What is the Kuleshov Effect and how to use it in your projects

Post Production 23/06/2022 4 min read

You might not have heard of the Kuleshov Effect before, but you might be aware of the film theory. The Kuleshov Effect is based on the theory and experiments of Lev Kuleshov, a Russian filmmaker in the early 1900s. Kuleshov theorized that an audience could be manipulated to see emotions in a performer’s face by showing what they are looking at. Today we’re going to look at the theory behind the beloved point-of-view shot and how you can use this century-old technique in your projects.

What is the Kuleshov Effect?

Kuleshov set out to prove that audiences find hidden meanings, not just in the images used but in the order and relationship between each shot. To prove this theory, Kuleshov created a short film featuring the same expressionless face, intercut with other shots; a girl in a coffin, a bowl of soup, and a woman on a divan. Despite the man’s face remaining the same in each shot, the audience identified different emotions from the performance based on the content of the following clip.

Kuleshov’s technique involved simple straight cuts from reaction to point-of-view shots. This type of editing is often used in film and TV (sometimes called shot/reverse-shot), but Kuleshov’s early experiments show us that 2 shots in a sequence can be more potent than a single standalone shot.

How Does the Kuleshov Effect Help Us as Filmmakers?

Kuleshov’s experimental film was just the beginning of understanding how to manipulate the audience’s emotions through editing. Over time, these methods have developed along with the technology, and you can see examples of the Kuleshov effect across film and television.

Point-of-View and Alfred Hitchcock

Kuleshov used point-of-view shots to put the viewer in the shoes of the performer, and this is a trick Hitchcock uses in abundance. When you consider some of Hitchcock’s more memorable shots, the suspense and terror felt in the audience are built through carefully constructed point-of-view and reaction shots.

Let’s look at the famous shower scene from Psycho, a sequence that terrified audiences when it was first released. While the sequence feels brutal to watch, you’ll find that you don’t see very much when you break down the scene shot by shot. It is constructed from super-quick shots, mainly from Norman or Marions’ point of view.

In this scene, Hitchcock wants the audience to feel terror, to put themselves in Marion’s shoes. He achieves this by constantly cutting back and forth between Marion’s expression and a backlit shot of Norman thrusting the knife. While the sequence feels violent and chaotic, it is incredibly carefully constructed to invoke terror in the viewer without showing it.

Point-of-Thought and Speilberg

Over the years, many filmmakers have used the Kuleshov effect and point-of-view shots to invoke a particular feeling in the audience. Steven Speilberg is one of the world’s most prominent directors, and his subversion of the Kulesov effect creates such wonder in his films.

As a natural progression from the point-of-view shot, Speilberg utilizes a point-of-thought directing style. Rather than showing us what the character is seeing, he shows us what they are thinking.

Think of a visual from your favorite Speilberg film, and you’re likely thinking of a shot where characters stare offscreen in awe. Spielberg’s films are full of these shots, and it is a fantastic example of the Point-of-Thought style of filmmaking. 

Let’s take this super famous scene from Jurassic Park. Kuleshov’s rule says they should cut from Alan Grant’s reaction to the shot of the dinosaurs. But Speilberg chooses to stick with the reaction shots for a full 40 seconds, building the suspense and excitement before the reveal.

Spielberg’s camera positioning is also different from the Hitchcockian Point-of-View style. Rather than showing us the dinosaurs from the character’s position in the car, the reveal shot is at a wide angle from behind the vehicle, enhancing the audience’s sense of wonder and scale.

Understanding Your Character’s Thoughts

If a point-of-view shot puts us behind the eyes of the characters, a point-of-thought shot needs to convey the inner processes of your character. But this isn’t as hard as it sounds. When you are storyboarding your film, try and get into the characters’ thought processes. Understanding what they might be looking at won’t be the most crucial part of the scene, but it will help the audience understand what the character is thinking at that moment.

Your camera position can convey a lot to an audience, sometimes unintentionally. For example, if you need to show a character to be particularly powerful in a scene, position the camera lower, looking up at them slightly. If you’re going to create a sense of unease and suspense, position the camera super close to your performer to focus on the eyes and breathing. 

The best way to understand how the Kuleshov effect works in a film is to look at the relationship between shots; whose point of view you’re seeing? What is the shot telling you about their emotional state?

Use the Kuleshov Effect to Create a Bigger Impact on Social Media

The Kuleshov effect is actually used a lot online, and you’ll see it a lot in advertising. Audiences are more aware that editing is a form of manipulation, so hiding the tricks we use to invoke emotional responses is essential.

How you use the Kuleshov effect will depend on the type of content you are creating, but it all starts with understanding the response you want from your viewer. If you want to make them laugh, cry or support a cause, using the right camera angle and perspective can go a long way to achieve the desired result. 

It’s important to remember that it isn’t all about the camera; your performance and dialogue need to back up the emotive intentions in your sequences. When you combine a fantastic performance with a point-of-thought shot edited using Kuleshov’s theory, you can create engaging stories that make emotional reactions in your viewers.

The Kuleshov Effect is a simple way of understanding the relationships between your shots and how an audience might interpret them. Content creators are used to shaping their stories through scripting and filming, but by understanding the Kuleshov effect, you can use your editing to further shape and enhance your videos.