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Non-Fiction Goes Non-Linear

By Gregory Solman

Two computer screens with different footage, from cutting 'Muhammad Ali' on the Avid system.

There's a sense in which PC­ based editing systems represent a most unrevolutionary revolution. It's taken years of sophisticated science, trickling down from Silicon Valley, to design personal computers that, essentially, imitate some of the least high-tech devices.

For many documentary editors that's quite enough, given that the equipment used to cut film is among the most low-tech and labor intensive imaginable. Several companies have introduced a new generation of computer-based offline editing systems, targeted for erstwhile and possibly dis­ enchanted flatbed or Moviola cutters. These new systems are designed to eliminate physical cutting and splicing and to facilitate the unique intuitive (sometimes counter-intuitive) process of film editing.

Nonlinear, random-access edit controllers were introduced many years ago now but remain relatively expensive. They are likely to be found in teleproduction facilities, out of reach and out of touch of most independent documentarians. Until recently, it was difficult (storage intensive and slow) to translate the data from a motion picture frame into an adequate digital representation for display on a computer monitor.

So along come PC-based systems, billing themselves as the People's Choice (and there's something to that). The most popular of these systems, the AVID/1 Media Composer, from Avid Technology, Burlington, Massachusetts, costs around $80,000 to own outright, so it's reasonable to assume you can cut a good deal on an hourly or monthly rental. In the middle of the price scale is an IBM-based machine called Emc2 which has been used successfully in the editing of several documentaries, though most of these will be distributed on video. On the low end is a newcomer called the Digital Film Editor from Blade Runner, Hollywood. The Blade Runner system is practically desk­ top priced: the software costs around $16,000, and a very interesting stand­ alone system tops out at about $35,000. All of these systems use a personal computer interface and display digitized pictures, rather than storing the images on tape.

The Blade Runner was developed by Rick Eye, an experienced feature film editor. His machine runs on a Macintosh II, and works best with a jukebox style Pinnacle Systems magneto-optical drive that manages ten separate discs for memory, giving an editor 100 minutes of storage. Eye managed to get an off-the-shelf video digitizing board to record 30 frames per second directly to disc or magneto­ optical drive.

Once the film enters the digital domain, the system starts to look familiar: There's a computer window in the middle and up to four assembly reels represented in smaller windows to the right, which editors can skip through at any selectable speed (though it starts to skip frames above 30 fps). There is even a set of trim bins to the left. One can easily perform difficult tricks such as flipping a reel and inserting the reversed images in sequence. It does fades and dissolves with very high (24-bit) picture quality, so that one can easily imagine the final effect on film. Eye's system seems particularly geared toward film editors: it displays elapsed time in feet and frames, and a foot of images (16 frames) is represented at the bottom of the screen, with a middle frame representing the shot in the workspace window. It prints out an EDL for negative cutters with the 3/2 pulldown accounted for and with a SMPTE list for getting audio sync from a video version of the cut.

The other two systems under consideration here enjoy the distinct advantage of having been field-tested. Emc2, from Editing Machines Corp., Washington, D.C., runs on an IBM AT personal computer and dedicated hardware and has been used extensively at one of its beta test sites, Henninger Video in Arlington, Virginia. The most recent documentary completed on the system was Eisenhower: An American, a 20-minute piece for the Eisenhower Library produced by Bailey Deardourff. "We have done longer pieces, but this project used the most broad ranging source material," comments Rob Henninger. "Emc2 is a conceptualizing tool that encourages experimentation. "

An Emc2 system might include five magneto-optical drives and a fixed hard drive for audio, and typically stores two hours of material. A single disk system costs about $36,000. For the Eisenhower project, editor Joe Wiedenmayer worked out a 3/4-inch auto assembled mix, then shot a black­ and-white kinescope, allowing him to order just the film footage he needed. "It does have software for providing the numbers for footage conversion to go back directly for a film negative cut, but on this tight a schedule, we didn't feel comfortable enough with it," Henninger says.

A documentary on business and technology is in progress, produced by Ed Fouhy and hosted by business expert Tom Peters. The material includes some 60 Betacam cassettes, or about 40 hours of material. But, as Wiedenmayer explains, because each business case study is a piece in itself, he can conveniently assign two disks per case stu dy and organize the film better. "It depends upon the nature of the project," Wiedenmayer says. "If it is one of those documentaries that are created in the editing room, I might take a hard look at the Emc2. If something can be broken into segments, it's very workable. But you have to be organized. "

As a noted documentary filmmaker, rather than strictly an editor, Deborah Shaffer (Witness to War) presents a unique perspective on the AVID system. Shaffer is one of the edi­ tor/directors (with Hank Nadler and Bernie Stone) who are using three ACIDs to cut through nearly 60 hours of material for Mohammad Ali: The Whole Story, collected by archival research director Barbara Margolis. Shaffer has worked on a PC-based system before, and her experience suggests that former film editors adapt better to the new systems than tape editors. "AVID works conceptually like film," Shaffer says. "For instance, if you take two frames out of the picture, you have to take two out of the sound, or you lose sync, just like using a KEM or Moviola. I find it extraordinary."

This project may test the real-world potential of AVID more than any other in the past, because the peculiar nature of the documentary will reveal all of the system's benefits and liabilities. The first criticism all the systems face is storage capacity: videotape and film are annoying, but at least they are an equivalent to what in computerese is termed virtual memory, you can expand your collection of footage infinitely. AVID's system uses several forms, including magnetic disks, either fixed or removable, and rewritable optical media, which give it a reasonable memory capacity. The second criticism concerns picture quality, which is ordinarily an 8-bit image (as opposed to 24-bit on a standard RGB system), and which certain systems deliver at 15 frames per second video, or every other frame. Documentarians who are working on an image-oriented piece may wish to view the digitized image before deciding to live several months with its quality level. The third complaint with these systems is sound quality. No one favors it over traditional systems, but it is scheduled to improve.

With Muhammad Ali, the material is a mixture of archival news, documentary, and amateur photography, both with and without sound. On the one hand, Shaffer says, the random­ access, non-linear method of sifting through this material is priceless,'Tm a speed freak, and I find myself cutting the same amount of material a lot faster, but on the other hand, black-and-white shots are difficult to see on AVID's computer-window size displays and "wide shots look even worse, but I haven't found that it matters. "She's not satisfied with AVID's digitized sound, which does not compare to mag track. "I consider the tracks here scratch tracks only. I will probably have to go back to the source material and rebuild the soundtrack ; AVID is not refined in terms of sound editing. "

In its final form, Muhammad Ali will be shown on video and not conformed back to film, a process the AVID is not designed to accomplish. "I haven't found (AVID's picture quality) to be a problem, even when it's not very good, because we are doing an auto assembly of the rough cuts to video. I can't wait until it's a system wherein you can shoot dailies on film, dump them into the system with timecode, then do a conform session back to film. That will be an ideal way to cut film down the road." Most important, working on hour-long shows that are more or less chronological affords her the opportunity to work modularly, saving precious minutes of storage that might have presented a problem for handling six hour's worth of material. "Some of the big questions will be answered as the project develops," Shaffer adds.

Many of the answers have already come from the room next door. Paul Dougherty is an editor who has worked with AVID for over a year now. He has developed a method of exploiting the Medialog system of the machine to allow extensive descriptions of the clips. The best way to log this massive amount of information is to create a separate bin for each reel, using AVID as an in­ session database manager, then use a high-end Macintosh program, Double Helix, to export the text to a separate computer system. In theory at least, a comprehensive word search can then find a clip based on a keyword from the transcript, or whatever else has been logged in as relevant.

The record-keeping and support staff at Directors International, New York, the production company of Muhammad Ali, is testing the multiple systems theory with three director/editors drawing upon a common pool of footage. "There's a hardware/software continuum with these personal com­ puter-based systems," says Dougherty. "They become better and better every version. Soon, it's feasible to think that the AVID will go from an offline to an online system that one could have at home, allowing for a film auto-conform done at a lab. It's really starting to happen." 

Gregory Solman is a freelance film critic and the West Coast Editor of Millimeter magazine. For information on the Blade Runner system, contact: Rick Eye, Blade Runner, 818-990- 4006; on the AVID system, contact: AVID Technologies at 617-221-0789 and ask for Randi.