Basic Film Techniques: The Kuleshov Effect

In order to proceed with basic film techniques I felt that a short exposition on the ‘Kuleshov effect’ was required. The ‘Kuleshov effect’ refers to the Soviet filmmaker Lev Kuleshov who saw editing and film as an art form. He established a workshop to study the effect of editing on an individuals perception of the film as a whole. Kuleshov used the same expressionless face and gave different groups alternative images that followed the expressionless face. The mans expressionless face was remarked, by different groups, to have beamed with a smile at the sight of a baby and conversely to have filled with remorse and deep sorrow at the sight of a dead women. Even though the face was the same several different group saw different emotions due to the relational shots before and after the face. Kuleshov uncovered that ‘the meaning or a shot was determined not only by the material content of the shot, but also by its association with the preceding and succeeding shot’ (1.) This understanding of editing can clearly be seen in the Soviet montage technique.

Film, and editing, is exactly like language; in fact it is a language as it is a system of signs that produce meaning. For an image to produce a comprehensible meaning it must be understood in relation to or as opposed to something else: two shots connected produce a meaning that is greater than the sum parts. A face and a dead woman produce deep sorrow whereas on their own the meaning would be only slight. This ‘effect’ is the central principle in editing regardless of the type of film you are producing. [Even film that is said to be avant-garde will use editing principles of relating colours, images and cuts against each other to produce meaning. Most avant-garde films take this principle to its most extreme point possible]


(1.) M, Pramaggiore & T, Wallis. (ed), Film A Critical Introduction, London: Laurence King Publishing, (2007), p. 192.

Communicating Character In Hollywood Cinema

The physical construction of an actor is a telling sign of the character they are chosen to portray. The continuity system aims to communicate clearly the narrative function and attributes a character symbolises. In Mississippi Burning (1988 ) the physical make-up of the two central characters communicates the opposing attitudes or techniques they wish to employ in the apprehension of the group of racially motivated murderers. Gene Hackman is the rougher, tougher, old-school veteran. His face represents this but so does his hair, receding it is also slightly curled and unordered. His clothing is also chosen specifically to represent his character, his suits do not shine, indicating his disdain for veneer and artificial gloss, packaging or PR.

Gene Hackman is the converse to Willem Dafoe’s character. Hackman is an old-school cop whereas Dafoe is new-school. We are informed that Dafoe has recently left “FBI School” and therefore is a representation of the new, glossy, packaged, PR friendly FBI investigator. Dafoe’s appearance is also representative of this, his hair is slicked back and always collected and neat, his glasses represent a more bookish version of a FBI agent, his suits are well presented and are slightly glossy and reflect the light well. His looks and appearance are of a clean-cut average man. The two opposing “schools” and the corresponding attitudes of the two FBI agents are represented in the agents’ appearance, therefore Mississippi Burning communicates clearly the differing attributes the characters symbolise to the audience instantly and without difficulty. Mississippi Burning adheres directly to Hollywood’s continuity system concerning the communicating of character. It is important to note that because Hollywood tends to produce character driven narratives it is best, or most efficient, that character is communicated clearly and quickly so that the plot surrounding the character can unravel.