New Video Editing Techniques Are a Cut Above Film

Times Staff Writer

Two cars screeched to a halt on the waterfront to block a fleeing third car. A kidnaped baby next to her, Melissa swerved, only to drive off the end of a pier and into the water.

To the average viewer, this scene from last season’s final episode of CBS’ “Falcon Crest” looks and sounds like other prime-time car chases. But the cuts among camera angles and takes were made not on film, as television programs and motion pictures have been edited since the days of silent movies, but on videotape. The change saves time and, maybe, money.

“It probably took part of one day to edit the sequence, where on film it would have taken a day and a half, or at least one whole day,” said Fred Knudtson, film editor for “Falcon Crest.”

New computer-based videotape and laser disk editing systems are changing the way Hollywood makes movies and television programs, although questions of cost, quality and speed persist. Nearly half of all prime-time network television programs--including NBC’s “Cheers,” CBS’ “Dallas” and ABC’s “Max Headroom"--will be edited electronically for the 1987-88 television season, up from none four years ago.


“Pretty much everyone will be using it in three to five years,” said Glorianna Davenport, a lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Laboratory.

For the last several years, U.S. television stations have broadcast almost exclusively from videotape, not film. But prime-time television programs still are shot on film, which gives a richer picture than videotape.

Productions edited electronically are copied onto videotape as soon as the cameras stop rolling and their negatives are developed. Directors and their film editors view and splice footage using banks of two to 17 television screens. In conventional editing, technicians transfer only the final, broadcast-ready version to videotape.

Promoters of electronic editing see their work as revolutionizing the television and movie industries. “First there was sound, then there was color, and now there’s electronics,” said Kenneth Yas, film unit director at Post Group, a Hollywood post production house.


Yet electronic editing has played to mixed reviews. Skeptics say the necessary, computer-linked banks of videotape or laser disk recorders are expensive to rent, complicated to use, vulnerable to rapid obsolescence and open to charges that the product doesn’t quite look or sound the same as programs finished on film.

Film experts debate whether the new technology creates visible differences, such as better color in shadows and more abrupt cuts among scenes. “You do get a different look, and the people who are really familiar with film can see it,” said Perry Massey, NBC’s vice president for program production.

Substantial Savings

Proponents claim that electronic editing can improve clarity, color and sound. “Using the electronic editing, there’s no such thing as a scratch,” said Matthew Knox, Lorimar-Telepicture’s vice president for post production.


Lorimar and Universal City Studios, the two biggest television studios in Hollywood’s $2-billion a year prime-time network programming business, have come to opposite conclusions about the new technology and the cost savings it may offer.

Lorimar, headquartered in Culver City, will produce 10 hours a week of network programming for the coming fall season, and will electronically edit nine, Knox said.

Knox refused to give figures for how much cheaper the new technology may be, but said that, “Obviously we’re doing it because we’re saving money. . . .There are savings that come along, and they mount up to something significant in the end.”

Savings can run as high as $40,000 to $50,000 an episode for one-hour television action dramas edited electronically instead of on film, said Dean Barnes, an associate television show producer and former post production coordinator at Paramount Pictures. Half-hour situation comedies such as “Cheers” are $5,000 to $10,000 cheaper when edited electronically, he added.


But Universal City Studios continues to test electronic editing systems, and will edit on film all of its 9 1/2 hours of weekly prime-time programming slated for the coming season, said James Watters, vice president for post production. The MCA subsidiary worries in particular that a technological advance, high-definition television, may require the expensive re-editing of shows now finished on videotape.

“You can’t just say it’s all savings when long-term, there are additional costs,” Watters said.

Universal expects high-definition televisions to come on the market soon, possibly within the next five years, Watters said. The new screens will have two to four times as many lines per inch as current screens, producing a picture as clear as movies shown in cinemas.

New, higher resolution videotapes probably will have to be made then from film originals. Universal questions whether the two most popular videotape editing systems, the Ediflex and Montage, keep perfect track of where cuts on film would have to be made. If the exact frames for cuts cannot be located, shows would have to be edited all over again, Watters said. The cost could be twice as great as any possible savings from electronic editing, he said.


“The other studios and the other people around town aren’t going to be able to convert,” Watters said, later adding that, “Until we have the frame-accurate capability, we’re not going to make the move.”

However, Universal is testing the newest editing system available, the laser disk-driven CMX-6000, and feels that the $100,000 device may be “adequate,” Watters said.

Knox said Lorimar is not worried about the possible advent of high-definition television.

“It’s really only comedy shows that will survive the rampages of time. . . .The high-definition argument is one that Universal pursues, but doesn’t make a whole lot of sense,” the vice president for post production said.


Post production is the process of transforming miles of raw film footage, shot at various locations by many cameras from different angles, into a single videotape or film print ready to be aired by television stations or shown in movie theaters.

The venerable Moviola, which looks like a souped-up home movie projector with several extra reels and a foot pedal, is basic equipment for conventional post production on film. Computer-based videotape editing systems are the stars of electronic post production, or EPP.

Moviolas, made by J&R; Film in Hollywood, have been industry workhorses since their invention in 1917. The standard model today costs $12,000 and rents for $275 a month.

The Moviola’s popularity rests on its low cost and simplicity. “Most everyone still knows how to use an upright Moviola,” said Jim Reichow, executive vice president of J&R; Film.


Film editors, supervised by a director, use the Moviola to view several takes together and decide where transitions among scenes and camera angles should occur. Takes range in length from two seconds to 10 minutes. One in three or four takes is used for the final version of a prime-time television drama, and just one in 10 or more takes makes it in a theatrical release.

Finding the desired footage to view and splice can take several minutes, as film editors and their assistants rummage through heaps of film sometimes strewn about the editing room floor. Transitions are made by splicing together two lengths of film, a task requiring about a minute.

“If (the film editor) has to assemble a whole reel, it has 50 or 70 splices in it, his assistant is going to take an hour to assemble it,” said Edward Ancona, NBC’s director of film and videotape post production.

The director views the spliced version, and either approves its use in the final release or orders the film recut and spliced in a trial-and-error search for a better result. If the director later decides to use an early version after all, cuts and splices must be made all over again.


From the moment a developed negative of camera footage returns from the film lab, electronic editing is different from film editing. The negative is copied immediately onto videotape or laser disks. Every frame is assigned a number, or time code. Takes can be located within seconds. Splicing requires only a few key strokes, and early versions are readily retrieved.

Offers Option of Speed

“A director can sit down with you and you can make changes, and he can see them instantly,” said editor Richard Westover, who electronically edited “Patriot,” a year-old Crown International Pictures release.

Because movie theaters still use film projectors, only a handful of directors have electronically post-produced feature films. Technical difficulties persist in transfering a production from videotape back to film. Most observers predict it will be several years at least before full-length motion pictures are widely edited electronically, although director and producer Stanley Kubrick already has used a Montage for his latest movie, “Full Metal Jacket.”


Manufacturers market heavily the capability of electronic editing systems to show directors more possible combinations of takes in less time. “If you have to go through a laborious process to do it (editing), you’re going to compromise your dramatic effect,” said Milton Forman, president of Ediflex-manufacturer Cinedco.

Directors often spend just as long as before to make a television program or movie, doing more editing instead and not saving money. “It’s like building a house--if you want to make a lot of changes, there are no savings,” said Andrew McIntyre, chairman and chief executive of AME, a Burbank-based post production company.

But electronic editing does give the option of speed, said Michael Lowe, president of Keene, N.H.-based Montage Group. “If they want it fast and dirty, they can do that.”

In any case, the new technology does not come cheap. Cinedco rents the 45 Ediflexes it has manufactured over the last three years--10 more will be ready this month--for $2,500 a week. That’s nearly 40 times the rent charged on a Moviola. Cinedco does not sell the Ediflex. “People that shoot on film for the most part rent everything they use,” said Frank Flemming, Cinedco executive vice president.


Lower Labor Costs

Montages consist of 17 computer-linked videotape recorders, and rent for $2,000 to $2,500 a week, Lowe said. High research and development expenses pushed the sale price of the first version to $262,000 when it went on the market in March, 1983; 41 were made. A new version now entering production will sell for $150,000, Lowe said.

High rental costs have forced producers to find substantial savings elsewhere to compensate. They are looking to labor, film processing, and, for movies, interest charges.

Labor savings can total $200,000 for a television serial’s full season of 22 one-hour episodes, Post Group’s Yas said. Post production on videotape typically requires two film editors, an associate film editor and an apprentice, he said, as opposed to three of each for film.


Lorimar has trimmed the post production team for “Dallas” from three editors and three assistant editors to two of each by using an Ediflex, Knox said. The company does not assign apprentices to specific programs.

However, electronic post production has not yet caused an expected overall drop in employment for film editors, said Ronald Kutak, executive director of the Motion Picture & Videotape Editors Guild. “Perhaps some day that will be true, but so far it hasn’t borne out.”

The union has 2,700 members and has shown net growth of 100 members a year for the last several years, Kutak said.

Hurts Film Laboratories


At best, labor savings equal the added cost of renting videotape editing systems, said Emory Cohen, president of Pacific Video, a Hollywood post production house that will post produce 15 television series this fall. “The savings are coming from what you’re not spending at the film labs and from what you’re not spending at the optical houses.”

Those are unhappy words for film processing labs and the technicians who work in them. Film labs earn about $20,000 an episode for television programming finished on film, and only $10,000 an episode for programs finished on videotape, said Tom Ellington, president of Consolidated Film Industries, one of Hollywood’s biggest film labs. “That portion (of film lab industry revenue) which is television production has been materially affected.”

However, about 80% of film lab revenue comes from motion pictures, Ellington added.

“Television production has a much smaller share (than movies) of the laboratory business because it does not have large release print orders,” said Jim George, vice president for operations and assistant general manager of Metrocolor film processing labs, a Lorimar subsidiary. Electronic post production does not eliminate the need to make hundreds of copies of each finished movie for shipment to theaters nationwide.


Television is one of the most labor-intensive film lab activities, however, and the growing use of electronic post production has slashed employment. “It’s destroying us,” said Donald Haggerty, business representative of the Film-Video Technicians Union.

In the last three years, at least 300 union members have lost their jobs because of EPP, Haggerty said, adding that about 700 of the union’s 1,500 members are out of work now.

Time savings are important in the motion picture industry because feature films take six months or more to produce and typically are made with borrowed money. Faster editing and earlier releases can mean substantial savings on interest payments.

Just 11 weeks passed from the day the first cameras rolled until a final, edited print of “Patriot” was ready, Westover said.


Without videotape, shooting and editing the low-budget film would have required 20 to 22 weeks, he added. “I would never cut conventionally again if I had my way.”