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From Flatbed to Avid: Has the Switch from Physical to Digital Editing Changed Filmmaking for Good?

06.25.13 @ 5:00PM Tags : , , , , , ,

steenbeck editing tableI was in the last generation of filmmakers to cut their teeth on old Arriflex 16mm cameras and Steenbeck editing tables (do the math, but I’m old). Since the advent of non-linear editing hardware and software, it seems as though films have gotten — faster, but is this really the case, or an optical illusion? An exhaustive and searchable database of Average Shot Length from the birth of cinema to now is available online, and it shows the evolution of editing in cinema. Click below to see just how editors are cutting films today how they cut in the past, and what this means for you as an indie filmmaker.


For most of the history of cinema, editors toiled on their flatbed machines, first logging all the footage by hand, then making physical cuts in a work print with a blade and either tape or glue, using an assistant (if they had the budget) to collect the selects and keep them organized for future reference.

Synching film and sound was a laborious process involving grease pencils, X marks, and lots of time (especially for cash-strapped indie filmmakers.) In the first book I ever bought on filmmaking, Feature Filmmaking At Used Car Prices (now updated for the digital age) by Rick Schmidt, one figure used in the budget for editing was $8,111.40.  And this was the way it was, for almost a hundred years.

In 1989, at the National Association of Broadcasters convention, the Avid/1 was introduced, the first nonlinear editing system, based around an Apple Macintosh II computer. According to film writer Russell Evans, it was “the biggest shake-up in editing since Méliès played around with time and sequences in the early 1900s.” From that moment on, an editor was freed to make as many cuts as they wanted, since changing an edit didn’t change anything except an EDL (editing decision list) on a computer.

film reelThese days, many indie filmmakers shoot on DSLRs, and edit on one of the non-linear systems, which are now within reach of nearly every filmmaker. In Hollywood, the EDL is used to cut the final print, which is then duped and sent out to theaters. All of which makes us wonder, “How has this affected shot length in motion pictures? Have nonlinear editing systems changed fundamentally the way filmmakers make their movies?”

Film scholars have been analyzing editing for years, but now anyone can use software (ironic, that) to calculate the length of each shot in a DVD. This tool was developed by a company called Cinemetrics, and their data on recent films is eye-opening, to say the least. The original metric, developed by writer Barry Salt, is called Average Shot Length, or ASL, a figure arrived at by taking the length of a film in seconds and dividing by the number of shots.

This searchable database of films and their ASLs over the history of cinema is extremely interesting, and shows just how much films have sped up, even before the advent of non-linear editing:

  • In 1907, Ben Hur had an ASL of 35.6 
  • By 1938, Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes was clocking in at 7.5
  • In 1980, The Empire Strikes Back had an ASL of 4.1
  • In 1990, Goodfellas had an ASL of 6.5, which seems high, but Scorsese used lots of long takes to achieve his kinetic effects:

By 1993, Tony Scott’s hyper-kinetic True Romance had an ASL of just 1.5, a number that would be unthinkable without NLE technology. And the films kept getting faster. By 1998, indie-film Pi had an ASL of 3.8, and the following year’s American History X 3.2. In the new century, the average ASL for an American film seems to have settled somewhere between 4 and 5, compared to, say, 12.4 for the 1960 Ocean’s 11 (the 2001 remake had an ASL of 5.9.) Stanley Kubrick’s films, from Dr. Strangelove to Full Metal Jackethovered between 8 and 13, but he was never one to follow trends.

Of course, all the films I’ve cited here have been American. Foreign films tend to follow a more leisurely pace, e.g. the Wim Wenders 1984 film Paris, Texas, which clocked in at 12.2. The database, which covers films from the beginning of cinema to today, is searchable and fascinating. You can find information on Average Shot Length for thousands of movies, and it is an eye-opening experience for any indie filmmaker, editor, or cinéaste.

Regardless of how you feel about the issue, it’s a fascinating one. Even though indie filmmakers of today can make as many cuts as they want and then erase them just as fast, does this lead to better filmmaking? What differences have you noticed in the pacing of films from the past to now? If you’re an editor, how did you learn to cut, and what influence do you think non-linear editing has had on your style? Do you think films are too fast? Should we all go back to Steenbecks and Movieolas?

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COMMENT POLICY

We’re all here for the same reason: to better ourselves as writers, directors, cinematographers, producers, photographers... whatever our creative pursuit. Criticism is valuable as long as it is constructive, but personal attacks are grounds for deletion; you don't have to agree with us to learn something. We’re all here to help each other, so thank you for adding to the conversation!

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  • I think digital editing definitely *facilitates* better filmmaking. Being able to play around with different options and examine them all in the space of a few minutes has really refined the art of editing, in my opinion. However, I also take great pleasure in properly composing a nice long, interesting shot when I feel the scene calls for it. Less editing, greater challenge, lots of fun to be had there too.

    As always, you adopt the technique to try to achieve the effect you want, right? Is Quantum of Solace’s action cut too fast? Absolutely. That was a mistake, because few people could appreciate what was going on. Faster doesn’t always mean better, but it definitely doesn’t always mean worse, either.

  • I’m younger, but I have a humorous analogy to transitioning from Steenbeck to Avid. For me, it was transitioning from the family’s laptop running Corel VideoStudio to buying my own dedicated machine with Premiere.

    Cutting my first short on laptop + VS was painful to say the least. Every cut or adjustment I made took 5-10 seconds to process. Needless to say, I tried to be as efficient as possible, and as soon as something worked (even barely), I left it alone.

    Since then, cutting my first feature on a machine that works as fast as I think has definitely allowed me to explore alternatives to almost every edit, often coming up with surprising or creative combinations that were far superior than the original cut that I had intuitively assembled.

  • In return for an easier acquisition and editing, the directors have resorted to shooting a crapload more footage. I was reading on Abel Cine that the “Game of Thrones” is getting as many as six hours of shots off its nine various cameras (Red Epics, IIRC) daily with a normal 10 day schedule per episode. In another story, I recall Robert Downey, Jr. complaining about being unable to even take a pee break on the set of “Zodiac” since David Fincher just kept camera rolling … eh, capturing without a rest. Digital technology made it easier to shoot and edit. The directors compensated by shooting and editing more. (as I recall from the olden days, a daytime soap opera used to shoot about 50 pages daily on video – which editing did not require actual film splicing but rather tape-to-tape copying – now upped to 100-140 pages entirely in digital domain)

  • I’m a fan of long shots, but I find some clients get uneasy when shots go for extended periods of time, they seem to want something in the middle to break it up – Whereas, I love the simple elegance of longer shots.

  • I think it’s a given that NLE’s make shorter cuts much easier and thus can impact the edit, but IMHO, that’s only one part of the equation. As a whole, our lives are faster, our communication is real time and the barrage of media images from various platforms comes at us daily at a breakneck pace. Is it any wonder that films reflect that sensibility? I think if you also look at the types of films that are mainstream, i.e. action films, a fast cut just makes sense.
    As an editor though, I think the shot length should be not dependent on our collective short attention span, but on how the pacing supports the story and feel of the film. After doing a bunch of corporate/promo/sizzle pieces, I find it refreshing to let a scene breathe a little bit and let the shot linger on the actors to increase dramatic tension. I can cut as fast as the next guy, but just because it’s fashionable doesn’t make it right. Editors should be serving the story just as DP’s do with their shot/lighting selection. I sometimes go round and round with other filmmakers on this who think the cut should be tighter, I guess it’s a question of style. So I guess my bottom line is that the NLE is just a tool, it’s what we do with it that makes the difference.

  • Interesting piece. In film school I learned to cut on both, but the Steenbeck was truly an antique acting as atmosphere (or art installation) rather than a tool.

    Are movies too fast today? Meh, hard to say as my eyes are young, but I’d say no. To my grandfather, yes. Take a look at Upstream Color for a quick ASL. I think each story deserves it’s own unique pace and the NLE systems are the most efficient tool to achieve what you desire.

    On my own film, Hemorrhage, (check it out on VOD! ;p) I had a few ‘Haneke-esque’ shots (locked down, static) that lasted for what seemed like an eternity for most people. I wasn’t trying to be clever or arty, but knowing the pace of today’s audience the notion of using such a long shot is unnerving to most, which fits the intention of the scene perfectly. It was the first thing I was told to cut but as soon as it hit festivals the most common comment was re: the editing choices and ‘in particular, a wide static shot, etc…’

    So I say use shot length to your advantage. There Will Be Blood would lose all of it’s atmosphere and depth if it was shot like Pi (a HUGE personal fav, btw). And Pi would be a languid, off-beat jumble of thriller/sci-punk material that doesn’t match the visual delivery.

    I think we’re all fortunate not to have to cut on a Steenbeck. The novelty gets old quick, I assure you.

  • Might I add that the ONLY film that I felt was too fast was Dark City.

    I literally started to get anxious watching it, and it was 100% due to the quick editing. Was it the director’s intention? /Shrugs./

    Anyone else feel the same about Dark City?

    • There’s an AC/DC concert (filmed in Argentina a few years ago) with ~ 2-3 second cuts throughout. It made me nauseous. In action films, someone like Michael Bay – clearly a NFS favorite – uses camera movement along with quick shot edits to convey urgency/danger/etc. Then, when you break up the slower scenes with longer takes and vice versa, the final assembly seems cogent. But a continuous 2-3 second cutting for an hour and a half was much too much for my taste.

    • If I remember correctly, Dark City had an average cut of 2 seconds. I never felt overwhelmed by the editing, and actually loved some of the really quick cuts (Murdock’s first meeting with the strangers where one of them tries to slash him with the knife).

  • The fast cut has been around longer than most think. There are some early Russian films that used the rapid edit technique from the 20′s. Sort of the montage based theory.

    Cutting with film and seeing it visually created a different kind of mindset. A feeling of having to do more of the editing in your head and then making the actual edit. With nonlinear all of the options are there without any harm being done. Sort of a trial and error.

  • Maybe a bit off topic but; why does ‘Paris Texas’ really get referenced so frequently? I recently gave it a shot out of curiosity and thinking I may learn something but decided I had enough about 20 min into the movie… Robby Muller’s cinematography didn’t really shine at me, the aerial shot at the rocks in Big Bend through a blue graduated filter that makes the blue tint travel the rocks up and down with the motion of the helicopter was distracting at best, casting a German actor to play the role of a Texan town doctor makes the story flaw at least in my eyes (maybe the German director didn’t notice the accent? I am sure everyone else had to!), I have never seen a movie where product placement is so obvious (especially of those times) where does all the hype come from?

    • It’s just a slow-burner. I think you’ve got to give the whole thing a chance.

    • I am of the age that that film exploded like a bomb for us. You have to be in exactly the right mood. I do think its impact has been lessened by how much of its tone and manner were quickly absorbed by indie cinema and more recently cable TV, and Robbie Mueller’s work probably looks ill-defined to you now, but was a revolution to us.

  • Interesting site, although i’m not sure about the ‘lessons’ to be drawn. The modern audience is capable of absorbing more information, and we crave more detail. Kubrick packed every frame with production design that gave your eye and your mind something to contemplate.
    On the production side, its less of a risk to throw 3 cameras (or more) at a scene than to plan one huge sequence that can only be ‘cut’ one way. Whether I’ve worked on flatbeds, Avids, FCP, Premiere the mantra has always been ‘coverage coverage coverage’. Only @10% of the directors I’ve worked with have had the skill/training to be able to construct a basic scene that cut like butter. The other 89% I was always looking for a cheat that would get me to the next line. Less than 1% (and I suspect Fincher and the late Tony Scott would be in this category) have given me gorgeous long takes AND piles of excellent coverage. When you get to the end of a scene and you have 4/5 shots you wanted to put in but couldn’t squeeze them in somehow, that’s when I personally feel like I’m flying. When you’re in that situation, its purely the rhythm of the story that dictates the cut, not whether or not we have enough footage to even cover the lines.
    This is why I beg young filmakers to shoot matched multi-camera, and try to keep the takes short. Unless you’re the second coming of Bela Tarr or Michel Gondry save the 5 page one-shot until you have the resources on set (or a la Cuaron, in CGI) to pull it off.
    Perhaps the Movi and its siblings will change this. :-)

    • @ Mark London, do you mean a “traditional” 3-cam sitcom/soap set-up, with the outside cams for closeups and the central for the wide shot?

      • Sort of. That setup doesn’t always work, but if you’re doing a 2 person dialogue scene, why not shoot cross closeups? Those are PRICELESS in the edit room.
        My basic trick? One camera on sticks/dolly with prime, one handheld on a short zoom with a good operator. You’d be amazed at how much useable footage and good cuts you’ll get out of just that combo, even if they are both shooting from the same general angle. Or you could go the full Fincher/Tony Scott and roll 6 cameras on everything.

        • I just took a look at the “House of Cards” pilot/1st episode. In the early Spacey-Jaffrey scene where Frank Underwood’s ambitions of being nominated for the Secretary of State are blunted, it does seem like Fincher has just shot closeups of each actor with the scene spliced in editing on a one+one=two basis. Considering that Spacey is the star of the series, I would have alternated between a wide shot of both (is this where your prime comes in handy?) and his closeup (a hand-held zoom?). I think that would have given Spacey more options to show to what his character was experiencing rather than have the supporting actor hog the screen time. It’d also allow for the longer takes (and would call for a zolly reaction shot to boot!)

    • Ahh… but how does a young filmmaker become the next Bela Tarr if they don’t start practicing young? If he didn’t start out making films like Family Nest and The Prefab People (which have plenty of clunky long takes) I doubt he would have been able to make Satantango later in his career.

      • If Bela Tarr is who you’re aiming for, go for it! :-)
        But in the meantime, how about getting some coverage?

  • One more thing: the answer is yes.
    What’s more amazing if you’ve ever cut on a flatbed is how fast and tight Thelma Schoonmaker’s cutting could be. She had a small army of assistants, but that paranoia sequence in Goodfellas and the fight scenes in Raging Bull – those would have take a WHILE to cut by hand. When ever I’m watching one of Scorcese’s films, I’m not even looking at the actors anymore.

  • In many TV commercials the shots are often eight to 16 frames long. (1/3 to 2/3rds of a second.) Maybe the shot length of TV spots and music videos influenced shot lengths in movies as much as the editing gear. The audience got conditioned to short shots from watching TV spots and music videos, so we got used to absorbing narrative content in short bursts at the movies.

    • Back in the Steenbeck era I worked at a Spot editing company for a short time soon after NYU film school. For cranking out multiple variations of similar Burger King TV spots, it was much faster to do it on an old upright Movieola than Steenbeck flatbed. Handling 35mm film after mostly 16mm in school had a great tactile feel but do not wish to go back to those ancient tools. Love FCP! Hank Corwin who has edited some of the greatest TV spots probably influenced feature film editing with his hip academy award winning editing sequemces on JFK by Oliver Stone.