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April 2014
Issue: November 1, 2009

POST POSITIONS: THE ZEN OF LINEAR ONLINE EDITING

By: Dennis Ho
Ask anyone who is age 30 or less about editing today and they’ll probably impart a deep knowledge of Avid and Final Cut Pro nonlinear systems. Seldom will you hear a word about linear editing.
According to these thirty-something’s, desktop technology has relegated this style of editing workflow to the dustbin of television history. Anyone hinting at using linear editing on their next project should be prepared for sneers and snickers from their snarky colleagues.
Television was once synonymous with “immediacy.” Linear editing was an extension of that idea — get it done now and fast. It required that producers and editors knew instinctively the “correct” edit point each and every time — and that “previewing the edit” was for wimps. Developing this skill and taking the heat for indecisive editing was all part of earning your badge of courage. Linear editing honed your visual and aural senses. Speed, along with creativity, was the Zen of a seasoned television producer. 
With the advent of NLE systems came a shift in editing consciousness. Immediacy and speed took a back seat to massaging every frame. Creating multiple versions became the norm. NLE made it possible for producers to be less disciplined and less prepared — but paradoxically more creative. I’m here to remind you that linear editing is still very viable in “offline/online” situations.

WHY IT’S STILL RELEVANT

A linear edit system allows you to edit by the seat of your pants the instant you touch the keyboard. Conversely, all NLE systems require you to digitize your material into your server prior to any edit.
Say you’ve got a last-minute assignment to deliver a one-hour show with an impossible deadline — due within a week for a satellite broadcast feed. You’ve got 100 reels of source material on 60-minute tapes — all logged and ready to go. But you don’t have the time or luxury of creating an offline cut first. Remember, it’s an hour show — so typically they’ll be about 1,000 edit events. If you’re an experienced and prepared editor/producer, you should be able to offline/online about 25 events per hour — assuming you have a game plan for storytelling and you’ve prepared properly with accurate screening timecoded notes. A 40-hour week — crammed into three to five days should do the trick. Moreover, once you’re done editing, your master tape is ready — so there’s no need to “output” your project. Meeting this deadline is virtually impossible with a nonlinear edit system — just digitizing alone will require a week.
Another time effective use of linear editing involves TV projects with multiple cameras. Instead of digitizing every multiple camera takes into a single NLE system, playback source reels are assigned to individual VTRs — we then slave all playbacks to its common timecode and create a near “live” session from which to edit a final master. The linear editor can use the keyboard to “live switch” every edit event as though it was a live show.

LINEAR ADVANTAGES

Storage capacity is a non-issue. Linear editing accommodates unlimited hours of source material because it is simply rolling and recording tape. All effects and edits are done in “realtime” — rendering is not required. Its speed and power is very robust because linear system processing relies mostly on hardware, not software as with NLE system — therefore there are less computer issues and bugs. Moreover, there is no “data” to corrupt or compress. Essentially, you can edit as fast as it takes for you to make a decision.

LINEAR DISADVANTAGES

Going back for revisions can be painful — it could require the creation of a “b-roll” tape for sequence pull-ups or you may have to re-make (ripple) all your subsequent edits after your revision point. Multiple “sub-clip” will also require the creation of more “b-rolls.” While NLE data is non-destructive — the same cannot be said for linear editing. You cannot “experiment” as freely with each edit as you can with a NLE system — too time consuming because each preview might require a tape change. To minimize tape changes and improve efficiency, most linear sessions require about four playback decks and two record decks, along with digital disk recorders and a DVE device.

TECHNICAL KNOWLEDGE

Many of today’s nonlinear editors grew up with Macs and PCs in their bedrooms; hence the editing user interface posed no issues for this demographic. Software took care of most technical logistics — so learning how to use software was key; understanding theory was secondary. Linear editors, on the other hand, required a good working knowledge of every component in an online edit bay, as well as the supporting machine room. In fact, most online editors were videotape technicians who rose up the ranks. Videotape theory, signal flow and fundamental engineering were a pre-requisite for any online editor worth hiring — and they had to be creative, as well. I gently submit that most Avid and FCP editors do not possess the technical expertise of an old,  salty online curmudgeon.
Sadly, Digital Jungle has given way to the lack of interest in this bygone workflow and dismantled its online linear bays. Wrapped in plastic, stored where the sun doesn’t shine, our system lies in wait, hoping for its revival by a seasoned producer who still appreciates the Zen of linear editing.

Dennis Ho is the President of Digital Jungle (www.digijungle.com) in Hollywood.