July 4, 2022

The Kuleshov Effect

Back in the first half of the 20th century, Russian film-maker Lev Kuleshov produced a short film in which he alternated shots of an actor after images of a bowl of soup, a girl in a coffin, or a woman reclining in a divan. Each shot of the main actor was exactly the same, yet the audience left the viewing convinced that he had magnificently expressed alternately hunger, grief, and desire.

Kuleshov Effect (1)

That was when Kuleshov discovered the associative power of the human mind using cutting techniques in film, for humans have the "need to impose order on the world. [Therefore, i]f an audience is presented with disparate images it will assemble them into a meaningful order."(2)

This, in short, is the Kuleshov effect.

As mentioned in Into the Woods by John Yorke, Finding Nemo co-writer Bob Peterson stated on the use of the Kuleshov effect in storytelling:

"Good storytelling never gives you four, it gives you two plus two... Don't give the audience the answer; give the audience the pieces and compel them to conclude the answer. Audiences have an unconscious desire to work for their entertainment. They are rewarded with a sense of thrill and delight when they find the answers themselves."

But it doesn't only work with visual images.

As a writer, you can juxtapose descriptions, lines of dialogues, or actions (or a combination thereof) in such a way that, when taken individually, each element might seem unrelated, but put next to each other brings a whole new meaning that's not obvious from the words themselves, but from the implications behind them.

It's a way to create subtext, and it draws the reader's (or viewer's) attention in. Because they have to work to make the connection to get the underlying meaning.

For example, say you have a woman who tells her lover that she now hates him and wants him to go, but she's crying and her fingers won't unclench from around the hem of his jacket, you understand that she actually loves him, so must be telling him to save him in some way (perhaps from her jealous husband, or from the Nazis, or from her parents who can't stand his family).

Hitchcock's Kuleshov Effect - Film Montage (3)

As John Yorke states further in the book:

"Two opposites are placed side by side; art is rendered from juxtaposition.
That interpretation is the art."

And it's by making readers interpret your scenes in this manner, that the writer helps them get more invested in the story, and they end up caring about the story because they've invested themselves (through their thinking power) into it as well (in a way, co-creating it with the author!).

In this short clip, you can clearly "read" the 
subtext between Walter Cronkite's professional announcement of 
the terrible news of JF Kennedy's assassination, and his actions (including
the slight pause he had to make), as the realization that this
is a terrible tragedy for the United States.

Sources:

(1) Kuleshov Effect on TV Tropes, where you can also read a number of other, more modern examples.

On the topic, Yorke also brings up the fact that the Kuleshov effect can be subverted to create unexpected twists. You put together a number of ideas or clues, so the reader thinks they know where the joke is going (or who the murderer is), only to realize that the end is a total surprise (hence the joke makes them laugh out of surprise), or that the way you put the clues together, if taken differently, lead to an entirely different suspect!
Into The Woods is a brilliant book, by the way, that really delves into what it is that make us so riveted to good stories.



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