THE KULESHOV EFFECT AND MONTAGE EDITING
The modern process of editing pictures to tell a story started to take shape nearly 100 years ago, when a Soviet film-maker created montage editing; a technique we now take for granted in television.
In the years after the communist revolution, Lev Kuleshov and other Soviet film-makers developed a more radical approach to editing that was inspired by the rapid editing and efficient storytelling of Hollywood adventure films (especially the films of D.W. Griffith). Kuleshov wanted to challenge how Russian films were made before the revolution – he despised their melodramatic, unadventurous style – and a visual experiment meant that Kuleshov entered cinematic folklore.
But this all happened about 100 years ago, I hear many of you say. What’s it got to do with digital editing today?
Well, plenty. It’s always important to understand the history of video production – especially something as important as telling stories with pictures – and the Kuleshov Effect still has the power to make you think about the impact of montage on the viewer.
Yes, even today…
So first, what is the Kuleshov Effect? Let’s listen to the man himself…
Kuleshov says: “…I created a montage experiment which became known abroad as the ‘Kuleshov Effect’. I alternated the same shot of Mozzhukhin [a Tsarist matinee idol] with various other shots (a plate of soup, a girl, a child’s coffin), and these shots acquired a different meaning. The discovery stunned me – so convinced was I of the enormous power of montage. (Kuleshov ‘Kuleshov on Film’)
The film was shown to an audience who believed the expression on Mozzhukhin’s face was different each time he was in shot. He appeared to look at the plate of soup, the woman and the girl in the coffin, and viewers thought his face displayed hunger, lust and sadness respectively. But in reality the shot of his face was exactly the same all three times. In fact, it was the montage of images that stirred the response from the audience.
The impact of the Kuleshov Effect on future generations of film-makers was enormous. This is the view of Alfred Hitchcock.
But what does this all mean for factual programme-makers today, especially broadcast journalists who have to turn around tight, two-minute TV news stories? Do they really need to understand a convention that seems more relevant to cinema?
The answer is that montage is at the heart of all visual storytelling, including short TV news items. When you edit video footage, no matter how big or small the project, you’re shaping the content and the narrative of your story by your choice of shots and the order in which they appear.
In a film made by Kuleshov and his collective of young film-makers called The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (1924), he takes this process a stage further by placing genuine newsreel footage of the Red Army in the fictional narrative of the film. Today, the use of archive footage to drive a new narrative is a skill practised by all documentary-makers.
You want to engage your audience by creating a compelling narrative, and the way you edit the individual shots together helps you achieve that. That’s the lasting legacy of Kuleshov’s montage experiment.
The Soviet Montage Movement
Sergei Eisenstein was a contemporary of Kuleshov and labelled ‘The Father of Montage’. He argued that film had its greatest impact in the juxtaposition of shots – their collision to be more exact – which could lead to new meanings. His approach was called Intellectual Montage.
The most famous example of this is the Odessa Steps scene in Battleship Potemkin (1925). The film is a dramaticised version of the mutiny that occurred in 1905 when the crew of the Russian battleship Potemkin rebelled against their Tsarist officers. It’s been described as one of the most influential propaganda films of all time and was named the greatest film ever at the Brussels World’s Fair 1958. The scene (below) is about a massacre of civilians on the Odessa Steps.
The director Brian De Palma pays homage to this scene in The Untouchables (1987), starring Kevin Costner.
The Man with a Movie Camera (1929) is widely regarded as one of the most influential documentary films ever made. As with everything in the Soviet montage movement, the film has to be put into context, because it didn’t just break boundaries at the time: it smashed them into tiny pieces.
It was directed by Dziga Vertov and edited by his wife Elizaveta Svilova, and they experimented with film techniques we now take for granted like fast and slow motion, freeze frames, spilt screens, Dutch angles, jump cuts and double exposure. Viewers had simply never seen anything like this film before, especially the use of shots of short duration which shocked reviewers at the time.
The film (below) captures 24 hours in the life of a city, with no real storyline as such. The only constant ‘character’ is the man with the movie camera, and it’s been hailed as one of the first attempts to see film as an art form. In a poll in 2012 for the influential Sight and Sound magazine, film critics voted it the eighth best film of all time.