The Transition from Linear to Non-Linear Editing

The Transition from Linear to Non-Linear Editing

August 24, 2020
  • Shweta Raman
  • Analog to digital, film theory, history of editing, transition, pros and cons

Back in the day, film editing was done in a linear fashion, where the film was literally cut into long strips divided by scene and take, and then glued or taped back together to create a film in a logical sequence. This process was time-consuming, tedious and highly specialized work. While most film enthusiasts still prefer linear editing today, there is a newer and more user-friendly system available for editors: non-linear editing. Curious about what these systems can and can’t do? Well, let’s take a look.

Linear Video Editing:

Linear video editing is a process of selecting, arranging and modifying images and sound in a predetermined, ordered sequence – from start to finish. Linear editing is most commonly used when working with videotape. Unlike film, videotape cannot be physically cut into pieces to be spliced together to create a new order. Instead, the editor must dub or record each desired video clip onto a master tape.

Before the digital revolution, video editing was more of an organised and disciplined process. It meant that projects were assembled in order from the first cut to the last. If you needed to insert footage in the middle of the video, you could not simply push everything down the timeline to make room for it. Rather, you would have to re-edit each cut from the insert to the end of the video.

Moreover, because of the overdubbing that has to take place if you want to replace a current clip with a new one, the two clips must be of the exact same length. If the new clip is too short, the tail end of the old clip will still appear on the master tape. If it’s too long, then it will roll into the next scene. The solution is to either make the new clip fit to the current one, or rebuild the project from the edit to the end, both of which are not very pleasant. Meanwhile, all that overdubbing also causes the image quality to degrade.

Despite being time consuming and a highly tedious process, this old-school technique of cutting film still remains in use, since it is inexpensive and there are very few complications with formats and hardware conflicts. For certain tasks, linear editing is actually better. For example, if all you want to do is add two sections of video together, it is a lot quicker and easier to edit tape-to-tape than to capture and edit on a hard drive.

Additionally, it teaches you to be more organised and disciplined than you would with any software. The knowledge base and versatility one attains by going through the process of linear editing can help one become better all-round editors. This antique format remains special even today since a whole cult of independent filmmakers are devoted to exploring and understanding this meticulous process with absolute enthusiasm!

“I’ve always equated the writing process with editing, sort of like when I get through editing the movie, that’s like my last draft of the screenplay.” Quentin Tarantino

Currently, the linear technique of editing using video tape is still common in television stations and newsrooms for the production of news, at production facilities which haven’t made the investments in newer technology.

As technology evolved, the speed and flexibility while editing was highly appreciated by all. The first truly non-linear editor, the CMX 600, was introduced in 1971. This caused the transitioning from linear to non-linear format of editing. With switching to non-linear, one could change their mind a hundred times over and changes could also be made a hundred times over without having to start all over again with each change. Consequently, people obviously prefered video editing systems that offer this amount of flexibility. Let’s take a look at the advantages and downfalls when editing the non-linear way:

Non-linear Video Editing:

The non-linear video editing method involves random access editing, which means instant access to whatever clip you want, whenever you want it. So instead of going in a set order, you are able to work on any segment of the project at any time, in any order you want. In non-linear video editing, the original source files are not lost or modified during editing. This is done through an edit decision list (EDL), which records the decisions of the editor and can also be interchanged with other editing tools. As such, many variations of the original source files can exist without needing to store several copies, thus allowing for very flexible editing. It is also easy to change cuts and undo previous decisions simply by editing the EDL, without having to have the actual film data duplicated. Loss of video quality is also avoided due to not having to repeatedly re-encode the data when different effects are applied.

“Film editing is now something almost everyone can do at a simple level and enjoy it, but to take it to a higher level requires the same dedication and persistence that any art form does.” – Walter Murch

Non-linear editing lets you transition between the segments easily. During the edit, the work-in-progress can always be viewed in real time. Once the edit is complete, it is finally exported into a video. This technique allows the individual doing the edit to make changes at any point without affecting the rest of the project.

The best non-linear editing system is always the one you know well. That said, there are different systems that are good for different things. Adobe and Davinci Resolve are great systems for independent editors. Avid MediaComposer is the professional’s go-to system for multi-editor workflows and media management tools.

Although indie filmmakers of today can make as many cuts as they want and then erase them just as fast, does this lead to better filmmaking? What differences have we noticed in films that were edited using linear versus non linear techniques? We will be exploring this and more in the next blog post, and would love to hear your ideas, experiences or thoughts in the comments below!

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