From Flatbed to Avid: Has the Switch from Physical to Digital Editing Changed Filmmaking for Good?
I 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.
These 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 Jacket, hovered 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?