Editing videotape in the old days was a crude affair, but the same two-finger editing is just as valid

When I first began editing videotape in 1975, things were very different. While in college, I learned how to
edit on open reel-to-reel videotape recorders (VTRs). These VTRs recorded black and white only. There
was no such thing as an editing-control unit. To control the VTRs, we physically had to push their buttons.
Since there were two VTRs, we had to use two hands (actually two fingers). Accuracy was hard to achieve
because we had to do the edits “on the fly.” There was no automation to input an edit decision, adjust it or
trim it before executing it. Executed edits were the only kind of edits, and we often made them with very
simple planning. So this became known as “crash editing.”

I performed the “simple planning” that I mentioned in a very crude way. Once I logged the scene I
was about to edit, I would refine my decision manually by using the slow-speed mode or, more often, by
manually winding the video reel very slowly. Since the video heads were large and visible, I could actually
see the videotape passing over the heads. When I found the exact spot on the tape that I wanted to edit, I
would mark it with a grease pencil. This process was the closest thing to a preview edit that was available.
And when it came time to actually edit, things got even funnier.

In those days, the edit was often accompanied by a “glitch”–an ugly disturbance in the picture,
often accompanied by a vertical roll. The most common reason for a glitch was inadequate tape speed. To
record glitch-free video, the tape in the playback deck needs to be traveling at full, normal operating speed
at the moment the edit takes place. But it is a simple fact of physics that the tape in a VTR or VCR must
accelerate from a stopped position. This acceleration process takes a little time, perhaps a second or two. If
you tried to record video while the tape was accelerating, you’d get a glitch. So, to avoid the glitch, you
had to perform what is known as a “pre-roll.” After you decided where you wanted the edit to occur, you
had to rewind the tape a little and then hit the play button. This allowed the tape to get up to speed before
the edit occurred. Remember that grease pencil mark that I made on the videotape? I used it to tell me
when to hit the record button on the recording VTR. When I saw the grease mark passing over the video
head, I would hit the record button on the record deck.

Twenty years later, two-finger editing is easier and more accurate. It is now possible to get a good
clean “glitch-free” edit every time. Today, you can’t use a grease pencil even if you want to because you
don’t have access to the tape itself. But you don’t need to worry about it because today’s camcorders and
VCRs perform this pre-roll automatically and the user is unaware that it is taking place.

However, you are required to use a finger on your left hand to hit the play button (un-pause) on
the playback VCR (we called it the slave deck in the old days) and to use a finger on your right hand to hit
the record button on the record deck (the master). In all likelihood, everyone that reads this magazine did
their very first edit in this way.

Each month we write about the latest and greatest equipment and techniques for making video.
But sometimes we lose sight of our original mission: to get as many people to make video as possible.
Manual editing is easy and cheap. You can use two $200 VCRs and two fingers.

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