How Were Films Edited Before Computers?

When you go to the cinema to see the latest blockbuster, you know the film has been edited together using the latest technology. Computers have given us the ability to edit footage in no time at all, add special effects, overlays, subtitles and all sorts of additional extras. But before this technology was available, how were films edited?

The term ‘film editing’ refers to the traditional process of working with the film, long before the days when digital came along. Here’s a look at the history of film and how edits were done before computers and editing software. 

Cine reel

One-Shot

Very early films were not edited in post-production and were instead done in one long shot. Before the days of actors, scripts and film plots, the first films were just mundane activities designed to amuse an audience for whom watching something on a screen was a novelty — these films had no story, often showing things like traffic moving along a road and required no editing. The films ran for as long as the film in the camera.

So the very first films had no editing at all because there was nothing to edit together. Thank goodness films have come a long way since then.

Come Along, Do!

Come Along, Do! (1898) was one of the first films to use more than one shot. The film shows an elderly couple having lunch outside an art exhibition, before the camera follows other people through the door and shows them doing things inside. The film was made by Robert W. Paul, using his cinematograph camera that featured reverse-cranking, which allowed the same footage to be exposed several times to create multiple exposures.

These multi-shot films continued until 1900 when more innovative editing techniques were introduced. Colour tints and trick photography were used to enhance the narratives of these early films.

Cross-Cutting

Cross-cutting is an editing technique used to show action happening simultaneously, where the camera will cut away from one action to another or to showcase different characters. It is also used to create a strong contrast between activities or characters, like in A Corner in Wheat (1909), when the film cuts between showing a wealthy businessman and poor people waiting in line for bread, creating a sharp contrast between the two and forcing the viewer to compare the stories.

Cross-cutting has been used for a long time, with notable early examples being The Great Train Robbery (1903) and The Birth of a Nation (1915). Unlike today where the footage would be easily manipulated on a computer to create cuts, filmmakers had to use actual cutting to get the shots they needed.

Initial edits were done with a positive copy of the film negative by physically cutting and splicing them together. The footage was hand-cut and attached with tape and then later glue. Editors needed to ensure accuracy, as the wrong cut would need a new positive print, which cost money and time to be reprinted. Inventions like the splicer and threading machine were used to speed up the process and make the cuts more precise.

Cross cutting

Moviola

The Moviola is a device that allowed film editors to view their film while editing. It was invented in 1924 by Iwan Serrurier, and the idea was initially a home movie projector to be sold to the public. However, the machine was expensive, so very few sold. It was suggested he adapt it to be used by film editors.

Big studios like Universal Studios, Warner Brothers and Buster Keaton Productions adopted the Moviola. The machine allowed editors to study their individual shots in their cutting rooms so they could choose the most precise cut point. The Moviola’s editing practice was non-linear, so editors could make choices faster and create episodic films. They were the standard in the US for film editing until the 1970s. Yet, they are still used occasionally in filmmaking in the 21st century, such as with the film Munich (2005), which won an Academy Award for Best Film Editing.

Digital

Today, not only are pretty much all films edited on computers using digital files of the footage, but many films are captured using digital image sensors rather than on film stock — the majority of films since the mid-2010s. Editing is done using software like Final Cut Pro X or Premiere Pro. Unlike early films, where editors had to use the film positives to make their edits, editors now use film files and can make as many changes as they like, as they will have backups of the footage on their computer hard drive.

Popular editing techniques include:

  • Cross-cutting
  • Fast cutting
  • Long take
  • Jump cut
  • Slow cutting
  • Cutaway
  • Dissolve
  • Axial cut
Video editing

If you have only home films of your own you’d like to edit, whether to cut out superfluous bits or add your own elements like subtitles, you can do so with a cine to digital conversion. Send your cine reels to us, and we’ll return them to you with your very own digital copy, so you can edit to your heart’s content without having to worry about damaging your footage. We can also do a cine to DVD conversion so you can lend out copies of your footage to friends and family. Contact us today to find out more.