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High-tech hits editing suites

A dramatic change is occurring in film editing suites throughout Hollywood.

A slew of high-profile features, from “The Coneheads” to “Heaven and Earth,” are being cut together on computer-controlled editing systems. And others, such as Columbia’s “Lost in Yonkers” and Paramount’s “Sliver,” are just the latest to hit the theater.

Behind the scenes, though, these systems are dramatically redefining a decades-old craft. Instead of the Movieola or Kem flatbed, editors are laboring over computer monitors and keyboards, electronically snipping away at a scene, retrieving cutaways and pasting it all together.

The process, say picture-cutters, is changing the way films are being edited, compressing already impossibly tight schedules and even influencing the film medium’s own language.

Generation gap

But more unsettling is the fact that non-linear editing is defining a generational transition in the profession, as older editors grapple with computer technology and younger assistants, who grew up using Macintoshes, move quickly up the ladder.

“What’s happening is that people who aren’t trained on the systems are severely disadvantaged because the systems are becoming so popular,” said Lisa Citron, chairman of the new technology committee for the editing guild. “A lack of knowledge means a lack of work. Conversely, if you do know them, you have a real advantage.”

In the past six months, two developments have occurred to speed up this transition. Two companies have greatly expanded the storage capacity for film images and designed software that mimics the 24-frames-per-second speed of film.

“It is a watershed year,” said film editor Michael Rubin, author of a book on the non-linear editing process. “This is a most exciting time for editors to be innovators.”

Non-linear systems, which permit editors to pull material, a frame at a time if need be, randomly from computer hard drives or optical discs certainly aren’t new.

According to Rubin, they’ve been around since the mid-1980s, with the film shot for TV shows transferred and edited from banks of videotape. Today, most TV is edited on these systems. And a number of companies, ranging from CMX, Epix, Montage and EMC2, are in the market. But two, Avid Technology Inc. and the Lightworks from OLE Ltd., are creating the biggest stir.

With 1,500 systems in use, and $ 51 million in sales, Avid is the 800-pound gorilla. By touting an ability to swiftly upgrade its software, which runs on Apple computers, the Tewksbury, Mass., company managed to raise $ 60 million by going public just last March.

Where Avid has been popular in TV post-production and is now expanding into movies, Lightworks is the newcomer designed specifically by a filmmaker for features. Lightworks, which is based in London, has shipped 300 systems since debuting last year.

Typical office

Companies like these are ransacking the editing room. A typical editor’s office contains 50 or so miles of film and magnetic audio tape marked in boxes, with a flatbed editing table at center stage. Nearby, assistants organize bins loaded down with film fragments hanging from wood slats. When a scene is needed, it’s located using a log book, plucked from the shelf and unwound to be cut. So much information is amassed during a large feature that the editors guild considers librarian a job category.

The world is completely different with a computer. To start, the film is run through a telecine, scanned and projected onto videotape. The tape is then scanned again into digital form, the ones and zeros of computer language. Once on the computer, editors can access any scene with a click on the keyboard.

On the computer screen, editors can cut back and forth between two windows, choosing from different takes. Using a mouse, little icons can be tapped to cut, fade or dissolve between frames.

As a result, editors and directors can literally cut together dozens of versions of a scene, quickly trying one and discarding it for another.

“When the work is on a physical material like film, there’s a psychological inhibition to change it,” said Rob Korbin, who’s cutting Castle Rock’s “Needful Things” on an Avid. “It’s destructive.”

“I’m editing intuitively,” said Doug Selig, editor on John Avildsen’s “Lane Frost” for New Line, who’s using a Lightworks. “Otherwise, so much time is taken up by the process that when you finally get to edit what your thought was, you tend to have thought about it way too much.”

The film isn’t even touched until a work print is needed for a screening. When it’s time to conform the edited version to a print, the computer system spits out a so-called “edit decision list,” cataloguing each cut by frame number.

The bottom line is that films may be getting cut much faster. Guild rules guarantee 10 weeks for editors and a similar amount for directors to work — that’s no longer sacrosanct.

A non-linear system yields an editor’s cut in as little as a week after wrapping principal photography. Every day shaved can save $ 100,000 for a production. That trend, say editors, is worrisome.

“Because of non-linear systems, schedules are getting shorter,” said the Guild’s Citron, an assistant on “Sliver.””People are giving up their weeks since these systems can work so fast.”

The systems also threatens to up-end the editor’s promotion process, where assistants can wait eight years to finally cut a feature. There may even be fewer jobs, since some editors are finding that they can do without the normal three-person team.