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Kuleshov Effect

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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.



Modern Usage:

  • 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.
  • 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.
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  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 principal, 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: "Lucas’s re-edits are a remarkable Kuleshovian act on not single shots but three whole films: each film’s 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 Vader’s 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, when in A New Hope, Obi-Wan Kenobi had told Luke that they were two separate characters, and that Vader killed Anakin Skywalker. Lucas after writing the twist for The Empire Strikes Back, banked on Alec Guinness subtle performance where Obi-Wan visibly struggled to talk about Anakin, communicating both warmth and regret, which Guinness probably intended to communicate his character's grief at losing a war buddy, but after the retcon alluded to a deeper revelation, which in the process also made Obi-Wan a more complex character than the kindly Mentor Archetype of the first film. It also added new meaning to Obi-Wan and Vader's duel at the Death-Star.
    • After Lucas sold the franchise to Disney, the Anthology prequels, Rogue One and Solo also re-frame scenes in A New Hope.
      • At the end of Rogue One, Vader saw Princess Leia's ship detaching from the rebel ship he had boarded and massacred, seeing it enter hyperspace. At the start of A New Hope, when Vader boards her ship, Leia said she's on a diplomatic mission from Alderaan. Before that scene came off as Leia posing as a spy and presenting a diplomatic cover, and Vader pushing his weight to try and intimidate her. Now it comes across as Leia brazenly and audaciously bluffing at Vader as a way to insult him, while Vader's original imperious reply comes of as furious disbelief.
      • In A New Hope, when Han Solo first meets Obi-Wan, he boasts that his ship achieved "the Kessel run in 12 parsecs". The script had indicated that this was Han's Snake Oil Salesman-like boast and exaggeration and that Obi-Wan didn't believe it. Alec Guinness by means of Facial Dialogue indicates his own disbelief (namely a raised eyebrow and a slight smirk). Solo makes this scene into a literal boast where Han indeed achieves what he originally said he did, and as such the original scene now has Han come off as more dishonest and untrustworthy than he really is which ends up alluding to his eventual Neutral No Longer climactic rescue of Luke.
  • 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.
  • Arrival received praise for its mastery of this film technique. We assume that the scenes after we see Hannah die indicate that Louise is sleepwalking through life in a deep depression over her daughter's passing and trying to recover from it. She isn't; her daughter won't be born until after the events of the film, and Louise is experiencing Flashforwards.
  • 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.


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