Movies and television are incredible because they can transport us into a world of wonderment.

Today we’re going to go over the Kuleshov effect and how the greatest director of all time, Steven Spielberg, put his own twist on the editing technique for his personal stamp.

In the past century, cameras and special effects have gotten so good that they can make even the most ambitious ideas look like reality.

Still, no piece of technology or can substitute for master filmmaking.

Roll camera!

Point of thought

Before we jump into the analysis, let’s familiarize ourselves with something Steven Spielberg does better than any other director.

He makes his audience genuinely feel emotion.

We put together this video essay describing how Spielberg uses camera angles to create a “Point Of Thought” for the view to empathize with as they watch his work. 

Watch: How Steven Spielberg Subverts The Kuleshov Effect

But what’s Spielberg’s secret to making all this work?

Let’s start with a little bit of early film, Soviet-style, editing. 

Back when movies were emerging as an artform in the 1910’s there was a guy named Lev Kuleshov came up with an editing test.

Kuleshov cut back and forth between a man and three different things to see what emotions could be created with the contrast.  

Kuleshov chose and interesting camera angle here

The soup showed hunger. 

The dead kid showed sadness.

The woman showed lust.

Kuleshov Effect Example - Filmmaking

The Kuleshov effect was bleak.

Yeah, I thought it was pretty messed up too but hey, it’s 1910. 

The point is, the Kuleshov effect was groundbreaking at the time because it showed filmmakers how they could manipulate audience’s emotions with editing.

Character reactions matter

Let’s take a look at some modern uses of the theory. 

Examples of The Kuleshov effect in modern Film and TV

Obviously modern filmmakers use the Kuleshov all the time now.

Christopher Nolan uses it to show Catwoman’s regret as she watches Bane beat the living hell out of Batman in The Dark Knight Rises

Catwoman’s Character reaction sets up her twist later

What about its use here in The Wire?

This is a genius take on the reaction shot. 

Character reactions in a nutshell

We cut back and forth between the detectives as they go over each piece of evidence to track down the missing bullet. 

We go back and forth between clue and realization.

Even Hitchcock got it.

The contrast between man and image sets up the audience’s emotions. 

The Kuleshov Effect - Film Montage

The Kuleshov effect basically covers reactions juxtaposed against what they are reacting to. 

RELATED: The Kuleshov Effect and Film Scores

Want to know more about Kuleshov and editing with film scores? Our article breaks down how to make unforgettable movie moments with music.

info

Reaction Shot Definition

A reaction shot is a cutaway shot of a person's response to an event or to a statement made by another.

info

Example 1:  It's the filmic equivalent of the "Hey, look over there!" joke and punchline. Take a look at this Back to the Future example.

The Kuleshov editing technique is so ubiquitous, Jonathan Demme lampooned it in Silence of the Lambs for one of the greatest editing fake-outs in film history.  

Demme displayed masterful technique in controlling the viewer to believe one certain idea there while pulling the rug out from under them. 

But who’s the greatest audience manipulator of all time?

Steven Spielberg’s reaction shots 

Let’s get this out of the way right now. Steven Spielberg is a living legend.

As far as directors go, he’s absolutely done it all.

Spielberg is so huge, we’ve named an entire style of reaction shot after him. 

The Spielberg Face is a staple of Spielberg cinematography and Steven Spielberg movie themes. 

This shot is in all of Steven Spielberg’s best movies.

The Spielberg Face is usually a Close-up reaction shot to something awe-inspiring in front of the character. 

It’s Steven Spielberg’s signature technique.

But Spielberg does something different than almost every other director when it comes to editing these reaction shots together.

How does Steven Spielberg subvert The Kuleshov Effect? 

As we discussed earlier, most filmmakers use the Kuleshov effect to show literal reactions. 

They want us to understand how their character feels.

That’s not good enough for Steven Spielberg.

Spielberg doesn’t want us to understand what the character is feeling. He knows that after a century of watching movies the audience gets it.

He wants us to feel the emotions of the character too.

Take Elliot’s first interaction with E.T

One of Steven Spielberg’s best movies. 

We slowly push in on Elliot as he discovers he’s not alone in the universe. Instead of cutting to a Point of View Shot like most Kuleshov devotees, we go wide.

In that moment we get both the gravity of the situation and the intimacy of the boy and alien connecting.

But how?

Spielberg never cuts into a true POV Shot.

Kuleshov Effect Example - The Spielberg Face

Is there anything better than Spielberg movies?

He draws us in and gives us goosebumps by lingering on Elliot’s face. Through that action we find ourselves paralyzed just like the boy. 

When he does cut to what Elliot sees he does so in a dirty wide.

Kuleshov Effect Example - Elliot meets ET

Unlike going full POV like the Kuleshov effect, Spielberg keeps his actors with us.

We are there with Elliot. Thus Elliot’s feelings become our feelings.

Suddenly we’re not watching a movie to see what happens to Elliot.

We’re watching to see what happens to us.

Truly the signature Steven Spielberg Technique.

The John Williams score helps too.

And it’s not just E.T.

Look at a movie that Spielberg made on the complete opposite end of the spectrum.

Munich

Spielberg movies cover all genres.

Munich is the story of some covert Israeli operatives who enact revenge for the Black September Killings at the Munich Olympics in 1972.

It’s a harrowing story about revenge and humanity.

In one particular scene, Eric Bana’s character tries to adjust back to his normal life.

He’s in bed with his wife. They’re about to have sex, but when he closes his eyes all he can see are the atrocities he’s committed in the name of revenge.

This is the only Spielberg movie sex scene

In this scene Spielberg uses the Kuleshov effect in a triangular sense. We bounce from what should arousing to the character, and then go to the horrific, and then back to him. 

This creates a complicated feeling for the audience.

We’re used to Spielberg bringing us wonder, but right now he’s dipped us into PTSD.

So we covered Sex and Aliens.

Who’s up for some dinosaurs?

It’s hard to write about Steven Spielberg without digging into Jurassic Park.

Let’s take one of the most famous scenes from that movie and break it down.

Again I say, is there anything better than Spielberg movies?

We start with that slow dolly in on the Jeep to the Close-Up Spielberg face we know and love. 

But one Spielberg face isn’t enough.

So we crane up and let Sam Neill step into a second Spielberg face with Laura Dern

Kuleshov Effect Example - Jurrasic Park

Another iconic Spielberg movie moment.

I mean, it’s dinosaurs. It deserves two. 

Much like E.T. we stay with them and when we switch wide we stay with Alan and Ellie as much as possible.

Kuleshov Effect - Jurrasic Park Dinasaur

Here we use the Kuleshov effect to go from wondrous face, to dinos, to scale.

They’re there to show the scale of the dinosaurs and to make us feel like we hung back by the jeep to let them have their moment.

But the moment is still there for us.

We’re also in awe of these beasts.

Instead of relying on cutting back and forth from face to object and back to face in the Kuleshov method, we’re focusing on the human reaction, then revealing the object, but always going back to the human element to drive it home.

If cinema is an empathy machine than Steven Spielberg is it’s genuine puppet master.  

The patented Steven Spielberg Techniques on display are inspiring.

Up next

Now that you’re down with Soviet editing strategies and Steven Spielberg we’ve got a lot more in store for you. 

If you’re in the edit and trying to use the Kuleshov, may we suggest also checking out our breakdown of editing tips from Star Wars to keep you in that big-budget mood.  

Want to get started with some of your own cinematography?

Check out our video on 6 cinematography tips from Roger Deakins.

Lastly, you’re going to want to watch this video on film tone. You’re not going to be able to break out and be unique without mastering the story you put forward.

We can’t wait to see what you create next.

Like this post? Share it!

twitter-bird-bue-gray

"How Steven Spielberg Subverts The Kuleshov Effect" #indiefilm #filmmaking

Click to Tweet

Solution Icon - Shot List and Storyboard

Showcase your vision with elegant shot lists and storyboards.

Create robust and customizable shot lists. Upload images to make storyboards and slideshows.

Learn More

StudioBinder Shot List Template and Storyboard Template - Shot List Software
  •  
    143
    Shares
  • 93
  • 50
  •  
  •  
  •