How do Universities earn money from studying films? A subject thought to be a modern debate; it may come as a surprise to you that film theory has existed for over 100 years. Thankfully, with the help of digital film transfer, anyone across the globe can study the history of cinema now. 

But, you may be wondering who you have to thank for Cats (2019) being in the same debate as Gustav Klimt's The Kiss?

Well, it all began in Moscow in 1919.

Welcome to the Russian Revolution, and the first-ever film school has opened in Moscow. Its purpose was to teach students how to edit existing reels into propaganda films. Here, Lev Kuleshov, a director and film theorist, taught.

Due to the revolution, there was a lack of funding from the government to produce films. But, this didn't stop Kuleshov and his students from studying cinema on paper and using silent cinema archives to assemble new movies. However, Kuleshov's access to these reels was a lethal decision. He destroyed much of this footage from cutting and splicing the cine films for his study.

Yet, every cloud has a silver lining, and it is within this study, Kuleshov introduced the Soviet montage theory - and the beginning of film theory itself.

Lev Kuleshov's Experiments

Lev Kuleshov's love for cinema was all in the editing. In 1921, he began conducting experiments to prove that montage (the assembly and editing of shots) was the most critical step in making a film. He studied Western cinema, particularly D.W. Griffith's cross-cutting to build a narrative. Kuleshov even used a print of Griffith's film Intolerance in lessons where his students rearranged the film's shots into hundreds of combinations.

By the end of his experiments, Kuleshov had founded two critical theories: the Kuleshov effect and creative geography. He theorised that editing controls the continuity of time and space in a film. His findings also showed that the viewer is an active participant in constructing the meaning of films.

The Kuleshov Effect

A name created by film historians, the Kuleshov effect is infamous for proving that the viewer subconsciously reads a scene based on the assembly of shots. Much like studying a painting, everyone perceives the image they see before them based on their experiences in life. However, unlike a still picture, film shots can evoke varying emotions depending on the assembly of images.

To help explain, Kuleshov created a short film where he used the same shot of an actor staring into the camera and cut it with three other contrasting pictures: a bowl of soup, a dead child in a coffin and a woman seductively lying on a bed.

Source: Curator Magazine

Kuleshov showed this film to three separate audiences at his film school. His results found that the viewer's opinion of the actor's expression differed depending on which image they saw next to his face. For example, the audience believed the actor looked hungry when cut with the soup; he looked sad when cut with the dead child and lustful when cut with the woman lying down.

So, what's the importance?

His experiment led to the theory that the audience has an active role in constructing meaning when watching a sequence of images. Take the shot of the dead child, for instance: since the audience equates death with sadness when the film cuts to the video of the actor, the audience then places their feeling of sadness onto the actor's neutral expression.

Interestingly, this led to an understanding that a director could manipulate the viewer's interpretation of a scene by assembling shots in a particular order - a perfect trick for creating propaganda footage from existing archives.

Creative Geography

The Kuleshov effect also proved that the editing establishes the time and space within a scene. When creating his short film to explain the Kuleshov effect, he used existing footage of the actor, soup, dead girl and seductive woman. In doing so, he saw that the audience believed the man was looking at the three separate things, even though the shots were filmed at different times and places.

With that knowledge, Kuleshov began experimenting further with continuity editing by creating artificial landscapes. First, he filmed two actors in different parts of Moscow. Then, cut the shots together to make it appear like the two actors were walking towards each other.  To hammer his point home, when the actor's met, he filmed them looking off into the distance and cut it with an image of the White House in Washington (which obviously does not exist in Moscow).

The editing leads the audience to believe the actors exist within the same setting, and the White House is within the spatial whole of the scene - even though we know that this is not possible in real life.

Kuleshov's experiments influenced modern directors.

Another example of creative geography is in Jurassic Park when the scientists see a dinosaur for the first time. The viewer watches the characters look aghast as they look into the distance. Spielberg cuts to an image of dinosaurs roaming around the park and then cuts back to the car. Now, we all know that pastures of land filled with dinosaurs do not exist. However, as viewers, we understand that the scientists are looking at a dinosaur because Shot A shows the characters looking off in the distance and Shot B shows us a dinosaur eating leaves.

The audience reads signals through a film's montage to make sense of space and time within scenes. Hence, directors can splice together two different landscapes and trick the audience into believing it is the same space without an establishing shot.

Soviet Montage

Kuleshov's experimentations founded the Soviet Montage style that his student, Sergei Eisenstein, would later use. His studies concluded that the assembly of shots constructed the time, space and meaning in film. He even believed that acting was subservient to editing because editing can arouse different emotions from a viewer.

To find out more about Soviet Montage Theory, check out our article on Kuleshov's student Sergei Eisenstein coming out next year! But, before then, create your own film transfer by digitising your cine reels with Digital Converters.