Since the earliest filmmakers, there was always a need for editing - cut out the boring bits and keep the good stuff. With good old fashioned celluoid film, cutting apart and splicing pieces of film together is a rather intuitive process. Editing Machines like the Moviola have been around since the 1930s with Steenbeck flatbed editor becoming popular in the 1970s and still used in specialty circle today.
So how did we move to a digital form - the computer based “non-linear editing” machines that dominate the industry today? To answer that question - we need to dail back the clock of history and look at the early days of the industry that was the impetus for computerized editing: Television.
Live on Air
Our story begins in the era of electronic and mechanical engineers. Technologically speaking, the capability of broadcasting live television signals started rather early in the twentieth century. In fact November 2, 1936 was when the BBC began transmitting the world's first public regular television broadcast service.
But it had to go off air during World War II. That war required world economies to switch gears and produce military supplies, prevented the mass production and adoption of television. It wasn’t until 1948, three years after the war ended, that the first commercial broadcasts of television began in the United States - the medium caught on and exploded during the 50s.
People could now watch shows and news broadcasts in their homes... These shows were cut live in a studio that had several cameras hooked up to a video switcher that could switch between cameras. This signal sent over the air and through cables to affiliates in other parts of the network for broadcast. But everything had to be live as there was no way to electronically record the television signal. That was fine unless you wanted to delay the broadcast - say for a far away part of the country that was in different time zone.
To “record” television, the networks turned to a device called a kinescope - which was quite simply a film camera focused on a video monitor. The concept was simple but it was anything but. This process never did result in really good image reproduction, there were a lot of technological hurdles, like ghosting and banding - but the kinescope was an essential tool that started connecting the world together through the medium of television.
In 1951, once CBS and NBC had a coast to coast network, they would produce a show in New York at 8PM Eastern time. Kinescopes in Los Angeles which were 3 hours ahead would record signal through the network, and film was rushed into development and then shown at 8PM on west coast pacific time, a process called Hot Kinescope because the film didn’t even had a chance to cool from the development process before it was sent to air.
The demand for TV was great and by 1954, the TV networks were actually using more raw film stock in their kinescopes than all of the Hollywood film studios combined - spending up to $4,000 per half hour - $33,000 in today’s money. The networks desperately needed a cheaper alternative.
The Arrival of Tape
Magnetic tape had been used for audio recording for years, but there were significant technological hurdles to actually getting a video image on tape. In 1951 Engineers working for Bing Crosby’s production company - yep that Big Crosby, were the first to record video images onto magnetic tape. Unfortunately they looked terrible, but it was still an image and it proved it could be done. In 1956, after 5 years of hard work by brilliant engineers overcoming myriad of hurdles, Ampex would release the first commercially available video tape recorder - the 2 Inch Quadruplex video tape.
Sales of the first video tape recorder went through the roof when the company showcased it at the NAB convention in April of 1956. Sales were so strong - they were taking orders on napkins. CBS was the first to put it to use in a West Coast delay broadcast of “Douglas Edwards and the News” on November 30th, 1956.
On January 22, 1957, the NBC game show “Truth or Consequences” produced in Hollywood became the first television program to be broadcast in all time zones from a pre-recorded video tape.
By the 1959, videotape was almost fully accepted by television industry and tape played an interesting role in a small Cold War confrontation. That summer, the US Information Agency set up an exhibit in Moscow to show off American progress and technology to the Russians. This included a model American home with a fully decked out kitchen, and a model tv studio with its own Ampex video recorder. On July 24th, 1959 then Vice President Richard Nixon invited Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to visit the display. Khrushchev was fascinated by the television studio and joined Nixon for what was essentially a photo op in front of these cameras and new video tape technology. The two started chatting and before long it turned into a full-blown debate on the merits of capitalism and communism.
Both leaders agreed that the exchange should be played in full in their own countries - Ampex International president Philip Gundy rushed the tape back to his hotel and wrapped it in a dirty shirt for his flight back to the United States. Before it was aired American newspapers had reported the exchange as so icy it practically started world war three... but when American TV networks played it the next day what viewers actually saw were two leaders doing what politicians do. This Kitchen Debate as it came to be known was a milestone for video tape proving the importance of the medium to world events.
Cutting Tape... Literally
At this point tape was only being used for archival and distribution purposes. It was possible to edit these early 2 inch Quadruplex tapes: it was a similar process to cutting film but extremely more cumbersome: First the tape had to be “developed” using extremely fine iron filings suspended in toxic and carcinogentic carbon tetrachloride solution, making the magnetic bands on the tape visible when viewed through a microscope so that they could be aligned in a specialized splicer which had to cut the tape exactly during a vertical retrace signal without disturbing the odd/even-field ordering... and since the video and audio read heads were several inches apart it was not possible to make a physical edit that would function correctly in both video and audio so the cut was made for video and a portion of audio then re-copied into the correct relationship.
And of course, you had to do all this without actually seeing what frame you were on because the quadruplex tape was incapable of holding still frames.
NBC developed a work around using the tried and true kinescopes - not for broadcast but for creating work prints - shows were edited using these kinescope film prints which had audio cues which the editor could match back when splicing the video tape. Known as ESG it was a process similar to what would later be called Offline editing which essentially means editing with a lower quality copy of the original raw material then assembling the high quality originals based on that edit.
This technique would reach it’s height with Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In in 1968 which required 350-400 tape splices and 60 hours of physical splicing to build up just one episode. Laugh In ended up to be the only program to actually use this technique extensively.