THE KULESHOV EFFECT: Creating Meaning With Editing

In the dawn of the 20th century, cinema was a new art form, consisting of many techniques that hadn’t been fully developed. The elements of editing were among them. Filmmakers knew that you could cut and splice the film strip, but they didn’t thoroughly comprehend the artistic purposes of doing so.

Lev Kuleshov, a Soviet filmmaker, was among the first to dissect the effects of juxtaposition. Through his experiments and research, Kuleshov discovered that depending on how shots are assembled the audience will attach a specific meaning or emotion to it.kuleshov

In his experiment, Kuleshov cut the shot of an actor with shots of three different subjects:  a girl in a coffin, a hot plate of soup, and a pretty woman lying in a couch. The footage of the actor was the same expressionless gaze. Yet the audience raved his performance, saying first he looked sad, then hungry, then lustful.

The Master Adds…

In a 1964 interview for the show Telescope, Alfred Hitchcock called this technique “pure cinematics – the assembly of film.” Sir Hitchcock says that if a close-up of a man smiling is cut with a shot of a woman playing with a baby, the man is portrayed as “kindly” and “sympathetic.” By the same token, if the same shot of the smiling man is cut with a girl in a bikini, the man is portrayed as “dirty.”

Both these examples further illustrate the power of editors as storytellers. The data gathered with the Kuleshove Experiment were heavily used by Russian filmmakers, especially in respect to the Soviet Montage. Eventually, this became commonplace.

The findings from the Kuleshov Effect have deeply affected how filmmakers shoot and edit their movies. Check out our post on Reaction Shots for examples on how the juxtaposition of images can provoke a powerful emotion on the viewer.

Types of Transitions

In film editing, transition refers to how one shot ends and the next begins, and the filmic device that bridges one to the other. Many different types of transitions have been employed since the early years of cinema. Some are outdated, used mainly to refer to those first years, but others are still greatly used today. Each type invokes a different emotion. Understanding those emotions is essential to master editing.

Cut

The most basic and common type of transition is the cut. A cut happens when one shot instantly replaces the other. Cuts are so widely used that feature movies normally count thousands of them.

Cuts are essential for the effects of juxtaposition, especially as demonstrated by the Kuleshov Experiment. Although most cuts exist simply for a technical need, the abrupt replacement of one shot by the other often demands a certain interpretation from the viewer.

Consider the following example from the very beginning of Three Days of Condor (1975). Note that this early in the movie the main character, Joseph Turner (Robert Redford), has not been introduced yet.

cut transition three days of condor

On this shot, Dr. Lappe informs his secretary that Turner is late again.

cut transition editing three days of condor

The second shot cuts to the exterior of a busy street, showing a man driving a motorcycle.

The obvious understanding is that the man on the bike is Turner (mentioned on the first shot), and that he’s riding to work. Though the audience’s assumption may not be a correct one, the editor must be aware of the implications inherent to the way he cuts a scene.

Cuts became industry standard for two reasons: First, during the early years of cinema, when editing actual film, the editor could very easily cut the celluloid strip with a blade or scissors and splice it together. Any other type of transition would require further processing from a specialized lab; therefore increasing costs. Second, the other types of transition are more distracting. Cuts allow for a better flow of the movie.

Fade in/out

Fade ins and fade outs are the second most common type of transition. Fade outs happen when the picture is gradually replaced by black screen or any other solid color. Traditionally, fade outs have been used to conclude movies. Fade ins are the opposite: a solid color gradually gives way to picture, commonly used in the beginning of movies.

Despite being the second most used transition, fades are seldom adopted by editors. An average feature film will have only a couple of fades, if that. Fades are used sparingly because they imply the end of a major story segment. Fades are also utilized when allowing the audience time to catch their breath after an intense sequence. In Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994), one fade out takes place right after Butch (Bruce Willis) rams his car into Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames), an unexpected accident that drastically alters the lives of those two characters.

Dissolve

Also known as overlapping, dissolves happen when one shot gradually replaces by the next. One disappears as the following appears. For a few seconds, they overlap, and both are visible. Commonly used to signify the passage of time.

Wipe

Wipes are dynamic. They happen when one shot pushes the other off frame. George Lucas deliberately used them throughout the Star Wars series.wipe transition editing star wars

Iris

An old-fashioned transition hardly employed today is the iris, when a circulars masking closes the picture to a black screen. Irises are found in some cartoons like this example from Betty Boop:

iris transition betty boop

Nowadays,d editing programs have introduced several other types of irises, like a star or heart. Though they have no place in serious filmmaking, those are great tools for homemade videos.