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.
Contrast with Dull Surprise, which is more or less this trope's opposite. The Kuleshov Effect is about a single dull facial expression taking on deeper meanings based on context, while Dull Surprise is about a facial expression which should convey a deep meaning based on context, instead coming across as dull and meaningless.
- Most films from the Soviet era prior to the forced implementation of "Soviet Realism" in cinema by Stalin. These include venerable classics like The Battleship Potemkin and Man with a Movie Camera.
- In 2001: A Space Odyssey, HAL "displays" a broad range of emotions through being an unreadable red camera lens. Famously, a scene of the crew trying to hold a conversation without HAL listening in intercuts shots of the camera lens and focusing on the mouths of the crew. Audiences were easily able to figure out that HAL was reading their lips.
- 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 Alfred 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 expressly 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 Transformers: More Than Meets the Eye similarly does this with Whirl (and later Shockwave), very impressively since he's not only expressionless but faceless, too. Despite these limitations, under Alex Milne's pen, use of body language and careful posing still manages to make him one of the most expressive characters in the comic.
- 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.
- Mystery Science Theater 3000: Used in the "Mitchell" episode from season 5; the scene where Gypsy overhears the Mads' plan to kill their new intern Mike is a comical homage to the lip-reading scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey, with Gypsy taking the place of Hal. And part of the joke is that even though she can hear what they're saying, she comes to the conclusion that it's Joel who's in danger.
- Used frequently in Digger with the Statue of Ganesh, who contrives to be very expressive for a stone statue in much the same way as the Tom Strong example above.
- Often used in many old video games. With limited animations and poses, and developers unwilling to make more than absolutely necessary, games often employed the same poses and animations in different situations to convey a wide range of emotions. For example, a sprite usually displayed for when a character takes damage in battle could be used to display shock at something surprising, or perhaps to show the character is in free-fall.
- A Sprite Comic works on the same principle, except this time, the only purpose the sprites serve is to tell the story. You'd be surprised at how much mileage you can get out of 5 or so poses.
- George Lucas who was heavily inspired by Soviet Cinema, created an elaborate version of this with Star Wars where his retcons in the later parts and re-edits reinterpreted scenes to give it added meaning via Rewatch Bonus. As noted by one critic:
Neil Bahadur: "Lucass re-edits are a remarkable Kuleshovian act on not single shots but three whole films: each films primary function is altered...A New Hope, a wacky adventure movie that is little more than a playground for technology, becomes a family soap opera in microcosm: Vader, Luke and Leia all cross paths and enter conflict all unaware that they are of the same family. The Empire Strikes Back...takes on an immense pathos within Vaders character—previously an abstract cipher/image of evil, we now see only a sad and pathetic man who only wants to see his son."
- The most well known example is the reveal that Vader is Luke's father. In A New Hope, Obi-Wan Kenobi told Luke that his father was killed by Vader. After writing the twist The Empire Strikes Back, Owen Lars' comments on hoping Luke doesn't turn out like his father and Obi-Wan's visible sadness talking about Anakin alluded to a deeper revelation. Alec Guinness' subtle performance in that scene paved the way to make Obi-Wan a more complex character than the kindly Mentor Archetype of the first film, and in Return of the Jedi had to give Luke a lesson on Metaphorically True.
- Parodies, abridged series and other spoofs of visual media can create an entirely new Alternate Character Interpretation by re-ordering the clips in the original episode, if not change the plot entirely. An example is Mr. Popo in Dragonball Z Abridged, who goes from a humble garden keeper and attendant to The Dreaded by well-placed clips of him smiling or laughing right after other characters scream.
- Likewise, Campaign Comic Darths & Droids uses stills from Star Wars movies to tell a completely different, parodic story. Thus, acting that was originally meant to express pain or suffering turn into exhasperation - for instance, Leia's struggle to get free from Jabba's chain is presented as her "player's" annoyance at a pun.
- Arrival received praise for its mastery of this film technique. We assume that the opening scenes are flashbacks informing us of Hannah's death and that Louise is sleepwalking through life in a deep depression and trying to recover from it at the start of the proper narrative. She isn't; her daughter won't be born until after the events of the film. Louise has become Unstuck in Time and is experiencing those events exactly as we are, out of order.
- Hale County This Morning This Evening: The camera detours off the road onto a dirt path that leads to a stately old mansion, which no doubt once belonged to white slave-owning planters (the film is shot in majority-black Hale County, Alabama). There's a cut to some old silent film footage of a black comedian peering out from a field of tall grass. There's a shot of smoke obscuring the sun, from a tire fire in Real Life but obviously suggesting the plantation manor house burning. Then there's a shot of the silent film comedian smiling.
- Many memes are ultimately extremely out of context pictures that when juxtaposed against a certain caption or accompanying image, completely turns into something other than its original intent or context.
- "Me explaining to my mom": Both pictures are completely unrelated to each other in origin, the left featuring a very emotional Quenlin Blackwell venting while the right is of Ms. Juicy from Little Women: Atlanta just watching TV on a couch with a neutral expression. Put them together and you suddenly get a young woman desperately trying to explain something in vain to an older woman who was just minding her own business and very likely has no vested interest or even knowledge about what she's talking about.
- "Woman Yelling at a Cat" combines a still of Taylor Armstrong from The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills pointing and screaming with a still of a white cat sitting at a dinner table with a vacant expression, making it look like the woman is yelling at a bewildered cat.
- In the Madness Combat episode that introduces Sanford, he only had two expressions: a normal default expression where he looks stoic, and an annoyed expression where he's frowning. However, when he sees Deimos's corpse, he goes from his annoyed expression to his default one, and the disappearance of his frown upon seeing his partner's corpse makes him look more surprised than stoic. Then he sees the Auditor and goes back to his annoyed expression, but the context makes him looks more angry than merely peeved.
- One Le Chat comic has a drawing depicting The Cat's head nine time, each with the same deadpan face. But each head has a different emotion written under it which indicates what The Cat is really feeling on each which are: boredom, quietude, frankness, desire, contained anger, honesty, intense thinking, doubt and gluttony.