The Kuleshov Effect is a well-documented concept in film-making, discovered by Soviet film editor Lev Kuleshov in the 1920s. Kuleshov put a film together, showing the expression of an actor, edited together with a plate of soup, a dead woman, and a woman on a recliner. Audiences praised the subtle acting, showing an almost imperceptible expression of hunger, grief, or lust in turn. The reality, of course, is that the same clip of the actor's face was re-used, and the effect is created entirely by its superimposition with other images.
According to Kuleshov, this came into being largely by necessity. Soviet cinema in its early days was chronically cash-strapped. Kuleshov and other early directors trained themselves by reediting existing films, mostly movies produced in the Tsarist era. Kuleshov found that filmmakers could create an entirely new story by reordering scenes and shots, noticing this could in turn alter an audience's reaction.
More generally, the Kuleshov Effect is the basis of Soviet montage cinema, and is used in many many films since. The idea is that, by editing different things together, it is possible to create meanings that didn't exist in either of the images put together - constructing 'sentences' and 'texts' out of film.
- Though modern usage is not exclusively in this manner, it is useful for cases where the "actor" is inanimate. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, HAL "displays" a broad range of emotions through being an unreadable red camera lens.
- Machinima takes advantage of this trope due to the inability to pose the characters' faces, or even see their faces at all.
- Rear Window extensively uses this trope to spend whole scenes switching back and forth between Jimmy Stewart and what he sees through his window. In one sequence he stares out his window as the focus of the scene switches between several of his neighbors who have very different emotions in their scenarios. His only reaction is to ultimately raise his glass to one of them. Scramble the different window scenes, and the tone changes greatly. Stewart actually complained that Hitchcock used the editing of the film in general to create a different performance than the one that was given. This was a common complaint of the actors: that Hitchcock wouldn't let them act.
- Tom Strong makes it work in a comic book, with Pneuman, a robot who we're expressively told has the emotional capacity of a tea kettle, who still manages to communicate powerful emotion using a face with no moving parts, shown from the right angles in the right light.
- The classic "Demon in a Bottle" issue of Iron Man (#128) managed to make the main character's helmet look tormented by showing it at a particular angle◊.
- The famous shower scene from Psycho is often used as an example of this trope. After watching it, everyone immediately understands that Janet Leigh's character has been stabbed to death, but if you slow it down, only three frames actually show a knife piercing flesh (this is fast enough to count as subliminal messaging). The audience's understanding of what has taken place comes entirely from the way the images and sound are arranged, not from the actual content.
- Used in the twelfth episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000's fifth season; the scene is a comical homage to the lip-reading scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey, with Gypsy taking the place of Hal.