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A reel of film is one of the most universally recognized symbols on Earth. It means glamour and show business. Hollywood. But as with a lot of stock images and phrases, obsolescence sets in. Since the turn of the century, digital “film” cameras are really just vastly improved video cameras, and theater projectors are now digital devices that show a movie off a hard drive. Other than museums and specialty events, after roughly 125 years of motion pictures, we don’t use reels of film anymore and haven’t much in almost a generation.
In the film industry since the earliest silent days, the metaphorical expression a “reel” simply means ten minutes. If someone refers to “the fifth reel” of a picture, they mean roughly 40 to 50 minutes in. But the only reels you’d ever be likely to see, the ones in a projection booth, are 20 minutes long and have been since shortly after WWII. As noted, a lot of film technical language is obsolete.
Back in the film era (it still feels weird to write that), those big 35mm movie cameras didn’t use reels of film, but rolls of film tightly wound onto a small plastic spool. In a dark room, they’re loaded into film magazines, reusable metal cartridges that look like Mickey Mouse ears. After the film was processed in the lab, it was sent, in cardboard boxes on plastic cores, to the editing room to be assembled.
From the beginning, film editing has been far more than the process of attaching the beginnings and ends of shots to tell a story, but it’s always started with at least that. Almost all directors admit that much of their work is completed in editing, and some, like the late Stanley Kubrick, said only half-jokingly that the whole process of shooting a film was a chore compared to the absorbed, focused joy of editing it. Some of the physical aspects of editing in the era of photographic film were covered in the post about improving Star Wars just before it was released, and another post about sound that explains how specialized experts shape a soundtrack.
One thing about editing: next to screenwriting, it’s the major branch of filmmaking that takes the most minimal equipment and lowest cost. You needed a clean room and a workbench to create an editing room that could do what any studio could do. During editing, each shot, lasting perhaps a minute in length, was handled without reels. The day’s work was cut into individual shots, each usually paired with its matching strip of sound. These were hung on hooks and draped in cotton-lined bins.
You’d have a clipboard, a paper list of takes that the director liked, sometimes with helpful notes (she entered the shot late, but her expression is perfect). You’ve also got the one exit shot, so you need to decide where the cut point is. Time to put on the split reels. These have a screw thread and provide temporary sides to your precious spool of film. You’ll need them to use the Moviola.
Editing tools are, or were, simple and unpretentious. In a time when a Mitchell 35mm studio camera cost as much as a house, a Moviola cost only about as much as a car. It was a loud, clackety sound and picture motion viewer that showed films vertically mounted on ten-minute reels, with all the finesse of a drill press or an industrial sewing machine.
That’s the way we did it in America. In Europe and Asia, they stuck with handling film on plastic cores. Their editing machines were nicknamed “flatbeds”. The open spools of film rode on parallel sets of flat disks, looking almost like turntables. They were quieter and had a larger, clearer image to work with. It took more than forty years, but eventually, we caved in and joined the rest of the world in reel-less splendor. Editing rooms became calmer, quieter, more like sound mixing rooms and less like carpentry workshops.
Kubrick was among many filmmakers who rented both kinds of viewers for his editing room. Sure, the TV-like screen of the German-made Steenbeck or KEM flatbed editor made watching a completed, three-minute scene a better experience. But when actually making the cuts, the fast simplicity of the Moviola won out, as you could clamp down on any short strip of film and run it back and forth.
Film editing began around 1903. Video editing sprang up almost immediately after Ampex introduced videotape in 1956. In those primitive early days, videotape had to be physically cut and sliced, like film. This was especially tough because you couldn’t see what was on the tape. Nonetheless, patient and dedicated technicians were able to achieve good pacing and editing rhythm as early as 1958, as seen in these clips from an Emmy-winning special:
As the years passed, videotape editing became easier, more of a push-button craft. Television images were nowhere in the league of film ones back then, but it really didn’t matter too much what it looked like in the editing room, provided the finished product that went out to the public looked great.
Francis Coppola was among the first major filmmakers to explore how hybrid TV-film techniques could make editing an easier, more flexible process. He used the technique to edit Apocalypse Now and One from the Heart. His protégé, George Lucas, worked strictly within established film methods until the vast profits of the original Star Wars trilogy allowed him to experiment with up-to-date sound technology (THX), with traditional film special effects (Industrial Light and Magic), with completely electronic effects (Pixar) and with electronic editing (EditDroid). Give ‘ol George credit for a diverse portfolio of many of the advanced techniques that Hollywood would use for the next twenty years. Of all the Lucas companies, EditDroid was probably the one that was least known to the public, yet it would be hugely influential within the business. Since about 1990, almost every film or TV show you’ve ever seen was edited electronically, without film.
For ten years, this required computer precision control of videotape decks or laserdisc players. Digital technology was on the rise, and soon there were Unix workstations that could run and manipulate video from the hard disc, with no analog players. These were extraordinarily expensive, but they made TV series production faster and cheaper, so studios bought them. Then, as always happens, the hardware became cheaper. Now an Apple-based console, the Avid, became dominant. That continued for another ten years.
Finally, it all went into software, with Final Cut as an example circa 2005. Once again, the tools of editing are cheap and easy to use.
Common expressions endure. We may still refer to tuning in a program or dialing a number, cutting an album or getting in the groove. I have a ‘40s Batman comic where Bruce Wayne’s girlfriend pouts that real heroes like Batman were a lot more interesting than the merely “reel” fake heroes of the movie studio that Wayne owns. Reels meant excitement, like the “chaser” lights that ringed classic era movie theater marquees, or the sprocket holes on the edge of a strip of film (which they invariably get wrong, BTW), boxes of popcorn, gold stars embedded in a famous sidewalk, or a director’s chair and megaphone. In our own time, it’s been goodbye reels, and goodbye film.Published in