Three broad historical phases characterize the development of video editing that followed: physical film/tape cutting, electronic transfer editing, and digital non-linear editing. Even before the development of a successful videotape recording format in 1956 (the Ampex VR-1000), time zone requirements for national broadcasting required a means of recording and transporting programs. Kinescopes, filmed recordings of live video shows for delayed west coast airing, were used for this practice. Minimal film editing of these kinescopes was an obligatory part of network television.

Once videotape found widespread use, the term "stop-and-go recording" was used to designate those "live" shows that would be shot in pieces then later edited together. Physically splicing the 2" quad videotape proved cumbersome and unforgiving, however, and NBC/Burbank developed a system in 1957 that used 16mm kinescopes--not for broadcasting--but as "work-prints" to rough-cut a show before physically handling the videotape. Audible cues on the film's optical sound track allowed tape editors to match-back frame for frame each cut. Essentially, this was the first "offline" system for video. Known as ESG, this system of rough-cutting film and conforming on tape (a reversal of what would become standard industry practice in the 1990s), reached its zenith in 1968 with Rowan and Martin's Laugh In. That show required 350-400 tape splices and 60 hours of physical splicing to build up each episode's edit master.

A cleaner way to manipulate prerecorded video elements had, however, been introduced in 1963 with Ampex's all electronic "Editec." With VTRs (videotape recorders) now controlled by computers, and in- and out-points marked by audible tones, the era of electronic "transfer editing" had begun. Original source recordings were left unaltered, and discrete video shots and sounds were re-recorded in a new sequence on a second generation edit master. In 1967, other technologies added options now commonplace in video editing studios. Ampex introduced the HS-100 videodisk recorder (a prototype for now requisite slow motion and freeze frame effects) that was used extensively by ABC in the 1968 Olympics. "Helical-scan" VTRs (which threaded and recorded tape in a spiral pattern around a rotating head) appeared at the same time, and ushered in a decade in which technological formats were increasingly miniaturized (enabled in part by the shift to fully transitorized VTRs like the RCA TR-22 in 1961). New users and markets opened up with the shift to helical: educational, community activist, and cable cooperatives all began producing on the half-inch EIAJ format that followed; producers of commercials and industrial video made the three-quarter inch U-matic format pioneered by Sony in 1973 its workhorse platform for nearly two decades; newsrooms jettisoned 16mm newsfilm (along with its labs and unions) for the same videocassette-based format in the late 1970s; even networks and affiliates replaced venerable two-inch quad machines with one-inch helical starting in 1977.

The standardization of "time-code" editing, more than any other development, made this proliferating use viable. Developed by EECO in 1967, time-code was awarded an Emmy in 1971, and standardized by SMPTE shortly thereafter. The process assigned each video frame a digital "audio address," allowed editors to manage lists of hundreds of shots, and made frame accuracy and rapidly cut sequences a norm. The explosive growth of non-network video in the 1970s was directly tied to these and other refinements in electronic editing.

Non-linear digital editing, a third phase, began in the late 1980s both as a response to the shortcomings of electronic transfer editing, and as a result of economic and institutional changes (the influence of music video, and the merging of film and television). To "creative personnel" trained in film, state-of-the-art online video suites had become little more than engineering monoliths that prevented "cutting-edge" directors from working intuitively. In linear time-code editing for example, changes made at minute 12 of a program, meant that the entire program after that point had to be re-edited to accomodate the change in program duration. Time code editing, which made this possible, also essentially "quantified" the process, so that the "art" of editing meant merely managing "frame in/out" numbers for shots on extensive edit decision lists (EDLs). With over 80% of primetime television still shot on film by the end of the 1980s, the complicated abstractions and obsolescence that characterized these linear video formats also meant that many Hollywood television producers simply preferred to deliver programs to the networks from film prints--cut on flatbeds and conformed from negatives. The capital intensive nature of video post-production, also segregated labor in the suites. Directors were clients who delegated edit rendering tasks to house technicians and DVE artists. Online linear editing was neither spontaneous nor user-friendly.


Nonlinear procedures rejected videotape entirely and attacked the linear "straight-jacket" on several fronts. Systems were developed to "download" or digitize (rather than record) film/video footage onto video disks (CMX 6000) or computer hard-drive arrays (Lightworks, The Cube). This created the possible of random access retrieval as an "edited" sequence. Yet nonlinear marked an aesthetic and methodological shift as much as a technological breakthrough. Nonlinear technologies desegregated the editing crafts; synthesized post-production down to the "desktop" level, the personal computer scale; allowed users to intervene, rework, and revise edited sequences without recreating entire programs; and enabled editors to render and recall for clients at will numerous stylistic variations of the same show. Directors and producers now commonly did their own editing--in their own offices. The trade journals marvelled at the Avid's "32 levels of undo," the ability to restore extensive changes to various previous states. Nothing was locked in stone.

This openness allowed for a kind of presentational and formal "volatility" perfectly suited for the stylistic excesses that characterized contemporary television in the late 1980s and 90s. When systems like the Avid and the Media 100 were upgraded to "online" mastering systems in the 1990s--complete with on-command digital video effects--the anything-can-go-anywhere premise made televisual embellisment an obligatory user challenge. The geometric growth of hard-disk memory storage, the pervasive paradigm of desktop publishing, and the pressure to make editing less an engineering accomplishment than a film artist's intuitive statement sold nonlinear procedures and technologies to the industry.

Video editing faces a trajectory far less predictable than that in the 1950s, when an industrial-corporate triumvirate of Ampex/RCA/NBC controlled technology and use. The future is open largely because editing applications have proliferated far beyond those developed for network oligopoly. Video is everywhere. Nonlinear established its beachhead in the production of commercials and music videos, not in network television. Still, by 1993 mainstream ATAS (Academy of Television Arts and Sciences) had lauded Avid's nonlinear system with an Emmy. By 1995, traditional television equipment manufacturers like Sony, Panasonic, and Grass Valley were covering their bets by selling user-friendly, non-linear Avid-clones even as they continued slugging it out over digital tape-based electronic editing systems. At the same time, program producing factories like Universal/MCA Television continued to use a wide range of editing systems for their series--film, linear, and nonlinear.

Hollywood's obsession with "digital interactivity" in the 1990s, means that sequencing video imagery in "post-production" will remain central to the fabrication of entertainment "software." Storage formats (film, tape, video disk) will, clearly, continue to change. Yet industry forays into the "information superhighway," now suggest a prototype for interactive editing that is closer in spirit to television's historic paradigm of multi-source "switching." Many now envision the "video server"--networked by wide bandwidth fiber-optic cable--as a bottomless, digitized, motion picture storage pit, as an image-sound repository that does not even need to reside in the sequencing platform of the digital video editor. If this server-network model survives, the role of the nonlinear digital editor might then stand as the very model for all video-on-demand consumers in the domestic sphere as well. Viewers will become their own editors.

-John Thornton Caldwell


Anderson, Gary H. Video Editing and Postproduction. White Plains, New York:Knowlege Industry Publications, 1988.

Browne, Stephen E. Videotape Editing: A Postproduction Primer. Boston: Focal,1989.

Caldwell, John. Televisuality: Style, Crisis, and Authority in American Television. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1995.

Scheieder, Arthur. Electronic Post-Production and Videotape Editing. Boston: Focal, 1989.

Zettl, Herb. Television Production Handbook. Belmont, California: Wadsworth Press, 1992.


See also Computers in Television; Videotape