Hitchcock on the Filmmaker’s Essential Tool: The Kuleshov Effect

Alfred Hitch­cock once said that all art is emo­tion, and that the task of the film­mak­er is to use the tools of his medi­um to manip­u­late the audi­ence’s emo­tion­al expe­ri­ence. In the scene above from the 1964 CBC doc­u­men­tary A Talk with Hitch­cock, the great direc­tor demon­strates one of the most fun­da­men­tal tools at a film­mak­er’s dis­pos­al: the Kuleshov effect.

In the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry, Russ­ian film­mak­er and the­o­rist Lev Kuleshov dis­cov­ered that a sin­gle shot of an actor with an ambigu­ous expres­sion on his face could con­vey a mul­ti­tude of very dis­tinct mean­ings in the mind of the view­er, depend­ing on the nature of the shot imme­di­ate­ly pre­ced­ing it. In 1918 he con­duct­ed his famous exper­i­ment (below) using a sin­gle shot of the silent film actor Ivan Moz­zhukhin’s face look­ing at some­thing off-cam­era.

Kuleshov spliced it in with a series of quite dif­fer­ent images–a bowl of soup, a dead child, a scant­i­ly clad woman–and dis­cov­ered that the audi­ence would inter­pret Moz­zhukhin’s emo­tion (hunger, pity, lust) depend­ing on the jux­ta­po­si­tion.

Kuleshov’s dis­cov­ery was the out­come of a very delib­er­ate process. In 1916 he and sev­er­al col­leagues made a sys­tem­at­ic study of audi­ence reac­tions at movie the­aters across Moscow. They quick­ly found that the bour­geoisie were too reserved, so they spent most of their time at the­aters in work­ing class neigh­bor­hoods, where the emo­tions flowed freely. They noticed that audi­ences react­ed dif­fer­ent­ly depend­ing upon where the film was pro­duced. As Kuleshov writes in his essay, “The Prin­ci­ples of Mon­tage”:

When we began to com­pare the typ­i­cal­ly Amer­i­can, typ­i­cal­ly Euro­pean, and typ­i­cal­ly Russ­ian films, we noticed that they were dis­tinct­ly dif­fer­ent from one anoth­er in their con­struc­tion. We noticed that in a par­tic­u­lar sequence of a Russ­ian film there were, say, ten to fif­teen splices, ten to fif­teen dif­fer­ent set-ups. In the Euro­pean film there might be twen­ty to thir­ty such set-ups (one must not for­get that this descrip­tion per­tains to the year 1916), while in the Amer­i­can film there would be from eighty, some­times upward to a hun­dred, sep­a­rate shots. The Amer­i­can films took first place in elic­it­ing reac­tions from the audi­ence; Euro­pean films took sec­ond; and the Russ­ian films, third. We became par­tic­u­lar­ly intrigued by this, but in the begin­ning we did not under­stand it.

Kuleshov even­tu­al­ly con­clud­ed that the essence of cin­e­ma is mon­tage, that a film sto­ry is best told by cut­ting between dis­crete pieces of film. His stu­dent Sergei Eisen­stein saw the basic struc­ture as a col­li­sion between shot A (“the­sis”) and shot B (“antithe­sis”) to cre­ate a com­plete­ly new idea (“syn­the­sis”) in the mind of the view­er.

The noto­ri­ety of Kuleshov’s exper­i­ment with Moz­zhukhin tends to focus atten­tion on the human face (it has even inspired sci­en­tif­ic research on the con­tex­tu­al fram­ing of emo­tion­al attri­bu­tions), but the effect is far more gen­er­al. “We are accus­tomed,” writes Eisen­stein in Film Sense, “to make, almost auto­mat­i­cal­ly, a def­i­nite and obvi­ous deduc­tive gen­er­al­iza­tion when any sep­a­rate objects are placed before us side by side.”

Kuleshov showed this in sev­er­al oth­er exper­i­ments. In one, he depict­ed a sin­gle woman through a series of shots show­ing the body parts of mul­ti­ple women. In anoth­er he cre­at­ed an “arti­fi­cial land­scape” by splic­ing an image of the White House into a sequence of images of Moscow. The will­ing­ness of audi­ences to make mean­ing­ful con­nec­tions between unre­lat­ed images gives a film­mak­er con­sid­er­able expres­sive pow­er.  In his book On Direct­ing Film, David Mamet writes:

Doc­u­men­taries take basi­cal­ly unre­lat­ed footage and jux­ta­pose it in order to give the view­er the idea the film­mak­er wants to con­vey. They take footage of birds snap­ping a twig. They take footage of a fawn rais­ing his head. The two shots have noth­ing to do with each oth­er. They were shot days or years, and miles, apart. And the film­mak­er jux­ta­pos­es the images to give the view­er the idea of great alert­ness. The shots have noth­ing to do with each oth­er. They are not a record of what the pro­tag­o­nist did. They are not a record of how the deer react­ed to the bird. They’re basi­cal­ly unin­flect­ed images. But they give the view­er the idea of alert­ness to dan­ger when they are jux­ta­posed. That’s good film­mak­ing.

There is an old say­ing that a work of art is only com­plet­ed in the mind of the behold­er. Kuleshov showed that it’s true.

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Relat­ed Con­tent:

Alfred Hitch­cock Reveals The Secret Sauce for Cre­at­ing Sus­pense

Alfred Hitch­cock Explains the Plot Device He Called the ‘MacGuf­fin’

The Eyes of Hitch­cock: A Mes­mer­iz­ing Video Essay on the Expres­sive Pow­er of Eyes in Hitchcock’s Films

Alfred Hitchcock’s 7‑Minute Mas­ter Class on Film Edit­ing

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Comments (4)
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  • Thats why reac­tions shots are so essen­tial to film­mak­ing. The best direc­tors always do a wide vari­ety of reac­tion shots for each sequence. Usu­al­ly the edit­ing room will expose some­thing in the film that you haven’t seen before

  • John Gorentz says:

    So was Andrei Tarkovsky delib­er­ate­ly defy­ing the Kuleshov effect when he did long shots with­out cuts?

  • Yuri says:

    It sim­ply alpha­bet!

  • Kristin says:

    I real­ize now that look­ing at a sto­ry, we pin the parts togeth­er. The film itself start­ed like­wise, long agoo. We see move­ment when there only is a sequence in images. And we do the same with parts of sto­ries, even when it is not a sto­ry in itself. Very inter­est­ing to see this par­al­lel.

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