Before there was film-editing software, there was old-school film editing using the Moviola and the Steenbeck.
Before the dawn of non-linear editing suites where filmmakers started using computer software such as Avid, Final Cut Pro, Adobe Premiere, and Sony Vegas, editors used the Moviola or the Steenbeck, now referred to as “old school film editing machines.” During their times, the use of these editing machines was required for any film shot in 8mm, 16mm, or 35mm film. Prior to the actual editing, laboratory processing of the exposed film negatives was required.
The film developing stage done in the past actually involves the same process as today. The main difference between editing manually and editing in the digital realm becomes more apparent after the processing of the negatives.
Comparison: Traditional and Modern Film Editing Systems
When using modern editing platforms, processed negatives are scanned to become digital files. When doing it the old school way, processed negatives are used to print the rushes using positive film print (also called the workprint or the cutting copy). This concept is quite near the process of taking photos using film cameras. First, the negative is fully used up (a typical roll of film has 12, 24, or 36 shots), brought to the laboratory for film developing, then the photos are printed using photo paper. In motion picture film, the negative (a typical roll is equivalent to a running time of 3 minutes for 35mm film and about 12 minutes for 16mm film) is printed on a positive film stock that looks like the negative used in photography, only that the images are not in negative form anymore. It is also very long: each roll of positive print can be 1,000 feet or 2,000 feet. This film print is the same one used in regular movie theaters, the one placed in the film projector for public viewing.
The reason why the negative should be printed to a positive film stock is because instead of utilizing a digital copy in a computer for editing, the old school way requires a completely manual process wherein each shot in the film must be physically cut and spliced for it to be edited accordingly.
When putting transitions and even the most basic visual effects, the film must undergo additional processes. Such requirements entail complicated procedure and very high cost, unlike when using video editing software where simple graphics, transitions, and visual effects can be done in a few clicks and without incurring additional cost.
The Moviola is a device that allows a film editor to view the film while editing. During the early years of film, it was the first commercially successful machine used for motion picture editing.
Iwan Serrurier invented the Moviola. His original concept in 1917 initially intended the Moviola as a home movie projector to be sold to the general public. This was more like the era’s version of the VHS or DVD player, if compared to modern home movie viewing systems. Back those days, everything was shot using film. The Moviola cost about $600 during its release in 1920 (roughly equivalent to about $20,000 today). It was too expensive for the regular consumer. An editor at Douglas Fairbanks Studios suggested to Iwan that his invention can be more useful if redesigned to service film editors. By 1924, the editing machine called Moviola was born.
The Moviola was readily adopted by many film studios such as Universal Studios, Warner Brothers, Charles Chaplin Studios, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Buster Keaton Productions, and many other production outfits.
The Moviola provided editors the luxury to study individual shots in the cutting room through a vertically-oriented machine where the workprints and magnetic sound tapes were run similar to the thread in a sewing machine. At one point, each frame on the print would pass through a lens and the image gets viewed in the machine’s viewing screen. Using a special chalk-like pen meant to write over workprints, markings could be placed on specific frames, depending on where the editor would want to cut and splice the print for editing.
The Moviola provides a convenient way to determine more precisely where to cut or splice a particular part of a print. This is like the manual counterpart of editing using a computer software where there are tools like razor, extender, and drag-and-drop functionality to cut or splice specific shots in a film being edited.
On a personal note, having edited in a Moviola myself, this editing machine provides the filmmaker a particular discipline in cutting, valuing each frame, and physically knowing how many frames work for a specific purpose and screen time. It develops a film editor’s pulse in making good cuts.
Perhaps, the last hurrah of the Moviola was when Steven Spielberg’s editor Michael Kahn received an Academy Award nomination for Best Film Editing in 2005 in his work for Munich. This is a very interesting feat for this old school machine amidst all the computer technology offering more convenient digital options in film editing.
The Steenbeck brand produces a popular type of flatbed film editing machine that accommodates the workprint and magnetic sound tape for editing. Like the Moviola, it also allows a film editor to view the film while editing. A special chalk-like pen can be used to place markings over the workprints to help the editor in cutting and splicing the print for editing purposes as well.
Since 1931, the Steenbeck company has become widely known in the film editing community. Founded by Wilhelm Steenbeck in Hamburg, Germany, the use of this flatbed editing machine provides a complete editing suite where the workprint gets attached horizontally into the slots within the editing table, then the footage is viewed in a monitor.
In 2003, Steenbeck moved from Germany to Holland, specifically in an Industrial High Tech Park near the motorway that connects Germany to Amsterdam. The company continues to manufacture editing tables and service the needs for parts replacement and machine repair and maintenance. While modern editing workflows already use fully digital systems, Steenbecks are still used in many film schools, archives, and restoration facilities.
Steenbeck continues to serve as a specialist for film editing, controlling, and viewing machines. Many companies still use the Steenbeck’s physical layout as a non-linear film editing controller. For archive and restoration purposes, using this machine is advantageous for quick and easy inspection of prints with less risk of damage, especially if compared to viewing prints using a movie projector. A Steenbeck uses soft-edged nylon rollers to more safely move the print within the machine. It also allows manual controls on when to start and stop viewing, unlike in a typical movie projector.
Just like with a Moviola, based on personal experience, working on a Steenbeck flatbed editing machine develops a film editor’s skill in making actual cuts and mastering how each film frame works for the edit and the rhythm of the story.