Editing: Tracks in the Sand
September 17, 2003
Tape reels give way to nonlinear editors over the past two decades
Whenever editors walk through the sands of time, we need to periodically take a quick look backward before tides of change erase the landmarks of our heritage. As TV Technology celebrates the end of its second decade, I'm bemused as much by how all things editing have stayed the same as I am by how all things editing have evolved. The biggest change in editing over the past two decades is that back then the technology was all about "Them." Today, it is all about "Us." Yet although the equipment we use has migrated from a linear to a nonlinear paradigm, the creative effect of editing has remained as powerful and dynamic as ever.
When this column began in June 1985, I was the staff editor on a primetime TV show called "PM Magazine" that combined local and national story elements into a nationwide feed so that each affiliated station could customize its own daily edition. Perched in a custom -- built edit bay filled with what were then state -- of-the-art 3/4 -- inch U -- Matic VTRs, I felt privileged to fly a linear edit controller that could enter timecode locations on-the-fly and store an EDL with a whopping 250 events. It was a time when engineering knowledge was prized as highly as a sense of pacing. Back then, you had to bribe the maintenance department to tweak your H -- sync for glitch -- free effects, and woe be unto anyone who rerouted the spaghetti swarm of wires inside the towering fan-cooled cabinets. That firewall of technology was a prime reason producers were so dependent on the midwives they called editors.
Today I can bask alone on the beach with a laptop computer and access post-production capabilities that are a quantum factor greater than could be squeezed out of that old A/B roll suite. Yet the creative process of using editing's three great tools-Context, Contrast and Rhythm-to tell my own or my client's story is still the same. The big difference is that back then the capital investment for the hardware required to become a solo player in the editing game would have been prohibitive. The current software-based NLEs usually cost less than the car you drive them home in.
But the technologies involved are only the tools of the editing trade. The essence of the editor's quest has remained constant, although just as in every era since the silent film days its aesthetic has been molded by the vagaries of fashion, style and cultural evolution. If you think that something like the trendy flash cutting of "MTV-style" videos is new, I urge you to reference the dream sequence in Fritz Lang's 1927 sci-fi classic "Metropolis," where the hallucinogenic delirium of Freder Fredersen is revealed with lightning edits and swirling eyeballs. And has anyone ever intercut contrasting screen direction as effectively as Sergei Eisenstein invoked as the Cossacks inexorably cascaded down the Odessa steps in his silent masterpiece "Battleship Potemkin?"
Over the years, several readers have been good enough to remember the statement in that first "Focus on Editing" column: "It is an editor who ultimately takes raw material in the left hand and turns over a finished product from the right. We can take this world, and through the power of our technological media, reassemble its chaos into meaning."
Later that same year, when discussing different approaches to cutting sequences it was postulated, "So, what makes a good edit? It's like mustard on a pickle. You have to try it to find out if it works or not. No amount of theorizing will give a guaranteed answer."
That is still the best lesson any young editor can learn. Your most important tool is your own artistic sense. Twenty years ago, editing was often like serving up a buffet for the producers to sample in an effort to tempt their appetites when their palettes were stuck. Nowadays the availability of cost-effective edit systems means it is often the person doing the editing whose taste determines the whole menu.
How well we remember that in that bygone era of the edgy 80's a powerful triumvirate of manufacturers dominated edit system controllers: CMX, Grass Valley and Sony. It was a very hardware-intensive process with companies like CMX forcing you to purchase custom Intelligent Interfaces called I2 (I-squared) to control each individual device. That's why a CMX system could easily cost more than $60,000, which was real money back then.
But slowly, inexorably, hardware was trumped by software. In 1982 Dave Bargen came up with software drivers that could supplant the I2, and founded the ISC line of linear editor systems. Then at NAB 1984, pioneering video engineer Jack Calaway introduced the first edit system that ran on a desktop PC. The somewhat smug monarchs of the linear editing glen barely noticed that the barbarians were knocking at the gates.
But already many edit system innovators were working to free an editor's creativity from dependence on spooling tape altogether. Many briefly left their mark before the next wave washed them away.
In 1971 the CMX 600 employed stacks of whirring magnetic disks to provide low -- rez random -- access editing but maybe its tasty $250,000 price tag is the reason only six were ever sold. Then in late 1977 CBS Labs, with the help of nonlinear visionary Adrian Ettlinger, developed what became known as the "CBS-Sony system" that used three Betamax tapes to triple-checkerboard its edits on three record decks. In 1986, Cinedco's Ediflex system won an Emmy for using 12 VHS decks playing identical clones of the source material. Introduced in 1989, Amtel System's E-Pix hybrid editing system used a combination of tape and laser disks directed by Amtel's own DOS-based 386 computer. And did you ever get a gander at the VUES Integrated Digital Post Production System from Videofonics? Its Macintosh II commanded an NEC VSR -- 10 solid -- state digital recorder to mirror the D -- 2 record master so that it could always effect back in RAM to any single source deck without laying off B -- roll.
But every time you lay tracks in virgin sand you leave many significant footsteps behind. We can all hail 1984's Montage Picture Processor that danced with 17 Super Beta tapes to pirouette between edits, but why isn't it in the Smithsonian? Then in 1989, Editing Machines Corp. took the prize for the first affordable disk-based offline system by unveiling EMC2 (that's "EMC squared," like the Einstein equation), using 1/2 screen black-and-white video at 15 fps. Today every editor honors the system that followed it by a scant few weeks, the Avid Media Composer conjured up by Bill Warner and Tom Ohanian, which cracked the barrier of editing at 30 fps for the first time off disk. At NAB89, they sold five systems off the floor, and an editing legend was born.
During these years we also experienced "Cubes" and "EditDroids," "D/Visions" and "Destinys," all leaving their mark by building on the lessons of the past to leave foundations for the future. Just as the dominance of the Sony/GVG/CMX troika was permanently broken by the introduction of new editing approaches, it will only be a matter of time before some new editing concept once again shuffles the deck. While we watch the passing parade, the greatest payoff is that our beloved craft and art form, editing, has been made available to an ever-increasing circle of professional, prosumer, and amateur practitioners who are experimenting with putting "mustard on their pickle." This is the legacy the past years of TV Technology have helped to chronicle. These are the footsteps we have left in the sand.