Get Your Shots in Order With This Guide to the Kuleshov Effect

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In the iconic “Psycho” shower scene, extreme close-ups of a terror-stricken woman’s face are juxtaposed with shots depicting a knife-wielding intruder. Although no actual violence is shown onscreen, it’s soon clear that the poor protagonist has shrieked her last shriek. This is due to the Kuleshov effect, which filmmakers such as Alfred Hitchcock use as a powerful tool to craft impactful stories. Here, we break down the concept and explain how you can apply it to your own storytelling pursuits.


What is the Kuleshov effect?

Developed in the early 20th century by filmmaker Lev Kuleshov, this montage editing effect invites viewers to create meaning in the liminal space between two or more shots. Kuleshov conducted an experiment that alternated a shot of an actor’s neutral face with a bowl of soup, a girl in a coffin, and a woman on a divan; he found that audiences ascribed different emotions to the actor’s expression based on the context provided by the subsequent image. Watch this clip to see if you do the same: 

The experiment indicates that meaning in film is often created more through the relation between shots than from a single shot in isolation—a concept that has revolutionized the way films are made.

At its core, the Kuleshov effect leverages the viewer’s inherent tendency to derive more meaning from the interaction of two sequential shots than from a single shot by itself. Our mind is wired to connect and make sense of things, so when we see two seemingly unrelated shots together, we automatically try to find meaning and create a narrative. This draws us into the story in a more engaging and immersive way.

Master of suspense Hitchcock was a big proponent of the technique. As he explains here, he often used it strategically to create suspense and manipulate audience emotions.

Why is the Kuleshov effect important?

It communicates ideas: Sharing a message, emotion, or idea through film often requires the use of subtle editing techniques, since the medium relies on the audience’s interpretation of visual and audio cues. 

It engages the audience: The effect manipulates viewer perception by asking them to create their own connections. Literary theorist Roland Barthes calls this type of work a writerly text” because it invites the audience to actively participate in the creation of meaning, rather than remaining passive recipients.

It broadens filmic possibilities: This technique broadens the possibilities of the craft, allowing for more creativity and experimentation. It encourages filmmakers to carefully consider every shot and its placement within the edit, as this can drastically change the audience’s perception. 

Kuleshov effect examples

“Breathless” (1960): French New Wave filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard cleverly transitions from a close-up of a revolver to a police officer grabbing his chest and toppling over. The seemingly simple piece of editing and sound design seen here crafts a suspenseful moment of action—without real stunts or elaborate props.

“The Godfather” (1972): In the film’s legendary baptism scene, Francis Ford Coppola poses Michael Corleone’s baptism footage against the brutal killings of his enemies. This creates a stunning and powerful contrast between the solemn sacrament and Michael’s ruthless actions, adding layers of meaning to Michael’s character and christening as the new Godfather of his family.

“The Shawshank Redemption” (1994): Frank Darabont expertly uses the editing technique in a scene where the incarcerated Andy Dufresne plays Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro.” Watch how his satisfied expression contrasts with the awe evident on other inmates’ faces as he transforms the prison yard into a concert hall, creating a moment of beauty and escape. 

“No Country for Old Men” (2007): The Coen brothers use visual storytelling and minimal dialogue to build suspense—particularly in this clip, when Llewelyn Moss returns to the scene of a botched drug deal and becomes prey. His facial expressions set against his hunters’ foreboding encroaching silhouettes make the suspense nearly unbearable.

How to use the Kuleshov effect

Filmmakers skillfully employ the Kuleshov effect to elevate storytelling by implying relationships between characters, building tension, and eliciting emotions through shot selection and sequencing. 

Suggest relationships: Alternating shots of two characters looking at each other can make a viewer think they are in love—or in conflict. Use this to create ambiguity and intrigue your audience.

Heighten tension: An impending threat next to shots of unaware characters heightens the sense of danger, keeping viewers on the edge of their seats.

Elicit emotions: Filmmakers can use the Kuleshov effect to evoke strong emotional responses from viewers by manipulating the sequence of shots. For example, a shot of a person crying may seem sad on its own, but when followed by a shot of someone laughing, it becomes ironic or even comedic.

Invite the audience to create meaning: Through thoughtful interplay, filmmakers invite viewers into a shared space of imagination, emotion, and understanding—a testament to the enduring magic of cinema.

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