Kuleshov Spielberg

by Will Rogers


We don’t usually talk about movies on this blog, so roll with us on this one: sometimes it helps to venture outside your medium to find new inspiration/perspective.

In my freshman year of college, I learned about this thing called the Kuleshov Effect - it’s a Russian experiment from the early days of cinema, and it’s amazing.

Here’s how it works: viewers see a shot of a famous actor showing no facial expression whatsoever, followed immediately by a shot of something else (a bowl of steaming hot soup, a baby's crib, a casket), followed by the shot from before, of the expressionless actor. The shots are cut right next to each other, so that it seems that the actor is looking at the thing in the second shot.

Here’s where it gets cool:

To the audience, the actor's face was overwhelmed with emotion. When he looked at the soup, he was famished; when he looked at the baby, he was overjoyed; when he looked at the casket, he was devastated. The face in every shot, though, was exactly the same. The thing he was looking at is what determined how the audience interpreted his emotion. This idea changed cinema forever.

Enter Steven Spielberg. He takes this effect and puts it on hyperdrive. Take a look at Kevin B. Lee’s video, “The Spielberg Face", to see what Spielberg does, and how often.

As the video illustrates, The Spielberg Face is like this: “Eyes open, staring in wordless wonder in a moment where time stands still.” And when you watch the video you’ll see the same face, over and over again. This is the simple power of a single trick, masterfully harnessed.

When you look at the faces of these actors, it appears they are surrendering to a torrent of emotion. These little moments in Spielberg’s stories give the viewer the opportunity to relate directly with the character in the movie - somehow, watching someone watch something can be way more powerful than the thing they are watching.

Next time you're in the middle of a Spielberg movie (say, War Horse), look around and see when the tears are flowing in the room - is it when they’re looking at the horse, or is it when they’re looking at people looking at the horse? There’s power in the Spielberg Face.

Any good storyteller can take a device that works well in stories (like the Kuleschov effect), then build an entire career out of it.

I'll give a specific example from radio; I think it’s called the “spotlight effect”:
You’re listening to a radio story, in which music playing quietly alongside the person’s voice. Then the music fades out completely, and bam: your ears become completely attentive to the storyteller’s next few words. This American Life uses this trick constantly, and it works every time. It’s part of what makes that show so consistent - they have signature moves.

Now it’s your turn to find your favorite storytelling trick, then work with it, making it yours.

The Spielberg Face" (video)
by Kevin B. Lee for Fandor
10 minutes
Inspired by Matt Patches’ “The Spielberg Face: A Legacy"


Add comment