Edit Suite: Once Upon a Time: The History of Videotape Editing

One look at where we’ve come from will make you appreciate how far we’ve come.

Usually fairy tales that begin with “once upon a time” take place hundreds, if not thousands, of years ago. This tale begins just 40 years ago. Imagine a world with no edit controllers, no editing monitors, no computer-based editors and no time code. Imagine a world without electronic editing or video and audio dubbing. A look back at the last 40 years of video editing is a look back at a world that has changed very fast and a set of technologies that has come a long way.

In tracking the history of videotape editing, well discover that many of the so-called standard features of todays camcorders and VCRs were once nothing but a pipe dream to the early founders of the craft. Then, maybe well learn to appreciate the wonders of even the simplest consumer editing gear of today.

In The Beginning

During the early 1950s, the broadcast industry used film to record programming for later broadcast. In a process called kinescope, a cameraman would aim a film camera at a video monitor to record a TV program. This kinescope process proved to be time consuming and expensive. The industry needed a new medium to replace film, and that medium was videotape.

In 1956, Ampex Corporation introduced the first practical black-and-white videotape recorder (VTR), the VR-1000. (It wasn’t a VCR–video cassette recorder–because the tape wound on open reels, not enclosed in a cassette.) 3M Company introduced the videotape used in the machine. It was two inches wide and had a four-part record pattern, and was therefore known as two-inch quadraplex tape. In April, at the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) show, Ampex took orders for more than 75 recorders. In just a few weeks, the three networks essentially stopped using the kinescope method of recording television programs.

While videotape proved valuable in its ability to play back immediately after recording, it proved to be very difficult to edit. Emmy-award winning editor Arthur Schneider was involved in developing videotape editing while employed at NBC in the late 1950s. He describes splicing 2-inch videotape as requiring perfect eyesight, a sharp razor blade and a lot of guts.

The Two-inch Nightmare

Finding the edit point using the two-inch VTR was no treat. The editor did not have the luxury of slow forward and reverse. Their machines played at one speed only. To mark the edit point, the editor had to stop the machine as close as possible to the point where he wanted to make the edit. Next, he pulled the tape out of the machine and laid it onto a channeled splicing block. The editor then brushed a solution of extremely fine iron particles and Freon TF, a solvent used to clean the videotape machines, over the magnetic oxide coating of the videotape. When the solvent evaporated, the iron particles left a clearly visible pattern of the electronic signal on the tape.

The editor then located the edit pulse, which showed up on the tape as a very thin white line. Taking a steel ruler and lining it up with the edit pulse, the editor would then press firmly on the ruler and carefully and swiftly cut the tape with a razor blade.

Unlike current VCRs, which record video on a slanted track, the two-inch VTR recorded the signal in almost vertical tracks. It used four video heads to lay down each frame of video in four sections, and was called a “quad machine.” A blank guard band, five thousandths of an inch wide, separated the tracks. This was the only place that the editor could cut the tape without causing a major jump in the picture. About 60 percent of these edits were successful.

Once the editor cut the tape, he would flip it over with the back facing up. He would then carefully butt the two ends together and covered them with a small piece of special adhesive tape. This aluminum-backed tape was four

thousandths of an inch thick, thin enough to not disturb the video head as it passed over it during playback.

As videotape editing became the standard practice, engineers began developing more sophisticated editing blocks. The most advanced of these was the Smith splicer. It added a 40-power viewing scope, doors to hold the tape in position and rubber rollers to move the tape in one- thousandth-of-an-inch increments. It also replaced the overworked razor blade with a precision guillotine cutter.

Electronic Editing

In 1963, Ampex introduced the Editec, the first commercial electronic videotape editor. A small computer gave the editors the ability to set edit points that were almost frame-accurate.

The editor pressed a button on the control panel to record a single-frame audio tone on the secondary cue channel of the two-inch videotape. This tone established the in and out points of the edit. If the editor recorded the tones at the wrong place, he could go back and re-record them.

This process, though time consuming, eliminated tape handling and physical splicing. The editor no longer had to cut the original. The editor created an edit master by electronically splicing one shot to the next onto a blank edit master. If he made a mistake during the edit, he could do it over again. This transferring of material from one VTR to the next was called transfer editing, and it is how we do editing on linear systems today.

Time Code

In 1967, the Electronics Engineering Company (EECO) developed the first time code for electronic editing. The edit machine added a kind of clock timing to each frame of the secondary cue channel of the videotape. This time code gave the editor the ability to accomplish precise frame-accurate edits. With the success of the EECO system, other companies began developing their own systems. These various forms of time code were incompatible, and chaos soon prevailed. The Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) finally developed a standard time code that the broadcast industry still uses.

Present-day Formats

The end of the two-inch era came as engineers developed and improved the helical-scan recorder. Today, almost all VCRs use the helical scan to lay down long video tracks at an angle on the tape. This system allows editors to watch their source tapes in slow or fast motion and choose edit points more precisely.

The first helical machines used the two-inch tape. In 1963, the constantly improving technology made it possible to change the width to one inch. In 1978, one-inch Type C machines set the standard for quality. It offered high- quality still-frame, slow-motion and fast-motion playback. By the mid ’80s, Type C had replaced the two-inch quad format as the standard for making studio masters. By the late ’80s, however, the Type C began to fade due to the advent of the digital formats.

In 1973, a technological breakthrough was to change the video world completely. The time-base corrector (TBC) was able to take the signals from non-broadcast quality VCRs and correct the variations in the high speed scanning and timing pulses. With the TBC, small videocassette formats were able to meet the strict FCC requirements. Broadcast stations quickly adopted formats such as the 3/4-inch U-matic cassette, developed by Sony Corporation. Thus the videocassette was introduced to the broadcast and production worlds. The self-loading tape and smaller size were welcome changes to the fast-paced world of broadcast news. But, because of its high price, the U-matic format still didn’t make it into most of our homes.

Sony Corporation introduced the first purely consumer VCR format in 1976. Although the public widely accepted the Betamax format, it soon met its demise to an upstart introduced one year later, the Video Home System (VHS) format. This format had the distinct advantage in that it could record two hours of programming on one tape. By the time Sony developed a longer Beta tape, it was too late. VHS had won the playback-time war. By 1990, even Sony began to manufacture VHS machines.

In 1984, Kodak introduced the first 8mm camcorder. Others soon followed suit with Sony Corporation having the most success with their version of this format, called Video8. This format offered a good-quality video signal on a cassette about one-quarter of the size of the VHS cassette. This allowed for smaller, more easily carried camcorders.

In 1987, Matsushita introduced a much-improved version of VHS, called S-VHS. This high-quality format found its niche in smaller broadcast stations, business and industry, and soon began to replace the 3/4- inch U-matic machines.

In 1989, Sony Corporation countered with a much-improved version of 8mm, called Hi8. This high-quality video format became the choice for many at the prosumer level, and is being used as an acquisition format for many corporate and broadcast facilities.

The rest, as they say, is history. Now we are constantly hearing about digital video and the tiny DV cassettes with their beautiful picture quality.

Time will tell how the digital formats fare and which format becomes the king of the hill. But let’s not digress too much. As the formats have changed, so too has the world of video editing.

Electronic Editing II

One advantage of the 3/4-inch U-matic format was its recognition as a standard format by all VCR manufacturers. This was the first time this had happened, and it paved the way for the development of advanced cassette-based editing systems. New formats such as Betacam (1981), Betacam SP (1986) and MII (1985), which offered extremely high-quality video, soon supplanted the reel-based Type-C and two-inch machines. The advent of the digital formats in the late ’80s took quality and editor’s choices to a new level. And manufacturers began developing editing systems that took advantage of the new high-quality formats.

The digital video editing revolution began in 1971 with the release of the CMX 600. This refrigerator-sized editor could store up to five minutes of black-and-white, low-resolution video on magnetic disk drives. It allowed the operator to access video scenes from the magnetic disk drives, immediately and in any order, to create an edit-decision list from which the system would construct the final master. This was the first random-access or nonlinear editor. It was a good start, but not until the 1990s did computer technology advance sufficiently to make nonlinear editing affordable.

Here and Now

Now, when you look at your editing options, you have a number of choices: stand-alone edit controllers, computer-based edit controllers, linear and nonlinear. With all these choices, one thing is certain: now you can play with the big boys.

Now, more than any time in the history of video editing, consumers have at their fingertips equipment whose technology is comparable to that used by the professionals. The only things to separate the consumer-level video editor from his professional counterpart are skill and imagination.

The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.

Related Content