Everyone is an Editor: The Tenuous Politics of Non-Linear Editing and the Digital Age
¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 2 The original tools for motion picture editing where razor blades and tape, spices were made by hand to strips of film.1 Every splice was a risk — a slip of the hand could damage the film, an irreplaceable frame could be lost. Lighted tables, multiple reel machines, and rolling canvas boxes called bins facilitated the craftwork. The Moviola was an early technology aiding film editing, allowing strips of film to be advanced and rewound. Later technologies like the KEM Flatbed allowed more sophisticated editing, with multiple images displayed at the same time. These editors were bulky, metal machines, with substantial price tags. Editing without a machine was extremely time consuming, and often less than successful. Home video editors would need multiple video-cassette recorders to move footage from tape-to-tape, an expensive, tedious process. For news-gathering organizations tape-to-tape editing was assisted by reel-to-reel machines that would allow a skilled editor to construct a story suitable for broadcast by selecting points on one tape that would be dubbed to the tape to be used on-air. These were not consumer machines. Analog editing effectively kept the industry tied to editing rooms where the machines were located, and analog editing was always tied to the linearity of the medium.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Non-linear editing of video was first introduced in the early 1970s, with the CMX-600 editing system.2 While not digital, the CMX allowed editors to make non-destructive changes to the content at hand. Instead of cutting an original, the material that was edited was always a copy of the original. Digital non-linear editors came later, with Lucasfilm’s Editdroid, and a host of technologies for home computers. 3 In particular, the Commodore Amiga offered a unique level of video editing capacity in the late 1980s at a low price point.4 For home users and small businesses, the 1990s brought many low price digital non-linear editing options, including Adobe’s Premier and Apple’s Final Cut Pro. Even lower price point options like iMovie and Windows Movie Maker have placed robust, non-linear editing in the hands of millions of people who might not otherwise be editing video.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 The proliferation of non-linear editing software in concert with affordable cameras and high-speed Internet connections allowed viral videos to change how the public perceives content. Production values for amateur content rose quickly, and professional production values were pushed even higher. Non-linear editing software also places video generation capacity in the hands of the public, chroma keys (green and blue screen technology), filters, masks, titles, and audio effects are all now available for entry level editors. The Hollywood back lot has been reduced to a software program.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 In the context of still image manipulation, Photoshop is now the rule, not the exception. Edited and moving images are everywhere, but their authority has considerably declined. While we might call the programs offered by MTV reality television, their lack of reality is assumed. An image is edited until proven authentic.
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 In this essay, I will explore a few of the dimensions of what digital non-linear editing means for writing history. There are three particular directions that this will take. First, digital non-linear editing technology is over forty years old, and to this point academic historical works on the technology are uncommon. There are histories written by scholars in allied fields, which are critical and political. Second, digital non-linear editing software is a tool both for information organization and for writing history itself. The non-destructive capacity of the editor allows a new form of historical writing with opportunities and challenges that need to be addressed. Finally, I will draw an analogy between the non-linearity of the editor and the non-linear character of digital culture.
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One Technology, Invented Many Times
Finding a history of non-linear editing technology is surprisingly difficult. Unlike the operating system market, the amount of money in the non-linear editing is relatively small. There is no Microsoft for video editing. The stories that are told about the introduction of non-linear editors are often character, rather than market driven. A reading of editing industry trade journals would place the start of non-linear editing in 1970, with the introduction of the CMX 600, an analog non-linear editor that could work with several minutes of footage at a time. Other stories would focus on the Editdroid, a system developed in the early 1980s by Lucasfilm, which used laserdiscs to store footage for manipulation. This system was fully digital, but lacked the fully non-linear access that fully computerized systems would have just a few years later. Given the surge in attention to non-linear editing in the trade journals in the mid-1980s, the exact dynamics of which companies entered the market at which trade shows is hard to ascertain, particularly when the trade journals and trade shows in question ended over twenty years ago. Given the decentralized way that the market operated new players would be free to many any number of claims. A particularly prominent player to this day claims that they invented non-linear editing in 1987.5
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 1 The stories about the adoption of the use of non-linear technologies are often organized around Hollywood. Who first used a full digital intermediary or artificial lens flare could be as important a question as the effect of the technology. Some works follow this path, focusing on the stories of genius innovators and their pioneering work. The most popular books attribute the popularity of non-linear editing to a visionary editor, rather than a slow moving technological effort undertaken over many years. In Communication Studies this has taken historical research about media in political and critical directions. Building the story of a communication technology would be secondary to the effect of that technology. John Caldwell’s approach to the study of the effect of non-linear editing focuses on the changes in the work lives of media editors.6 Non-linear editing software has the unfortunate effect of allowing firms to push production work to new cities with burgeoning media industries. Caldwell and other working in this tradition offer important insights into the lives of production workers and their culture, however they are making an argument about power relations, not writing a history.
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 The value of being first is largely a concern for marketing. One of Caldwell’s most important contributions to the study of media is the idea that the companies themselves are involved in academic theorizing: they offer perspectives on the history of technologies and cultural codes. They view writing history as their business. Scholarship in this field is engaged in an active argument with stakeholders who would shape history for their own ends. The historical question of which editor came first figures in an ongoing debate in an active public sphere. The distinctions between different major non-linear editors are matters of taste and cost between systems that offer similar underlying technologies, as will become clear in the next section.
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Non-Linear Editing as Historical Writing
A non-linear editor has profound effects on production because it allows an editor to graphically represent many clips for access, arraignment, and manipulation. Clips that are in this digital version of the old-style canvas bin can be reproduced an unlimited number of times and shared between many editors. Destructive editing is a thing of the past. This technology works much like the note-card processes of the analog era, with a twist. Digital video clips are not notation of evidence, but they contain the evidence itself. Instead of a transcription, the thing itself with all the inflections, pauses, and facial expressions would be available. While this kind of video research might not be viable for texts from the distant past, the history of the present would include a wide array of video clips, scraped websites, and flash programs. The bin allows a writer to collect, organize, and annotate digital evidence.
¶ 10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Non-linear editing is not simply an organizational medium. It is also a form of writing in itself. Video inscribed on film and text inscribed on paper share many traits. They both are slowing dissolving, and they both offer the chance to transmit information into the future. The non-linear editor is to video, what the word processor is to text. Video editing software allows researchers to produce rich media work output almost as easily as they manipulate text on a page. Data visualizations could take any number of forms, from a film summarizing results to a web interface allowing users to explore an archive of narrated clips, to YouTube series.
¶ 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Let us continue with the analogy between the non-linear editor and the word processor. Once the basic functions of the word processor have been integrated, the choices between processors are negligible. A word processor should record words, allow editing, printing, text search, and some version of spell checking. A non-linear editor should include a bin of clips, a time-line for editing, and an export function. While some advanced users might need mail-merge in their word processor and a python interface for texture mapping in their video editor, the basic model does the heavy-lifting of the technological revolution.
¶ 12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 While the prospect for historians to use video to reach larger publics are enticing, there are surely those who might express misgivings about the prospect of seeing video as scholarly output. Many of these concerns express important drawbacks for seeing video as writing — a particularly important issue would examine the authorial voice. If a field of historical research made their video bin available for public access, the importance of their contextualization of those clips could be lost. Evidence would be come just another YouTube curiosity. Instead of a rigorous analysis of an historical event, viewers would be free to choose what they might look at. Misinterpretations would have just as much credibility as correct ones. While academic writing has often been critiqued for being inaccessible, it does serve a useful function in providing context that might otherwise be overlooked. Slow, rigorous, and linear, academic history is inoculated against hacks of all stripes.
¶ 13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 2 The worst-case scenario would see the evidence from the bin of clips deployed in a way that distorts the historical record, and further that the march of public culture toward the lowest common denominator. Historians’ video output could appear a bland, timid entry among the louder, spicier claims made by non-academics. Much like the collapse of the status of photography, history would lose the presumption of authority. Rather than being a necessary part of life, style could eclipse substance.
¶ 14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 2 Academic discourse has been allowed to move at a glacial pace and on a smooth trajectory. Articles work slowly to develop and refine concepts, which are a part of a larger conceptual whole. Digital technologies threaten to disrupt these dynamics. Access in a digital age is sudden and often out of order, it comes where and when it comes, with little regard to the flow of the discussion. This is not to say that digital culture is totally dissociative, but that continuity is at a premium. This non-linearity is at the heart of the video editor and the digital age.
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Authority After Linearity
The German media historian Friedrich Kittler claims that the most important feature of contemporary media is the capacity to manipulate the time-axis.7 Until recently time was a relatively stable feature of media, fast-forwarding a videocassette took one directly along the path of the program. Kittler demonstrates that the capacity for a technology to remap time-code, to fully plasticize time is a fundamental break between older and newer technologies. Media are increasingly non-linear by nature – one can access a narrative at any point they wish, information is organized to be searchable, entire genres of popular music subsist on the artefacted sounds of time-axis manipulation. The stable time axis of analog media allowed a sense of comfort, an author could know how most would encounter their text: in the case of the novel for example, as a scroll, even when their volume was constructed as a book with an index where one might read as they choose.
¶ 16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 While non-linear editing challenges the time-axis, videos are still time bound. Instead of the time-axis coming from some natural, pre-existing flow of time, the editor carefully crafts the time-axis. What was one a feature of the story becomes a feature of the world created by the video. Historical documentaries mark reflection on a moment by slowing panning and pushing in toward an image, even if that image is not critical to that moment of the story. A popular inexpensive non-linear editor calls this “The Ken Burns Effect,” allowing an editor to use it, to import an aesthetic and historical sensibility, at the click of a button. The non-linear editor allows for the production of texts that call into question our emotional connection to a slow flowing, linear world.
¶ 17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 2 The world making capacity of non-linear technology is not limited to the video editor, but can be understood to be a feature of the digital itself. Analog signal processing technologies create an electrical signal that is quintessentially a version of the thing itself, stored for the future. Digital technology uses a signal processor that breaks the continuous link between the thing in the world and the stored version of it. Where an analog recording is somewhat similar to the thing that it would represent, the digital copy is a binary rendering, ones and zeros, that is then reconstructed to fit a the time-axis. The process of reconstructing the signal poses difficulties. A partial analog signal can still be reassembled. A partial digital signal cannot be reassembled. The digital makes meaning by creating data about the world, not by being a direct representation of it. The stuff that is transmitted to the future through digital data storage is a complex rendering that is grafted onto an artificial time-axis. The authority of the image and sound become suspect.
¶ 18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 Instability in the authorial voice comes through the ubiquity of non-linear editing. The time-axis is plastic, and the capacity to shape the time-axis is increasingly common. Linearity functions as a form of political authority, it sets normative criteria that can be used to judge contributions to historical discourse. For example, does an article take stock of the literature base, does it iterate the existing scholarship to include new findings, and does it rigorously attend to the ideas that come before and after? Non-linearity allows species of discourse to evolve that can gain ascent outside of those normative criteria. Linearity offered the logos of the sequence to stabilize the ethos, the credibility, of the historical enterprise. Non-linearity will open space for a rise in the importance of pathos. This is not all together new – the idea that a phonograph might allow the dead to speak their last words in the future is a break in linearity of the greatest sort.8 Today the idea that the phonograph would be used for recordings of the last moments of life seems strange, and the use of recordings for recreational listening makes perfect sense.
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The Next Cut
Non-linear editing changed the world of video production and non-linearity is changing public culture and academic discourse. Because of the ways in which the histories of the non-linear editor are inflected by ideology and profit, writing the story of the technology outside the uses of the editor is difficult. The versions of the story of non-linear editing told in this chapter are dialectical, digital writing is not a panacea for problems in existing academic writing practice, but it could offer fascinating new opportunities. Worse – the effect of the inclusion of non-linear editing technologies could erode the basis academic authority. In this sense, because of the capacity for many people to become involved in history production, we are looking at more than the emergence of video versions of existing academic forms, but the move from a technical sphere to a public one. Our insights about how to operate in a digital age must account for this shift, and all the risks and opportunities of publicity. The question of if this public sphere will be cooperative or antagonistic remains to be seen.
¶ 20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 Due to the diffusion and ubiquity of technology, the question is not if historical writing will incorporate non-linear video technology, but when. Luckily, there is plenty of space for historians to create compelling video content and to collaborate using the non-linear editor to create reservoirs of content that publics can access. What this means is that writing history in the digital age entails developing an attention to the rhetorical dimensions of text production. History must learn persuasion. At the very least, historians can recognize the potential of non-linear editing software as a research tool that can enable forms of collaboration that are just now emerging with text. With digital technology, history can connect with the digital publics in ways that are robust and engaging. Since these digital publics will have the capacity to respond, preparation for writing history in a digital age will require scholars to be ready for a more conflicted, more complicated, and potentially more rewarding relationship with their publics.
- ¶ 22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0
- Any number of editing books contain a primer on the progression from manual cutting through the KEM Flatbed, and non-linear editing. One such book: Gael Chandler, Cut by Cut (Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions, 2004). ↩
- Thomas Ohanian, Digital Nonlinear Editing (Boston: Focal Press, 1993). ↩
- Charles Koppelman, Behind the Seen (Berkley, CA: New Riders, 2005). ↩
- Computer Chronicles, “Desktop Video,” (March 15, 1990). Viewable at: http://www.archive.org/details/desktopvideo ↩
- Avid, “Company Profile,” (Accessed in May 2011) http://www.avid.com/US/about-avid/corporate-profile ↩
- John Caldwell, Production Culture (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008). ↩
- Friedrich Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999). ↩
- Thomas Edison, “The Phonograph and Its Future,” The North American Review 126:252 (May-June 1878), p. 527-536. ↩