In 2017, non-linear editing is so ubiquitous that an entire generation of cutters have come of age without ever cutting a piece of physical film. But until 1992, when the first feature film to be cut on an Avid (Trivia: it was called Let's Kill All the Lawyers) was released, every single film in history had been cut the old-fashioned way, although some videos and commercials had been done on NLE systems. Final Cut Pro was released in 1999, and in 2007, No Country For Old Men became the first Oscar-winning film edited with Final Cut.
Legend has it that Méliès "discovered" film editing accidentally when his camera jammed in traffic.
But one hundred years before the release of Final Cut, the first edits in movie history were being made by filmmakers like Edwin S. Porter and Georges Méliès, whose work, respectively, in films like The Great Train Robbery and A Trip to the Moon, included the first influential cuts in film history, made on editing tables with scissors and tape. Legend has it that Méliès "discovered" film editing accidentally when his camera jammed in traffic, so that "when he watched [the footage] back, a bus was replaced with a hearse, creating the jump cut; later leading to the fade in/out, overlap dissolve, as well as stop motion." A few decades later, the Moviola was introduced, with the first machine being sold to famed actor/director/producer Douglas Fairbanks; within a few years, it was the editing machine of choice in Hollywood, and the first Oscar for Film Editing was awarded in 1934, to Conrad Nervig for Eskimo.
The introduction of flatbed machines like the Steenbeck in the 1950s added a new dimension to linear film editing, and by the 1970s, the flatbed technology, with its precise motor speed, had grown quite sophisticated. Unlike NLE systems, which are non-destructive (all the footage is digital and can be endlessly cut and re-cut, practically instantaneously), analog editing systems used physical prints of the film, usually struck from the original negative. These were loaded into a series of rollers, which were then synchronized by hand (using the clapper, matching the first frame of contact with the clapping sound of the striking wood, with information written on the board used to organize the footage). Finally, editors ran the film back and forth until deciding on a frame on which to cut, which involved removing the film, making cuts at the precise frame, and then joining the disparate pieces of film with a tape splicer.
This took a considerable amount of time, and since there was a physical print involved, editors had to be quite deliberate before making each cut, lest they made a mistake which would require significant effort to fix. As the edit progressed, the "selects," or pieces of film that had been trimmed, were catalogued and hung from a bin, using the print's edge numbers as a way to organize all the footage, so that takes could be replaced and moved around without losing organization. When the picture finally locked, the edited print was conformed to the negative for striking final release prints. It's at this point that effects like fades and dissolves are added using optical printers, along with the optical soundtrack containing the audio.
Despite the ubiquity of the NLE system, there are still some holdouts, including Michael Kahn, Steven Spielberg's frequent collaborator who has been nominated for eight and won three Oscars, all while cutting on a Moviola. George Lucas once remarked of Kahn, "He can cut on a Moviola faster than anyone can cut on an Avid." Another advocate is Alan Heim, editor of All That Jazz, among many other classic films, who has been quoted as saying of the differences between the two systems: "The benefits [of NLE] are speed and the ability to make many choices and look at alternatives instantly." But "the image is not as good to look at...and it's more difficult to make certain performance judgments. It's hard to see peoples' eyes, and most editors use eyes a great deal.''