Razorblades & Tape: An Ode to Flatbeds & Editing the Slow Way

Jack Nicholson movieola editing no film school
The first impression you get of a flatbed editing machine is of the intricacy of the thing.

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.) 

Ernst Lubitsch moviola editing no film school
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.     

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I count myself lucky that I cut on film. I loved the experience but it wasn't easy. My dissolves had cuts in them which meant a 4 roll neg cut (or was it 3 roll?). Anyway, what is interesting is that you have to think hard about whether each cut is right. Recutting wasn't in the budget. Focussed you a great deal.

January 9, 2016 at 8:29AM, Edited January 9, 8:29AM

Jonathon Sendall

What was trimming like when you were using a Steenbeck, KEM, or Moviola? I love being able to loop a few seconds over and over while moving the edit point 1 frame forward/backward (or several frames) until I find what I like. The Avid trim mode is my favorite feature (and I wish the Premiere trim mode was just as good--and it's better than it was, but not quite the same). So how would you have done that kind of thing when editing actual film??

January 10, 2016 at 9:32AM

Benjamin Reichman
Post Supervisor/AE/Editor

Actually the last time I used an Avid was back when I was about 17 and I was working with a guy on a short I made; this was when Avid was a giant physical system and he wouldn't let me near it. I've cut a bunch with Final Cut 7, too. The flatbed I used was a Steenbeck (forget the model, but it was ridiculously opulent considering what I was doing at the time.) I didn't really have the luxury of looping, mostly because of time, serious inexperience, and just the nature of the beast. That said, my procedure was to run the first shot over and over; then repeat with the candidates for next shot; I'd do this this for about half an hour, shuttling back and forth (I'm sure there are better methods, this was mine); this was after the assembly where the takes were all slated and just put together with the "best" takes chosen from however many you could afford, and so I had a rough idea of what was there (I had had no video assist, and though operated myself, waiting for the footage to come back was always a little yikes); cuts were made by disengaging the film and sound and removing X frames from each, exactly, to preserve sync. All removed footage was stored hanging over a sort of laundry bin, clipped to a frame at the top w/notes somewhere as to what everything was (worst case, look at the film itself in light.) It's a little like carpentry, i.e., measure twice, because it's easier to take out than put back. So you kind of just sat there for a long time, but instead of looping them together, you'd try and remember while shuttling back and forth; finally, make the actual cut on the frame line of both, hang the 'select' with the rest of the takes, slates, whatever, on that bin. Finally, rethread film and sound back, pray you were still good on sync, and then see what you had. If it was good, then you'd go smoke a cigarette, or at least step outside for a second, get blinded, then return to the darkness of the room to watch and think some more. It was a gradual whittling process, and I really was super cautious about every single cut because taking out more frames or (worse) putting footage back was a nightmare, as it made the print worse, liable to jam because of tape that wasn't flush. Now, caveat, I was a kid, and a real editor would no doubt have been able to execute my crazy-making procedure with considerably more grace and efficiency, and probably in about thirty five seconds. I was the last, I think, generation to even work on these things. My last short film shot on film was done on Super 16 that I telecined and cut on a Macbook with Final Cut 7, and the whole edit took about two weeks for a 15 minute running time with sound design, music, fades and dissolves, etc. I am certain the preceding sounds like a nightmare, but it was actually a lot of fun, and I'm really lucky I was able to learn the fundamentals of filmmaking this way. I'm no pro, but I think understanding the physical process helps when you're dealing with a digital simulacra down the line. If nothing else, it makes you appreciate every single labor-saving device. Also, you can't check email on a Steenbeck, so it feels a little more like you're doing something totally OTHER, if that makes sense. Sorry for the long-winded answer; hope it makes any sense. Thanks for the question!

January 10, 2016 at 6:52PM

Justin Morrow

Kem Reels>Rough Cuts (2016)

January 10, 2016 at 11:08AM


Ahhh, memories. Thanks for writing this, totally brought me back to my first filmmaking classes with Moviolas and Steenbecks. I did my short film on 16mm – silent, b&w reversal stock – and cut it with a Moviola and a razor. It was nerve-wracking to slice into my ONLY print, knowing that a wrong decision would mean painstakingly reassembling it while trying not to scratch it. Not to mention the trauma of hearing your assembled edit snap in the projector while reviewing a cut because you didn't tape it together well enough.

I only got to work on a Steenbeck a little bit; I found the process of threading the film to be too laborious and after I synced up all my footage with the recorded sound I was exhausted and decided to not edit the film at all. Within a few months I had a copy of FCP and never looked back. But I'm glad I had the chance to touch film and learn those techniques; it gives you an appreciation of the craft that you wouldn't otherwise get from just working on a computer.

January 11, 2016 at 12:33PM

John V. Knowles

Wonderful article with great links!

How I wish I had the experience of cutting with actual film. I'm a full time editor now, but I spent the mid 90's through early 2000's in the music business as an engineer. Transitioned through analog to digital in that arena. I learned to record and mix on 2inch tape. Splicing. the whole 9.

Wouldn't trade that experience. I feel working in music, crafting songs, editing songs, producing made me a better editor in a lot of ways.

Still this brings back fond memories, and a longing to feel tape/film running through my hands.

January 12, 2016 at 7:24AM

Seth Evans

Workprint stage: you use special adhesive tape along with a guillotine splicer, designed by Leo Catozzo; 1 blade vertical (for cuts in picture); 1 blade diagonal (for cuts in sound).
Negative cutting phase (conforming positive to A+B negative rolls): you use a negative splicer to glue one frame to another after scratching off emulsion of extra (lost) frame.
Have fun!

January 14, 2016 at 4:46PM


This type of editing would have the exact opposite effect of making me a better editor. I would feel the need to save as much film as I could because it is money being wasted. With digital I can cut out a lot more fluff without thinking about it. I've seen a huge difference between my 8mm videos where everything had to be used as much as possible, and the ability to focus more on story with digital because it is so much easier to get more to work with and a lot faster to cut out the trash.

January 15, 2016 at 11:39PM

Ryan Gudmunson
Recreational Filmmaker