I learned how to edit using a Steenbeck editing table at Film Arts Foundation in San Francisco very similar to this one here located at Documentary Educational Resources in Watertown, Massacusetts. While testing the Panasonic HVX200 camera I was struck by how beautiful the flatbed was, especially with the afternoon light coming through the window, so I shot it both as a still frame and a slow panning shot.
Since 1953 Steenbeck B.V. (Holland) has manufactured a full range of film controlling and viewing equipment. Pictured here is a six-plate 16mm flatbed editing table. It can run 1 track of picture and 2 tracks of sound at a time.
Until the introduction of non-linear editing systems, films were edited with devices like this. The process used to require a small army of assistants to keep track of all of the various pieces of soundtrack and workprint (a positive copy of the original negative). With each edit you had to make a splice and tape the splice. If you changed your mind too many times, you had a very messy workprint with spices and sticky tape. You could not afford to do too many effects except for cuts and dissolves. Opticals (any effect that required re-photographing materials with an optical printer like titles over pictures, composites, etc.) were cost prohibitive for independent filmmakers, so rarely would you see credits over picture and most effects shots were out of the question, unless you did them in camera or while shooting.
There was something peaceful and zen-like about working with pieces of film with which you could see the image. You would remember scenes in terms of what shelf they were on, there was a physical geography to the editing process. The speed and convenience of non-linear editing made the flatbed and film editing all but obsolete. A few filmmakers still use them, and archivists will be handling film for a long time. I would not want to go back to the old ways, though something was lost when all of your media ends up as bits on a hard drive. I guess that’s one reason I like working with transcripts of interviews, the need to have some physical manifestation of the media.
Ironically, this is a still frame from video shot with the Panasonic HVX200, a high definition camcorder some filmmakers would agree is a reasonable replacement for 16mm film.