A Little History on the Art of Filmmaking


In the old daysabout 1989video editing was a matter of rerecording a source shot (from a camera master) onto a different tape (edited master) in position next to its previous shot, following that with another, and so on. As I have mentioned, this was called linear editing. The editor needed to think about the order and length of shots in the finished program before committing to an edit.

All of this was time-consuming and artistically limiting. The broadcast-quality video editing systems of this era could cost upward of $1 million at the high end and at least $250,000 to do much of anything other than a series of cuts. It was an endeavor that few could afford. These limiting cost/time factors made post production difficult and expensive. Post production drove up the cost of finished production, decreased the number of productions made in the first place, and basically left the option of communication through moving pictures only in the hands of producers with a lot of resources. Only companies with a large budget would even consider communicating this way, be it for an industrial program or a feature film.

To be precise, nonlinear editing started before linear editing. Film editing has always been a nonlinear process. If you wanted to take out the 50th shot, you just physically cut it out and added the remaining shots to the first 49 shots. You did not have to add shots to the film in any particular order, so it was nonlinear. Editing wasand isfast and relatively intuitive. But it remained daunting to trim just a frame or two from a shot. The editor needed to save these frames , so the edit room became full of little pieces of film all over the place. The invention of film bins came along to help organize the apparent chaos.

For years , this is how film editors worked. Editing was viewed as a painstaking process that few could imagine doing. We either lived with the limitations of linear editing in video or hired assistants to keep track of all those frames of costly celluloid. If you worked in television and your medium was video, you didn't have a choice.

The Emergence of Nonlinear Editing

Tape-based, nonlinear video editing changed all this. Instead of rerecording shots, the computer-controlled systems of yesteryear played back shots from a series of videotape machines in the order the editor programmed them via a sequence timeline . Because this timeline was not a rerecording, the editor could change any shot and see the sequence played back with the new edit decision almost immediately. After initiating a playback command to the system, the editor waited for a series of videotape machines to cue to the first series of shots in the timeline. Machine 1 would go to shot 1, machine 2 would cue up shot 2, and so on. The timeline's influence on the art and craft of editing cannot be minimized. Suddenly, the speed at which edit decisions could be previewed accelerated tremendously.

Early nonlinear video editing systems were based on videotape. You needed six or eight source video machines loaded with identical copies of source footagecontrolled by a computer to access shots in the programmed orderand you simply played them back as the editor intended. While one machine played back a shot, the other machines searched for the incoming shots. Shots could be dropped or added with relative ease, but the high cost of these systems still kept them away from lower-budget producers.

Other nonlinear video-based edit systems were based in videodisk source machines. To be fast enough to let you view a playback of a series of shots, the system had to have copies of the same material pressed onto multiple videodisks; that way, access time to each shot could be accomplished much like the aforementioned videotape-based systems. These videodisk-based systems were used mainly in Hollywood to edit high-end projects, and they were relatively expensive. Cutting with quality video pictures in a nonlinear fashion was accomplished, but the cost of editing didn't decrease much. The TV show Star Trek: The Next Generation was edited this way for a number of seasons.

In 1988, a company called EMC 2 released the first nonlinear computer disk-based video editing station, based on a PC. A year later, Avid Technology came out with a more attractive one, based on a Macintosh computer. Both stations addressed the issues of not having to rerecord all the shots past a change in a sequence. In addition, they did not require a series of duplicated source material played back on multiple video players. Instead, the editor digitized footage from a videotape machine and " copied " this footage to a hard disk drive. This was cost-effective , but the quality of these early, digitized pictures playing back from hard disk drives was so poor that these pictures could be used only to make edit decisions. This process was called offline editing . The editor was free to make changes as often as he wished, making the decision-making process faster, easier, and less costly. As a result, lower-budget programs became better edited.

Video and film editors suddenly had extra time to try what-ifs. What if I tried it this way? What if I tried it that way? No longer worried about how long it might take to see a change, people tried more changes, and the art of program editing took a quantum leap in quality if for no other reason than the time savings involved. These first computer disk-based edit systems cost about $65,000 and could be used to create only edit decision lists, not finished programs. The editor still had to take his computer-generated edit decision list to those million-dollar rooms to create a finished program in a linear editing format. This was called an online edit session.


As a side note, what you got for your investment of $65,000 in 1989 (in the case of the Avid product) was a top-of-the-line Macintosh FX, two computer monitors , a 10MB startup disk, 1 or 2GB of media storage, and the necessary software and hardware to digitize from a source machine, which was an added expense. You could use this equipment to make cuts, dissolves , and wipes only, or high-quality cuts-only versions of your edited master if you had two serial-controlled video machines. But few people bothered to do this, because most users took their edit decision list to an online linear bay to complete the edited master tape.

Nothing short of an editing revolution began to take place. Even though you couldn't really finish anything with these early computer disk-based nonlinear editors, you could spend the allotted time given a project to come up with a much better edit. And notably, the cost of these systems made them accessible to more projects. I bought the first Avid product delivered to Los Angeles that year. I saw video playing back on computer monitors at the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) show in Atlanta in April 1989 and was bowled over by the technology. I wasn't the only one, either. Avid's booth was about 25 feet by 25 feet, and I think the entire company was there hawking the productall 12 of them. By 1995, Avid had the largest booth at the NAB convention. It was an amazing accomplishment.

Avid became the standard-issue equipment for many years. Thousands of editors everywhere started using Avid's equipment. Along the way, notable contenders such as Media 100 popped up, but never did the bulk of the industry really stray far from Avid's Media Composers and Film Composers. Costs went up as the resolution went up, but by 1994, with the advent of Avid's "high-enough resolution," finishing on these systems became commonplace. Yet, to really do it right, an editor needed to work with a system that ran about $125,000, plus video monitors and source video machinesstill out of reach for the masses. Overall post costs went down a bit, but not enough to really cause a revolution in communication through motion pictures.

DV Cameras and Digital Editing Systems

The revolution in production really began with the introduction of digital video (DV) cameras and editing systems such as Final Cut Pro. Final Cut Pro, released in 1999, opened the doors to cost-effective, intuitively accomplished video editing for the masses. Quickly embraced by many professionals, Final Cut Pro's acceptance by thousands has been nothing short of a phenomenon . It is now possible to produce programming with broadcast-quality pictures shot with cameras that cost less than a new luxury car. For as little as $7,000 or less, communicators , educators, entertainers, and even just excited amateurs can produce feature-length programs on their desktops with broadcast-quality pictures.

The Benefits of Final Cut Pro

Final Cut Pro's intuitive interface led me to forsake far more expensive edit stations when I realized it let me accomplish the vast percentage of the work I needed to do with speed and efficiency. Final Cut Pro is a mature program whose widespread acceptance by editors, directors, and producers everywhere has made it a hit in the nonlinear editor (NLE) world. It can feel as comfortable as an old shoe after the first and only learning curve is past. Most importantly, Final Cut Pro is not tied to proprietary hardware other than Macintosh. It's both hardware- and resolution-independent. With off-the-shelf hardware additions, not only can you finish an uncompressed 4:3 top-of-the-line National Television System Committee (NTSC) or Phase Alternating Line (PAL) video project, you can even finish an HDTV-quality program. An HDTV editing station for less than half the cost of that first Avid. Amazing.

One thing that's happened to me is that I no longer have to maintain an office with an expensive NLE in it. For the first time in more than 25 years, I work completely from home. Final Cut Pro has made this possible. I always felt it best to have my own offline editing equipment. Loving the freedom and creativity offered by nonlinear editing, I owned systems that required that I keep them in an office outside my home. These systems' expensive upkeep and payments required that they had to be shared with other editors. Or they were just too large to keep at home. My whole lifestyle changed when I bought my first Final Cut Pro system. My wife is no longer an "editor's widow," and I've become better acquainted with my children. Dad no longer comes home late after everyone has gone to bed. I'm sure my story isn't unique.

The Future of Filmmaking

What might the future hold? What will we do with all this super low-cost, high-quality equipment? Whenever someone tells me the future will be this way or that way, I'm skeptical. But one thing is for sure. I doubt that anyone would disagree that a picture is worth a thousand words, and moving pictures tell you even more. With generations having been weaned on moving images transmitted via television, it's become more than just entertainment. Never forget that more than 80% of interpersonal communication is nonverbal . What we see communicates more than what we read or hear. It's become the most successful and reliable medium of information gathering and dissemination .

With that point in mind, think of the future possibilities that information, education, marketing, and entertainment hold. Videophones are a given ( witness the live coverage of the Iraqi war), but the advent of the Internet is already revealing new and exciting pathways for video programs to be distributed. Whether these productions are commercial, educational, or entertaining, not only has the cost of production come down, but extremely low-cost worldwide distribution is already taking place. What will change the most is not what we produce as much as how many people produce. I can't imagine what some folks are thinking up, but no doubt they wouldn't even consider it without the recent cost savings represented by products such as Final Cut Pro.

With more production comes more distribution and more use of the medium in general. In fact, I see the largest growth in information sharing via video than at any time in its history. How about birthday greetings transmitted via wireless Internet to Dick Tracy-style watches ? It's all accessible; it's all possible.

No one doubts that the Internet is the most important communication advancement since the printing press. People are viewing video production with it now. With the Internet's broadband capabilities, streaming content created by desktop video production systems is becoming an everyday event. Production is begetting more production. For example, if one company puts a marketing video on the Internet, its competitor might put one up too, if for no other reason than to stay competitive. I've seen this happen.

All this new distribution of video content is being accomplished with equipment at the lowest cost-to-quality ratio in the history of video production. Better stated, all this is being made possible and, in fact, is happening because of these new and inexpensive production and distribution systems. Final Cut Pro is leading the way. Editing on a laptop computer anywhere on the planet is possible at a cost less than yesteryear's basic professional videotape machine.

Jerry Hofmann on Final Cut Pro 4
Jerry Hofmann on Final Cut Pro 4
ISBN: 735712816
Year: 2005
Pages: 189

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