It's almost like a movie projector, turned inside out. And the machines which edited every film until the late 1970s were, in fact, projectors, except they were also heavy industrial equipment that could turn film into chewed up celluloid at speeds far exceeding 24 frames per second.
In the days before Avid, Premiere, and Final Cut, a film was made, from beginning to end, on film. First, on set, raw stock was exposed, then developed, then (budget permitting), developed into a comparatively inexpensive "work print" meant for the abuse of post-production (ironically, work prints are also often a source of piracy); this print would then be threaded and rethreaded through the Rube Goldberg-esque "plates" that held the film and sound on a classic editing machine. In fact, the editing machine is a projector, with the only key difference being that it is ultimately projecting for an audience of one, the artist in charge of deciding on the physical alterations in the footage, alterations that would eventually get their closeup in the film's final form as a pristine print.
Before these machines, editors worked on hand-made systems, or by hand, frame by frame. The first editing machine to be mass produced, the upright Moviola, was introduced in 1924, and despite later advancements that led to tables like the KEM and Steenbeck -- the ability to edit multiple tracks of sound, incorporate time codes, and shuttle through the footage at high speed with quiet, fast motors -- some editors preferred the old style, including Michael Kahn, who with Spielberg, cut long into the digital age the way he had for decades; Munich, for which he won an Oscar in 2005, was cut on one of the old machines. (He and Spielberg were among Hollywood's last holdouts, converting to full-digital editing in 2010.)
Famed auteur Ernst Lubitsch is seen at his trusty Moviola.
The first time I ever used a "linear" editing machine, it was a Steenbeck, an outsize and intimidating table with a comparatively generous screen as well as a byzantine slalom of rollers for the film to work its way through. To load the film (and accompanying sound tape) onto the "plates" of the machine invariably involves the spontaneous appearance of the so-called "spaghetti" that comes from an improper threading (the margin for error is not very high). And for those who've never had the pleasure, it's quite a thrill to watch as your entire movie (even if it's only a few minutes long) describes a zany corkscrew into the air and around the room, a thrill a little akin, maybe, to having a heart attack whilst simultaneously burning bags of cash. But hey! Showbiz!
Then, and provided your spaghetti can be uncooked, as it were, the next order of business is to watch for the first frame of contact on the ubiquitous slate and match it to the 'crack' sound the image represents; at this point the two, image and sound, get marked with a grease pencil 'X' and locked, so that the sound and picture are synchronized.
After the footage is logged (a grinding chore and still very much a part of editing in the brave, new digital world), the physical process of editing, i.e., of constructing an assembly of your movie from discreet lengths of film, is ready to begin. And, though the intellectual idea of editing images and sound is relatively the same, whether physical or digital, there is something about standing at a giant table, thrumming with electric current and reminiscent of a beast from some aesthete's assembly line, that is singular in all of filmmaking.
It is what it is, and it is unforgiving, though to those who learn its intricacies, its almost as if their hands and the machine are one, as can be seen in this footage of Martin Scorsese and his long-time editor Thelma Schoonmaker, cutting Scorsese's contribution to the anthology film New York Stories. Schoonmaker, threading and cutting, barely needs to look at her hands; though she uses an NLE system now (custom-built for her by Lightworks). She's been quoted as saying, "I can access footage much quicker, yes. But in terms of living with a film and knowing what’s right, digital doesn’t do that for you.”
Both the film and sound had to be cut by hand, using a machine called a splicer to cut the film at the frame line, and then an editor would join the two pieces of film with either tape or cement, constituting an edit. This documentary goes over the process of cutting and joining 16mm film, and because it looks like it was made more than a few weeks ago, I'd bet the documentary itself was edited using the very techniques it describes. Which is, you know, something.
Now, without the splice, there would be no cut; and without the cut, there would, almost certainly, be no cinema, at least as we know it. We would have only a continuous image that, though the camera might move around in 360 or more degrees, would never break the temporal continuity of what had been filmed, cleaving from itself to fashion something utterly new.
In the first decades of the 20th century, the rules of film grammar were codified, both in America, as seen above, and, more formalistically, in the early years of the Soviet Union's avant-garde flirtations. Both groups of filmmakers would establish the language editors still speak, the language that I could barely pronounce when I made my first splice (we used tape, since it was assumed that cement would be wasted on a group of kids sure to make more mistakes than cuts. This assumption, in case you were wondering, was beyond correct.)
It took me and a buddy about a dozen cans of Red Bull and as many hours to finally finish our five (5!) minute films; mine had, I can still remember, 26 cuts (including the titles), or an average of about 12 seconds per shot, though I suppose I'm only counting the titles because, well, I had to splice each one in -- so it counts as a cut to me. (And I know you're sad, but the film has been lost to the sands of several apartments and poor quality VHS dupes.)
For the record, though, I have no beef with convenience (which is a concept, and so not really a thing to get mad at), and I'm not writing this post on a typewriter. (Or am I? I'm not.) But I'll say that a cut is a thought, and that the ability to visualize your cut before you make it is as valuable as an ability to execute that cut seamlessly. Because even when we can all make "decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse," I'm grateful for my experience on a flatbed, because it chastened me when I eventually had the freedom to experiment with endless timings for an O.T.S. shot. When technology seems so much smarter and advanced than its human operator, the temptation can be for that human to second guess themselves, when, in truth, it's the gut instinct that makes the artist, and it's the artist, not the tool, that makes the art.