For a large part of the population, the seventh art is an element of leisure and entertainment, or a method of artistic expression of the emotions, thoughts and beliefs of the authors, which are in turn shaped by the cast of actors.

However, cinema is not something anecdotal or merely aesthetic: it involves a great deal of knowledge that has been developed over the years, many of which is based on or has contributed greatly to discoveries and research in many other areas.

The study of the human mind is one of them. In this sense it is possible to emphasize the investigations linked to the perception of visual stimuli, and even to the interpretation or elaboration that our mind makes of a set of images not necessarily linked to each other. A relevant example is the Kuleshov effect , about which we will talk throughout this article.

The Kuleshov effect

The Kuleshov effect is a psychological phenomenon discovered in the field of cinema of great relevance and that is linked to the interpretation and understanding by the spectator of the scenes he visualizes based on the surrounding context.

Specifically, the effect in question states that the consecutive presentation of fragments of recordings or takes implies that the spectator carries out an interpretation as a whole , in such a way that each image is not going to be valued separately but rather that an integration is going to be carried out that will result in a different valuation than that which each one would have independently.

Kuleshov proposed that the perceived meaning of a given scene is elaborated according to the sequence of which it is part , rather than the image itself. In other words, in the Kuleshov effect it is established that the content of the scene or picture itself is not relevant, but what causes it to have a meaning is its union with other pictures or scenes, in such a way that a current is generated in the form of a narrative.

The Kuleshov and Pudovkin Experiments

The creation of the concept of the Kuleshov effect is based on the realization of an experiment carried out by the filmmaker Lev Vladimirovich Kuleshov , together with his disciples Vsevolod Illiarianovich Pudovkin and Sergei Eisenstein (the information of which would end up transcending by Pudovkin and Kuleshov himself).

This experiment consisted of the combination of different recordings (shot separately) and a scene (always the same) of a close-up of the actor Ivan Mozzhujin with a completely neutral expression. A total of three combinations were made: in one of them the spectators were exposed to a combination of the neutral face of the actor with the appearance of a plate of soup, in another the face was followed by the image of a naked woman on a sofa and in the third the image of a girl playing was seen after the face.

These exhibitions gave rise to different interpretations of the actor’s face by the spectators , despite the fact that the face that was exposed to them was in all cases the same: those who saw the face associated with the plate of soup linked the actor’s expression with hunger, those who saw the composition in which the image of a naked woman was included the spectators perceived lust and lust in the actor’s face and those who saw the girl playing perceived that the author expressed joy and a slight smile.

In that sense, the experiment reflected that through different compositions different interpretations of the scenes could be extracted, depending on the type of stimuli that preceded or followed the scene.

However, there is some controversy as to whether this experiment was actually conducted since there is no documentary evidence of the recordings, Lev Kuleshov having indicated that they were destroyed at the time of World War II. Likewise, there is an open debate between Kuleshov’s and Pudovkin’s statements: while, as we indicated earlier, Kuleshov himself indicated that the scenes before the actor’s face had been a bowl of soup, a half-naked woman on a sofa and a girl playing, Pudovkin’s description replaces the naked woman with a shot of a woman in a coffin (in this case it was indicated that the viewer felt that the actor was expressing sadness and self-absorption).

However, regardless of the veracity of this first original experiment, other authors and directors (including Hitchcock) have tried to replicate similar experiments and have observed the existence of an influence of the montage made with respect to the emotional interpretation of the scene. In other words, the Kuleshov effect exists and has an influence on our perception of reality.

Relationship to the construction of meanings

The Kuleshov effect has an explanation at a psychological level: our psyche seeks to generate a coherent structure with respect to what it experiences , in such a way that when faced with images that are presented together it tries to generate a link between the two that allows it to make sense of its perception.

This derives from the fact that we are not mere passive entities that receive information from the environment but are active agents that interact and generate their own meanings with respect to the world around them. Likewise, our expectations and previous experiences will shape the type of interpretation and the starting point from which to assess the situation in question and construct the most relevant meanings.

For all these reasons, today we use our knowledge of the Kuleshov effect when transmitting meaning in film, and we understand that the editing process is just another narrative tool, not a simple technical specialization lacking in creativity. Editing, combining and cutting shots and scenes helps to tell the story that the authors of the film intend to tell .

Not only in the cinema

Although this effect began to be analysed in the field of cinema (where it is of great importance, since it contributed to the possibility of films being shot separately or even independently and then edited to enhance the sensations of the audience), the truth is that it can be extended to many others.

For example, has also been reflected in the literature , so that reading a certain content makes us interpret the following ones differently from what we would do if the preceding fragments were different. And not only in the field of the arts: human beings also carry out similar interpretations in their daily lives, especially in the recognition of faces and facial expressions.

Some experiments have shown that the interweaving or combination of affective contextual stimuli before or after exposure to the image of a neutral face causes our interpretation and reaction to the face in question to differ to some extent, both at the behavioural level and at the cerebral level: there is a tendency to value both the affective valence and the level of activation and specifically the type of emotion expressed by the person in question based on the context and the set of stimuli surrounding the moment of exposure in question.

It should be noted that in everyday life we not only use context to identify the emotions of others, but nevertheless we often use contextual information to look for congruence with our beliefs regarding what the other is feeling, or we use it to try to give meaning to ambiguous expressions or situations. Likewise, we do not only use external images to carry out the interpretation: the speech, the gestures or the tone and rhythm of the subject in question can mark us to a great extent and in fact can be considered as contextual information.

Bibliographic references

  • Barratt, D., Rédei, A. C., Innes-Ker, Å. and van de Weijer, J. (2016). Does the Kuleshov effect really exist? Revisiting a classic film experiment on facial expressions and emotional contexts. Perception 45, 847-874.
  • Calbi, M.; Heimann, K., Barratt, D., Siri, F., Umiltà, M.A. and Gallese, V. (2017). How Context Influences Our Perception of Emotional Faces: A Behavioral Study on the Kuleshov Effect.Front. Psychol., 04.
  • Chihu, A. (2010). The audiovisual framing of the political spot. Culture and social representations. Year 5, (9):174-197.
  • Gordillo, F., Mestas, L. and Perez, M.A. (2018). The Kuleshov effect: the integration of context and facial expression in the perception of emotions Elements, 109: 35-40.
  • Kuleshov, L. (1974). Kuleshov on Film. Writings of Lev Kuleshov, Ronald Levaco (transl. and ed.), Berkeley, University of California Press.
  • Mobbs, D., Weiskopf, N., Lau, H.C., Featherstone, E., Dolan, R.J. and Frith, C.D. (2006). The Kuleshov Effect: the influence of contextual framing and emotional attributions. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 1 (2): 95-106.