Anyone reading this who knows me, knows that I studied film in college. Those of you who didn’t know that - I studied film in college.
I’ve been in love with film for as long as I can remember. The Last Unicorn was watched until the VHS was worn out and was also the direct cause of a brief phase in my life when I wanted to be unicorn when I grew up. (Even as a child I was ahead of the trends).
As a teenager I spent the money I earned on tapes and rentals and movie magazines. It consumed me. However, I was dissuaded from getting into the media industry by a teacher in my school stating there was no point if I had no connections. (I'll never forgive her for that). So I studied Digital Design. By the time I graduated there were no jobs in any industry really, since the financial bust had just happened, so I worked various soul crushing jobs (albeit with some of the greatest people) until I finally decided I was going back to study film.
I love to edit. Editing is like a really interesting, moving jigsaw puzzle where you have a vague idea of the final product thanks to the script, but no idea how it will actually look in the end. It's exciting and frustrating and brilliant. I also love design, which is back breaking with long hours, and is also like a jigsaw, but one you make up yourself as you go along. I’ve often said they go hand in hand - piecing together how something is going to look and telling the story.
In a nutshell, the Kuleshov effect posits that the viewer will derive more meaning from the interactions of multiple shots than one on its own; that we piece the story together based on sequential shots. They are inherently related to one another.
For example, if in shot one you see a man running and in shot two you see a burning building your mind will work out that this man is running to the fire, possibly to save someone. However, if I add a shot of the man holding a bottle of petrol that changes the meaning entirely. You can make that connection without having to be told. So the mind makes a connection? Big deal! We’ve known for years the mind works that way. What IS interesting is that the mind also fills in the blanks.
Lev Kuleshov was a soviet filmmaker who edited a film that showcases the Kuleshov effect. (I’m sure you’ve noticed that it was named after him). This film was lauded for the superb acting of its leading man, Tsarist matinee idol Ivan Mosjoukine. The depth of emotion on the Mosjoukine’s face was considered a masterclass in acting at the time. What it was instead, was a masterclass in editing… (and human cognition).
See the thing is, our actor wasn’t acting. Not really. The clip of the actor is the same one each time. We the audience added the emotion ourselves, based on our emotions and learned knowledge. It is an effect that is used still to this day. Of course the Kuleshov Effect isn't used only for reading emotions on people's faces. It's used to understand what is happening in a scene.
An example of a more common use of the Kuleshov Effect in films is The Shower Scene in Psycho (1960). Fair warning - here be spoilers.
In this infamous scene, our perceived heroine is brutally stabbed to death by Norman Bates. However, through a 78 shot set up and over 52 cuts the audience never actually sees a knife pierce flesh - and yet it's often considered to be one of the most memorable deaths on the silver screen. Director Alfred Hitchcock uses the Kuleshov Effect masterfully in this scene (although a shout out has to go to the editor George Tomasini). The quick shots together tell a story. The shot of Bates pulling open the shower curtain, followed by Marian Crane’s screaming face tell us immediately that things are about to turn real bad. Through the constant cuts to shots of the knife in Bate’s hand, drawn high, followed by Crane’s flailing, we understand that he has stabbed her repeatedly and viciously. For a quick example of how shots relate, I've edited out the shots of the knife:
Without the proceeding and succeeding shots framing Crane’s attack, we don't know what's going on in the scene. Without the shots of the knife, it’s just a woman flailing about in a shower. Without them, the audience won’t understand the horror of the scene, but with them, the audience knows with clarity what has taken place. Here's the scene with only
George Tomasini's original editing:
This effect is very common in films since its first use in the early days of cinema. We’ve seen it for over a hundred years, however, imagine in the 1910s, the early age of the movies, how groundbreaking this was? Suddenly the audience is almost a part of the storytelling, as if they could convey their own reading of a scene or an actor into the film. No cue cards explaining dialogue - just their own emotions and understandings being reflected back onto them. It must have been spectacular.