Contributor Post Created with Sketch. Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. Reels? We Don’t Need No Reels–August Group Writing Project

 

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 As noted, a lot of film technical language is obsolete.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.

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  1. cirby Member

    About six feet from me, there’s a roll of Super 8 I edited with a razor blade and tape for a student project in the late 1980s.

    (I really need to get that digitized)

    The EditDroid was an amazing gadget, but overly complicated.

    What’s amazing is that I’m sitting at a computer that can be used to edit 8K HDR videos, at ridiculous speeds and with a dazzling array of effects, along with color timing and sound editing.

    The total cost was about the equivalent of a week’s pay, software and all.

    Add in an extra two days for the full music production setup I have on the same machine.

     

    • #1
    • August 5, 2020, at 2:18 AM PDT
    • 12 likes
  2. Arahant Member

    • #2
    • August 5, 2020, at 3:36 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  3. JoelB Member

    Thanks for a fascinating look at a technology I knew nothing about.

    • #3
    • August 5, 2020, at 5:00 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  4. Percival Thatcher
    PercivalJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Good post, Gary.

    • #4
    • August 5, 2020, at 5:20 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  5. Jon1979 Lincoln

    I remember growing up hearing about the ‘two-reelers’, which referred to the short subjects like the Laurel & Hardy or Three Stooges efforts local TV stations would run that normally lasted 15-18 minutes. The good thing about those filmed efforts, and really anything going back into the Golden Age, is that if you can get a clean 35 mm print, it can be scanned for HD resolution and look just as good as anything newly produced when shown on a 4K HDTV.

    Videotape from the 1950s through the end of the century doesn’t have the same ability to upscale for HD sets (though I have read that when the new 8K HDTVs and video cameras become commonplace, we’ll finally get to the point where modern digital TVs can produce images sharper than what 35mm film could produce).

    • #5
    • August 5, 2020, at 6:30 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  6. The Reticulator Member

    Very interesting info. But why couldn’t they just pick up a copy of Davinci Resolve? 

    By the way, a few days ago I learned the term “B-Roll.” Any idea when that got started?

    • #6
    • August 5, 2020, at 6:32 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  7. tigerlily Member

    Very informative. Thanks Gary.

    • #7
    • August 5, 2020, at 6:36 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  8. cirby Member

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Very interesting info. But why couldn’t they just pick up a copy of Davinci Resolve?

    By the way, a few days ago I learned the term “B-Roll.” Any idea when that got started?

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/B-roll

    • #8
    • August 5, 2020, at 6:46 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  9. SkipSul Coolidge
    SkipSulJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Gary McVey: As noted, a lot of film technical language is obsolete.

    Honestly it is in so many other industries too – we still use the old vocabulary long after what it really referred to is forgotten.

    You find this, actually, in a lot of other non verbal things, whether you are talking “design language” (like, say, Chevrolet trying to include visual cues in the new mid-engined Corvette that hearken back, to insiders anyway, to the ’53), or even process controls.

    I had a stubborn employee who fought me for years (till they quit) over the ways some of our products were designed and handled. They refused to accept that things were stuck a certain way because that was how we had to do it at one time, and the cost to redesign now was not worth the effort. “Yes,” I would patiently explain for the thousandth time, “If today you were designing this product line from the ground up, there are better ways. But when we hand built this stuff, this was the only way, and I’m not making my customers retool everything so you can get over this stupid hangnail obsession here.”

     

    • #9
    • August 5, 2020, at 7:48 AM PDT
    • 6 likes
  10. namlliT noD Member
    namlliT noDJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Gary McVey: 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

    How did they not lose sync across an edit?

     

     

    • #10
    • August 5, 2020, at 8:11 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  11. The Reticulator Member

    SkipSul (View Comment):

    Gary McVey: As noted, a lot of film technical language is obsolete.

    Honestly it is in so many other industries too – we still use the old vocabulary long after what it really referred to is forgotten.

    You find this, actually, in a lot of other non verbal things, whether you are talking “design language” (like, say, Chevrolet trying to include visual cues in the new mid-engined Corvette that hearken back, to insiders anyway, to the ’53), or even process controls.

    I had a stubborn employee who fought me for years (till they quit) over the ways some of our products were designed and handled. They refused to accept that things were stuck a certain way because that was how we had to do it at one time, and the cost to redesign now was not worth the effort. “Yes,” I would patiently explain for the thousandth time, “If today you were designing this product line from the ground up, there are better ways. But when we hand built this stuff, this was the only way, and I’m not making my customers retool everything so you can get over this stupid hangnail obsession here.”

    Not the right mentality to be a Burkean conservative.

    • #11
    • August 5, 2020, at 8:13 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  12. namlliT noD Member
    namlliT noDJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Gary McVey: 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.

    Does Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels count? It was shot on videotape and transferred to film with an innovative process that left it looking less like videotape and more like film.

    • #12
    • August 5, 2020, at 8:17 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  13. SkipSul Coolidge
    SkipSulJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    SkipSul (View Comment):

    Gary McVey: As noted, a lot of film technical language is obsolete.

    Honestly it is in so many other industries too – we still use the old vocabulary long after what it really referred to is forgotten.

    You find this, actually, in a lot of other non verbal things, whether you are talking “design language” (like, say, Chevrolet trying to include visual cues in the new mid-engined Corvette that hearken back, to insiders anyway, to the ’53), or even process controls.

    I had a stubborn employee who fought me for years (till they quit) over the ways some of our products were designed and handled. They refused to accept that things were stuck a certain way because that was how we had to do it at one time, and the cost to redesign now was not worth the effort. “Yes,” I would patiently explain for the thousandth time, “If today you were designing this product line from the ground up, there are better ways. But when we hand built this stuff, this was the only way, and I’m not making my customers retool everything so you can get over this stupid hangnail obsession here.”

    Not the right mentality to be a Burkean conservative.

    This employee was about as far from even a loose definition of “conservative” as San Francisco is from reality.

    • #13
    • August 5, 2020, at 8:18 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  14. cirby Member

    namlliT noD (View Comment):

    Gary McVey: 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

    How did they not lose sync across an edit?

    It was very, very hard.

    https://www.videomaker.com/article/c3/1221-edit-points-a-history-of-videotape-editing

    • #14
    • August 5, 2020, at 8:50 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  15. Jim McConnell Member
    Jim McConnellJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Very interesting history. Thanks, @garymcvey.

    • #15
    • August 5, 2020, at 9:32 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  16. namlliT noD Member
    namlliT noDJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    namlliT noD (View Comment):

    Gary McVey: 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.

    Does Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels count? It was shot on videotape and transferred to film with an innovative process that left it looking less like videotape and more like film.

    In one of the strangest and most informative things you’ll ever see, here’s Frank Zappa talking about the process on… “What’s My Line?”: (!?!?)

    (My favorite moment here is Soupy Sales: “Do you have a mustache?”)

    So they started with PAL video, with its higher resolution, separated and enhanced and transferred the RGB parts separately. Or something like that.

    I also found this: From Kinescopes to Digital Cinema

    • #16
    • August 5, 2020, at 10:30 AM PDT
    • 7 likes
    • This comment has been edited.
  17. Clavius Thatcher

    When F/X houses deliver content to the studio to complete post-production, they do it in chunks. That allows the process to move forward before all the components are finished. They call these chunks “reels.” So in some small way, the reel lives on.

    • #17
    • August 5, 2020, at 12:04 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  18. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVeyJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    From roughly 1985 through 2005, studios shot on film, transferred it to video for editing, and then had to go back and “conform the negative”–cut the negative into final form, just like the old film days. Copies of copies of that negative are what you actually saw in theaters. This was billed as a best of both worlds solution; super-high film quality, video-like ease in editing. TV shows like ST: TNG could finish their special effects on simple video, with no laboratory needed.

    That came back to bite them later, because our 21st century TVs are high definition, and those 1987 effects looked crude. So Paramount quietly remade those effects for re-runs. 

     

    • #18
    • August 5, 2020, at 12:07 PM PDT
    • 7 likes
  19. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVeyJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    namlliT noD (View Comment):

    namlliT noD (View Comment):

    Gary McVey: 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.

    Does Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels count? It was shot on videotape and transferred to film with an innovative process that left it looking less like videotape and more like film.

    In one of the strangest and most informative things you’ll ever see, here’s Frank Zappa talking about the process on… “What’s My Line?”: (!?!?)

    (My favorite moment here is Soupy Sales: “Do you have a mustache?”)

    So they started with PAL video, with its higher resolution, separated and enhanced and transferred the RGB parts separately. Or something like that.

    I also found this: From Kinescopes to Digital Cinema

    That Zappa clip truly is a rare find. 200 Motels is one of a handful of movies shot on video, and in 1971 it was a novelty. PAL video was just the European version of our pioneering color TV system, NTSC. It came along ten years later and had ten years of quality improvements that we skipped over in a rush for color. It wasn’t high def, but it was sharper–567 lines of picture compared to 480 for ours. 

    The stuff about RGB is Frank showing off. In those days it was common to copy a color negative into its three color parts, red, green and blue. The black and white negatives that resulted were more stable, would last longer than color negative film. 

    • #19
    • August 5, 2020, at 12:13 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  20. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVeyJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    tigerlily (View Comment):

    Very informative. Thanks Gary.

    Many thanks, Tigerlily!

    • #20
    • August 5, 2020, at 12:14 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  21. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVeyJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Clavius (View Comment):

    When F/X houses deliver content to the studio to complete post-production, they do it in chunks. That allows the process to move forward before all the components are finished. They call these chunks “reels.” So in some small way, the reel lives on.

    And actors still refer to their “show reel”, a collection of the best clips they’ve ever been in. Of course, now that “reel” is a URL for video stored in the cloud. 

    • #21
    • August 5, 2020, at 12:17 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  22. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVeyJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Jon1979 (View Comment):

    I remember growing up hearing about the ‘two-reelers’, which referred to the short subjects like the Laurel & Hardy or Three Stooges efforts local TV stations would run that normally lasted 15-18 minutes. The good thing about those filmed efforts, and really anything going back into the Golden Age, is that if you can get a clean 35 mm print, it can be scanned for HD resolution and look just as good as anything newly produced when shown on a 4K HDTV.

    Videotape from the 1950s through the end of the century doesn’t have the same ability to upscale for HD sets (though I have read that when the new 8K HDTVs and video cameras become commonplace, we’ll finally get to the point where modern digital TVs can produce images sharper than what 35mm film could produce).

    Estimates of the resolving power (sharpness, basically) of the human eye have risen over the years, but most eye specialists believe that 8K is the ultimate; beyond that, the improvement will be undetectable.

    • #22
    • August 5, 2020, at 1:33 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  23. RightAngles Member

    So interesting as always! Even though I’ve had a DVR for about 15 years, I still say I’m “taping” a show.

    • #23
    • August 5, 2020, at 2:01 PM PDT
    • 8 likes
  24. Clavius Thatcher

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    Clavius (View Comment):

    When F/X houses deliver content to the studio to complete post-production, they do it in chunks. That allows the process to move forward before all the components are finished. They call these chunks “reels.” So in some small way, the reel lives on.

    And actors still refer to their “show reel”, a collection of the best clips they’ve ever been in. Of course, now that “reel” is a URL for video stored in the cloud.

    And people still speak of “filming…”

    • #24
    • August 5, 2020, at 2:01 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  25. namlliT noD Member
    namlliT noDJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Clavius (View Comment):

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    And actors still refer to their “show reel”, a collection of the best clips they’ve ever been in. Of course, now that “reel” is a URL for video stored in the cloud.

    And people still speak of “filming…”

    And the resulting “footage”.

    I think it’s absolutely charming.

    • #25
    • August 5, 2020, at 2:19 PM PDT
    • 7 likes
  26. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White MaleJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    RightAngles (View Comment):

    So interesting as always! Even though I’ve had a DVR for about 15 years, I still say I’m “taping” a show.

    Ask anyone under the age of about 20 why the “save” icon in most computer software is the that little square thing…

     

    • #26
    • August 5, 2020, at 3:03 PM PDT
    • 6 likes
  27. Boss Mongo Member

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Someone should show this clip to Dr. Birx, and tell her to react accordingly.

    • #27
    • August 5, 2020, at 3:17 PM PDT
    • 6 likes
  28. Clavius Thatcher

    Miffed White Male (View Comment):

    RightAngles (View Comment):

    So interesting as always! Even though I’ve had a DVR for about 15 years, I still say I’m “taping” a show.

    Ask anyone under the age of about 20 why the “save” icon in most computer software is the that little square thing…

     

    I happened to have a 3.5″ floppy disk on my desk at work (that’s another story) and when my daughter came to my office she asked me why I had a model of a “save” button.

    • #28
    • August 5, 2020, at 3:46 PM PDT
    • 12 likes
  29. cirby Member

    Gary McVey (View Comment):
    Estimates of the resolving power (sharpness, basically) of the human eye have risen over the years, but most eye specialists believe that 8K is the ultimate; beyond that, the improvement will be undetectable.

    …until you shift over to 360 degree VR, in which case you’re starting to look at some seriously high resolutions.

    I’ve already messed around with 12K 360 videos, which are just monstrous.

    • #29
    • August 5, 2020, at 4:12 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  30. Hang On Member
    Hang OnJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Brilliant as always. 

    • #30
    • August 5, 2020, at 5:40 PM PDT
    • 4 likes