Analogue Wayback, Ep. 8

Nonlinear editing in the early days.

At the dawn of the “Hollywood East” days in central Florida, our post house, Century III, took up residency at Universal Studios Florida. As we ramped up the ability to support episodic television series production, a key member joined our team. John Elias was an A-list Hollywood TV series editor who’d moved to Florida in semi-retirement. Instead of retiring, he joined the company as our senior film editor.

Based on John’s experience in LA, our NLE of choice at that time was the Cinedco Ediflix. Like many of the various early NLEs, the Ediflix was a Rube Goldberg contraption. The edit computer controlled 12 VHS decks designed to mimic random access playback. The edit interface was controlled using a light pen. The on-screen display emulated numbered dialogue lines and vertical take lines somewhat like a script supervisor’s notation – only without any text for dialogue.

Shooting ratios were reasonable in those days; therefore, a day of filming was generally no more than an hour of footage. The negative would come back from the lab. The colorist would transfer and sync dailies in the telecine room, recording color-corrected footage to the camera master reels (1″ Type C). Dailies would then be copied to 3/4″ Umatic to be loaded into the Ediflex by the assistant editor. This included adding all the script information in a process called Script Mimic. The 3/4″ footage was copied to 12 duplicate VHS videocassettes (with timecode) for the Ediflex to use as its media.

The decks were industrial-grade JVC players. Shuttling and cueing performance was relatively fast with 60-minute cassettes. To edit and/or play a scene, the Ediflex would access the VHS deck closest to the desired timecode, cueing and switching between different decks to maintain real-time playback of a sequence. On most scripted shows, the editor could get through a scene or often even a complete act without the need to wait on a machine to cue or change videocassette loads.

Rough cuts were recorded back to 3/4″ for review by the director and producers. When the edit was locked, an EDL was transferred via floppy disk to the online edit bay where the film transfer masters were conformed at full quality. Since the Ediflex systems used an internal timebase corrector, image quality was reasonable and you could easily check for issues like proper lip-sync. So, while the system was a bit clunky in operation, it was head and shoulders better for film and TV offline editing than the digital upstarts – mainly thanks to relatively better image quality.

We leased four full Ediflex systems plus assistant stations by 1990. John and our team of offline editors cut numerous series, films, and even some custom, themed attraction programs. It was in this climate that Avid Technology came onto the scene and had to prove itself. We had seen one of the earliest Avid demos at NAB when they were still back in the “pipe-and-drape” section of the show floor. Most editors who were there will likely remember the Top Gun demo project and just how awful the image quality really was. There was no common computer media architecture, so Avid had to invent their own. As I remember, these were 4-bit images – very low-res and very posterized. But, most of the core editing functions were in place. 

Avid was making headway among commercial editors. The company was also eager to gain traction in the long-form market. As the resident post house on a major studio lot in a promising new market, making a successful sale to us was definitely of interest to them. To see if this was the right fit, Avid brought in a system for John to test. Avid legend Tom Ohanian also came down to train and work with John and run through a test project. They took an episode of one of the shows to see how the process compared with our experiences using Ediflex.

Unfortunately, this first test wasn’t great. Well into the week, the Mac’s internal drive crashed, thus corrupting the project file and bins. Your media becomes useless when the project is gone. This meant starting over. Needless to say, John was not a happy camper. When the cut was done, we decided to have the series producer review the rough cut to see if the quality was acceptable. This was the Swamp Thing series – a Universal property that you can still find in distribution. The show is dark and scenes generally happen at night. As the producer reviewed the edit, it was immediately clear that the poor image quality was a no-go at that time. It was impossible to see sync or proper eyeline on anything other than close-up shots. That temporarily tanked our use of Avid for series work.

Fast forward a couple of years. Avid’s image quality had improved and there was at least one in town. As a test run, we booked time on that unit and I cut a statewide citrus campaign. This was a more successful experience, so we soon added an Avid to our facility. This eventually grew to include several Media Composers, shared storage, and even a hero room rebuilt around Avid Symphony (a separate unit from Media Composer back then). Those systems were ultimately used to cut many shows, commercials, feature films, and IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth – a show that enjoyed a 20-year run at EPCOT.

©2022 Oliver Peters