What Is The Kuleshov Effect & Why Is It So Efficient?

The Kuleshov Effect in film editing shapes the audience’s emotions and affects their critical analysis. It illustrates cinema's power through shots and frames.

Oct 23, 2023By Theo Kapetanakis, MA Film Studies, BA Cultural Technology & Communication

what is the kuleshov effect


The Kuleshov Effect was named after the famous filmmaker Lev Kuleshov. Lev Vladimirovich Kuleshov was a Russian filmmaker and film theorist who played a leading role in the Soviet Montage movement. The effect became a cornerstone of film theory and editing. Using the Kuleshov Effect, the emotions of the viewer can change significantly depending on the arrangement of film shots. Let’s dig into the origins of the Kuleshov Effect, its psychological impact on a viewer, and the enduring efficiency of abstract storytelling.


Lev Vladimirovich Kuleshov: The Man Behind The Kuleshov Effect

lev kuleshov portrait kuleshov effect
Portrait of Lev Kuleshov. Source: Art Margins


Lev Vladimirovich Kuleshov (1899-1970) was an influential figure in Soviet Cinema. He helped develop an important cinematic style known as Soviet Montage. The style is characterized by its focus on the psychological impact of film.


Born in Tambov, Russia, in 1899, Lev Kuleshov developed an intense fascination with the theater. He demonstrated a passion for the arts from an early age, particularly in the fields of literature and painting. During his adolescence, Kuleshov lived through the chaotic era of World War I. He served in the Russian Imperial Army and this experience provided him with a deep understanding of the essence of humanity and the philosophical impact of war on society. After the war, Kuleshov studied sculpture and architecture. All of these things affected his unique approach to filmmaking.


The Russian Revolution of 1917 also had a significant and enduring effect on Russian history and culture. This period of forceful social and political change had a vital role in shaping Kuleshov’s creative and philosophical viewpoints. His one-of-a-kind background influenced his filmmaking approach, as well as his storytelling aesthetics. Kuleshov’s diverse experiences empowered him to approach filmmaking with a unique perspective, seeing each frame as a blank canvas through which he could tell a story.

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moscow film school kuleshov effect
Silver centenary coin for Moscow Film School,1919. Source: Agaunews


As a Russian filmmaker and cinema theorist, he was pivotal in establishing the Moscow Film School, subsequently called the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography (VGIK), in 1919. This institution (and its teachers Sergei Eisenstein and Andrei Tarkovsky) played a pivotal role in shaping the future of both international and Soviet cinema. Kuleshov’s passion for film studies and education gave birth to a new generation of influential and talented filmmakers.


Kuleshov was a productive and active film director until he fell out of favor with the Stalinist regime. Crossing multiple genres, the filmmaker showed the world his directorial and film editing mastery through a range of masterpieces, from the satirical greatness of The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks to the fascinating psychological drama By the Law or the twisted comedy The Great Consoler. Furthermore, Kuleshov’s involvement in propaganda films demonstrated his adaptability and expertise in addressing complicated topics with an artistic touch.


stalin soviet film movement propaganda
Photo collage of Stalin in the movie theater. Source: rbth.com


Kuleshov’s influence on the world of cinema continues to be relevant and influential in the present day. His enduring legacy in cinema includes his role as an educator and his advancements in the world of Soviet montage and film theory. Finally, his perspective regarding editing and music, achieved through continuous experimentation, gave rise to his enduring trademark, known as the Kuleshov Effect.


Understanding The Kuleshov Effect

lev kuleshov old portrait kuleshov effect
Portrait of Lev Kuleshov Source: Klassiki


In the world of cinema, storytelling isn’t just about words. The juxtaposition of different elements is what tells us the story. One of the most influential concepts that transformed filmmaking forever is the Kuleshov Effect. In other words, an experiment by Lev Kuleshov left a lasting mark in the history of visual storytelling.


Lev Kuleshov believed that the essence of cinema could be found in film editing and in the sequencing of shots in a series. His theory revolved around the idea that viewers could obtain more meaning from the interaction of two consecutive shots than from a single frame itself. By contrasting the same shot with different emotionally charged images he discovered that editing was the master key to manipulating the audience’s perceptions and emotional stability.


Indeed, through the art of editing, filmmakers could tune the rhythm and pace of a film. They could speed things up or slow them down. The right selection of shot duration could also build tension, evoke suspense, and bring out heart-pounding emotions.


How Does It Work

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Effekt Kuleshova by Lev kuleshov, 1969. Source: IMDb


For example, we have a shot A, which is a neutral shot showing an actor’s emotionless face. This shot is pivotal, and the actor’s face must remain unchanged and blank. Shot B features an insertion of an unrelated shot. It introduces a different shot, utterly unrelated to the actor’s face, right after Shot A.


Here is where the magic happens. Shot B could be anything—a bowl of soup, a stunning lady, or a coffin. The content of shot B is not as important as the emotional context it conveys to the viewer. When the shot A showing a blank face is followed by the shot B showing the emotionally charged image, viewers can naturally connect the actor’s feelings with the content seen in shot B, even if it is entirely unrelated.


For example, if shot A is followed by an image showing a bowl of soup, the audience could interpret the man’s facial expression as hunger. Correspondingly, if the first show is followed by an image of a coffin, the man’s emotion might be perceived as those of grief and sadness. The Kuleshov Effect highlights emotional influence by emphasizing the true power of editing.


premier pro video editing kuleshov effect
Premier Pro Video Editing. Source: Premium Beat


Moving images can guide the audience’s beliefs and thoughts by carefully selecting frames and shots. With a profound impact on visual storytelling, spanning from the silent era to modern cinema, or from TV shows to digital platforms like TikTok and Instagram, an abstract narration is capable of creating suspense, evoking empathy, and unveiling plot twists, often leaving the audience amazed.


Kuleshov Effect and Its Psychological Influence 

vintage vintage editing kuleshov effect
Archive photo of a vintage editing room. Source: Cult Critic


Many modern films often use the Kuleshov Effect as a method of character development by juxtaposing actor’s reactions with external shots. For example, a character’s face remains calm while they witness a shocking incident, portraying emotional composure and inner thoughts. Films are made up of sequences, and sequences are composed of shots. A series of shots are rapidly edited together to unfold the emotional journey of a character, crediting their effectiveness to Kuleshov’s principles and style. These sequences can tell a story within a story. Many filmmakers use this technique to convey subtext and symbolism. A massive change in context can provide deeper meanings and messages of the story.


In horror films and thrillers, the Kuleshov Effect is often used as an editing tool to build tension and create a suspenseful atmosphere. For example, many filmmakers create a sense of anxiety by showing expressions of fear in a blend with loud noises followed by a jump cut. There’s also cross-cutting. Cross-cutting between multiple storylines, timelines, or locations is a common editing technique. The Kuleshov Effect paved the way for transitioning between several narratives while maintaining the audience’s engagement.


Even in documentary films, where the goal is to document and present something that happened in reality, filmmakers are influenced by the Kuleshov Effect. They can emphasize specific aspects by carefully selecting the right shots in post-production. In mystery films, the Kuleshov Effect shows hints, clues, or foreshadowing by engaging the viewer in the detective process. Beyond traditional filmmaking, the Kuleshov Effect also serves as a powerful tool in advertising and media manipulation.


Last but not least, in the digital era, where content can be accessed on various platforms and devices, the Kuleshov Effect has become indispensable in crafting captivating video content designed specifically for platforms like YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram.

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By Theo KapetanakisMA Film Studies, BA Cultural Technology & CommunicationTheo is a filmmaker and author with tremendous passion for storytelling. He holds an MA in Film Studies from Middlesex University, London (1st Scholarship Award), and a BA in Cultural Technology & Communication from the University of the Aegean. His work includes, film directing, audiovisual arts, video editing, and scriptwriting. Furthermore, Theo is a Graphic Designer & Media Editor at TheCollector. In his spare time, he publishes articles on his specialty.