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.
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?
What is The Kuleshov Effect
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.
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.
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 basically covers reactions juxtaposed against what they are reacting to.
Want to know more about Kuleshov and editing with film scores? Our article breaks down how to make unforgettable movie moments with music.
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.
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.
Spielberg never cuts into a true POV Shot.
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.
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.
Spielberg movies cover all genres.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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