Videotape is not the only one to progress to extinction!
A time and a place story.

In putting thoughts to paper it would be impossible to single out names, they are all well documented elsewhere although it has to be said that sadly many a miracle back room engineer has been missed from the archives.

When videotape recording evolved through the 1950’s no one imagined its use as anything other than a short term storage medium, particularly for the quick turn around events associated with sport and similar events. In 1958 it arrived at the BBC in two forms, VERA from the BBC and the Ampex 1000 from Ampex, USA.

Vera
Vera and the Ampex 1000. Both from the late fifties.

The two inch Ampex 1000 was the more practical machine and became the basis of a two inch tape format serving for broadcasters for over twenty years and the foundation for BBC videotape editing techniques that have been adapted to the current time.
Early tape editing efforts were based around the concept used for quarter inch sound tape. In sound it was easy to splice tape using a razor blade and sticky tape. The result was as good as the compatibility of the sound either side of the join. If the result needed changing, no problem. More cuts and words could be swapped and sentences or music phrases swapped. Items could be shortened or lengthened working from any position in the sequence as many times as the material would allow. This was non linear editing. It was extremely flexible and a truly creative process and once separate magnetic sound tracks accompanied film it was the same basis as that used for editing film. In modern parlance, the flexibility of the word processor. I will return to that later.
Ampex who marketed the first successful videotape machines developed a very simple splicing block for joining videotape. However it was not as simple as quarter inch or film. On videotape there were no optical images to see, no images in jog or shuttle. The complex magnetic tracks had to be developed using iron filings mixed in a highly volatile solution of Edivue and viewed through a magnifying glass so that the track sequence could be maintained across the join. The effect of cutting and handling the tape on this crude block was always visible on the join, a bit like editing film with cement or tape and seeing the resultant bounce and flash.
Film developed the system of cutting a copy and having the final sequence printed and graded from a carefully cut negative thus removing the splice problems. They were however still left with many other optical problems, mainly scratches, dirt, printer and telecine weave.

For videotape the situation improved from splicing to editing with the introduction of the Smiths splicer.

The 2 inch tape Smiths Splicer
The 2 inch tape Smiths Splicer

With a precision thumbwheel controlled tape positioner and built in microscope and when set up correctly good joins were achievable. However until machines developed the drop out compensators and timing correctors in the sixties, joins were still difficult to disguise and unpredictable to play. Additionally with 405 line television there was the problem of a drifting picture reference during recording that meant a join may also suffer a timing shift causing an additional twitch. A re-edit to reduce a half line error by removing a field was common. You could do that in 405 black and white.
Two other major problems existed with two inch videotape splicing. The first and perhaps the most constraining was the fact that due to the head positioning on the recorder, the sound track led the pictures by just over half a second. This meant that when the pictures were joined the sound tracks were spliced at a point half a second from the corresponding pictures. The second problem was that each coherent picture frame sequence (depending on the television standard being recorded) was up to about five centimetres long. This restricted the splice position and therefore the ability to accurately edit sound. The sound displacement problem was surmounted by BBC Editors developing a technique of lifting the sound off onto quarter inch tape and replacing it in sync (without time code!) in a complex sequence depending on the nature of the join. In addition to solving the displacement problem this also allowed incoming and outgoing sound to be mixed.
However complex this seemed it was, as in both sound and film, a non linear process. Any splice could be done in any sequence and if the resultant sequence was too long a couple more splices could get the programme to the right length. If it was too short the problem was usually trickier as more often than not the editor was working on a single ended recording and the removed sequences were difficult to reinsert. They were probably being ‘rolled up’ like a bus ticket by the director. In early days recordings from two different machines were almost impossible to join together successfully without the use of the complex ‘Amtec’ replay correctors that were introduced later.

2 inch cut editing
2 inch cut editing

It is with pride that early videotape editors look back at those ‘physical’ edits of the sixties. Some of the last major BBC drama to be cut edited were the classics, Forsyte Saga and Six Wives of Henry the Eighth. It is also worth noting that editors and producers followed the school of thought that believed ‘rules were for the guidance of idiots and obedience of fools’. Why…there was a memo on file ‘upstairs’ that said a maximum of five splices was allowed in a thirty minute show! Another stipulated that joins should be made in black level between scenes!
However the process whilst still ideally suited to quick turn around football matches was not suited to the sophisticated multi take and single camera drama developing in the seventies. The facts are that semi accurate frame positioning for cuts was achieved by watching both a mark on the tape and the picture at the same time, a bit hit and miss. Inevitably the joins were still unpredictable when played back. This made the search for an alternative means of videotape editing inevitable. In addition all around the world few had developed the sophisticated skills of BBC editors in videotape editing and sound handling. None of the BBC work went to a sound dub. Vision mixing (as in the optical film mix technique) was also complex as it entailed making a copy around the mix from two sources and recording onto a third tape. It was with fingers crossed that this would then splice into the original. The result was usually marginal as of course they were in film.

Not even a new sophisticated EMT splicer could alter the limitations of cut editing.

EMT 2 inch splicer.
EMT 2 inch splicer.

To overcome the technical limitations of splice editing the technique of editing from one or even two (later three or four) playback machines to an editing record machine was developed.

2 machine dub edit system.
2 machine dub edit system.

Eeco time code 3 machine suite.
Eeco time code 3 machine suite.

On the positive side once time code was introduced in the early seventies this allowed frame accurate repeatable editing with the ability to add visual mixes and other effects on the fly, as well as allowing complex sound work.

4 machine suite at TVC..
4 machine suite at TVC.

On the negative side this increase in technology was very expensive and demand escalating. This moved productions and the resource planners to promote quick turn around sessions.
Additionally this was a linear process with the programme being built from the first frame and laid in a linear fashion to the end with the pictures now noticeably second generation. Any subsequent changes that varied timing meant the whole first edit had to be copied again and changes made en route. A noticeable degradation to third generation sound and pictures took place and of course if this wasn’t right further loss of quality for each subsequent re-edit. Never the less the producers knew that what they were watching was the final product compared with a cutting copy in film.
Inevitably videotape editing had become resource intensive and lost the flexibility of non linear. However in the right hands it was able to produce stunning results and the whole process was now far less engineering orientated and more production friendly. It also allowed the BBC to look for editing skills away from the world of qualified engineers.
It was not long however before both BBC Resource Management and Producers looked for more cost effective routes to allow both savings in Resource investment and for Producers to look for reduced costs as well as a more relaxed atmosphere to be creative. Off line editing evolved using time coded U-matic or VHS copies of master tapes editing in a ‘film cutting room’ atmosphere using machine to machine copying with various degrees of sophistication.

U-Matic Off Line
U-Matic Off Line

The final product then used the time code numbers from the off line edit to recreate the master in a short on-line full edit session. A bit like the neg-cutting and printing process of film.
However the system was still linear and resultant multi generation VHS tapes were almost un-viewable. Compared to film, programmes such as documentaries which evolved in the cutting room were extremely restricted by this process. Scripted shows were easier. Compromises were often inevitable.
Despite its limitations it was a major step forward in allowing videotape editors more creative input to the programme making process.
Similar systems were introduced to film editors as film cameras were supplemented by video camcorders. However few if any Film Editor could rightly fail to be other than frustrated by the constraint of linear editing having been used to a multi plate Steenbeck with the relative lack of financial, technical and resource constraints that often led to very low cutting room throughput.

Multi plate Steinbeck Film Editing
Multi plate Steenbeck Film Editing

These observations were universal throughout the programme making world and manufacturers were being pushed to develop an electronic Steenbeck. That took an age to arrive, the first serious versions of Lightworks and Avid not arriving until the early 90’s.
In the meantime many film editors and producers were exploring the possibilities of transferring video to cheap film and editing on a Steenbeck. In the seventies Sports Department was already using a crude system for Sports Review of the Year. They referred to the process as ‘Painting’ when the low quality cut film was replaced or painted over by the original tape images.
Hybrid tape and film systems with various degrees of success were developed both in Sweden and in the BBC and this helped bridge the gap until Lightworks and Avid computer based Non Linear systems arrived. They became THE editing tool throughout the industry gradually ending both the film cutting room and the videotape based systems at off and on line stages. This allowed editors of whatever background using whatever source material to work on a programme based criteria rather than a technological one. Modern systems now take High Definition pictures at full camera resolution and will soon be downloading the final product to broadcaster’s transmission servers
.

Avid Non Linear system
Avid Non Linear system

Time to recall the modern non linear word processor. The historical path for editing has followed a similar route to that taken by the newspaper and publishing era.
Once all stories were set manually in blocks for printing, almost a linear process. Changes were very difficult.
Then with keyboard set type, stories were still written or typed by hand and could be scratched out, altered reshaped (off line). Actual paper cut and paste techniques were used in a non linear fashion. When everyone was happy with the text and layout it was typed at the last minute by the type setter for the printing process (on line). Deadlines were moved forward. Now stories go straight into the processor and server, reshaped with ease and printed. This uses relatively few resources and is non linear front to back. A massive time and cost consuming process eliminated. Without these changes the newspaper industry was dead.
So just as the print industry has removed the requirement for type setting and its other associated systems, so too has the television industry moved on. It always will and now has the recent advent of the solid state or disk based camcorder and download facilities evolving for transmission servers. These continuous moves forward have resulted in the demise of two of its flagships. The linear videotape editing suite and the Steenbeck cutting rooms with their associated magnetic tape (mag) bay dubbing suites
.

Mag bay film dubbing.
Mag bay film dubbing.

These too have moved to non linear computer based dubbing systems to replace multitrack tape and mag bay systems. This of course followed the route already previously taken in radio some year or two earlier which resulted in increased flexibility and reduced tape stock costs. As in the publishing world different post production processes are now linked by internet and it is common to move components such as graphics and sound this way.

TVC modern dubbing theatre. (BBC Resources)
TVC modern dubbing theatre. (BBC Resources)

Nearly fifty years on and is it all rapidly becoming history? It was a great time to be in the industry but having had hands on experience with the new latest technology I know which I prefer. However I believe that today’s editors cannot really appreciate the current rapidly evolving world of non linear systems unless they have experienced or at least have an understanding of the evolvement and constraints of the old.
One can only imagine what the next fifty years will bring but let us hope that no one loses sight of the fact that programmes, whatever their source or transmission formats can be made, saved or created in a cutting room. For all who have been there and all who follow it is a wonderful place to be. It is only the technology that changes and in parts becomes extinct and of course those who do not, for whatever reason, move with those changes follow the technology’s demise. One very famous founding BBC Editor who survived many format changes once said… ‘It can be wet string as far as I am concerned as long as it works!’
A long time ago it was predicted by Ampex that the VT machine was doomed for self extinction. Each new format seemed to have half the life span of it’s the previous format and so it has been. New formats still arrive, especially with High Definition but they too will be short lived and few of them move beyond the shooting stage. Still the same was said of film and that survives in many spheres at the shooting and distribution stages.
Both film and tape as a viable post production technology are running out of time. They are both at one minute to midnight. The craft of modern post production survives well in a world of ever restricted programme budgets. The cost of a week in a multi machine edit environment and associated tape and ‘extras’ costs would now exceed many total programme budgets. A sobering thought but that’s the way it is the world over.

A time and a place. It was good to be in the right place at the right time.

NGP 5/2/07