 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.

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Source: FilmGrab – Lady Bird

Shaun of the Dead. 

One genre area we haven’t touched on yet is comedy. The Kuleshov effect is 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 a masterclass in directing comedy and editing utilizing the Kuleshov effect.

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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 Shaun waking up and yawning.

Every character introduction hints 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 stepdad Phillip as a cold, standoffish… zombie!

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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…

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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: 

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Source: FilmGrab – Shaun of the Dead

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!

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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:

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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… 

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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 to her, and he is at a distance, the pair separated behind a wall of glass and a prison system keeping them apart.

This recurring visual image of faces, down to the exact framing, 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.

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Conclusion

There’s a reason the Kuleshov effect works – 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 we, too, have meaning. 

Using the Kuleshov effect to give your juxtaposing images meaning, you subtly direct your audiences toward what’s important in the story and life.

Up Next: Juxtaposition in Film. Meaning, Examples & How to Create It


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  • Grant Harvey

    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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