But when some of these NLEs did not even exist, there was a piece of software helping to define the non-linear editing space; it's an editing system know as Lightworks. Until around the mid 1990's, Lightworks competed in the NLE arena with many top editors world wide using it as their tool of choice in the edit room.
In this ever-expanding world of digital non-linear editing, I had to wonder why Lightworks still had die hard users who had never (or had never wanted to) convert to any of the other major edit offerings over the years.
In the United Kingdom, an editor named Chris Gill -- with credits like "28 Weeks Later" and the Ricky Gervais directed, "The Invention of Lying" to his name -- was gleefully, whenever possible, sitting in front of a Lightworks editing station, his preferred editing tool.
Chris Gill: "The last seven or eight years, it's been mainly Lightworks for me, even though I am a rare event in the UK. Most projects are on AVID. I would say 90 percent work on AVID, but the best editors seem to work on Lightworks. I say watch the work and you'll see. I mean, Thelma Schoonmaker can't be wrong, Martin Scorcese can't be wrong."
Indeed, one of the most famous users of the Lightworks editing system has been legendary editor Thelma Schoonmaker. She used it as recently as the Paramount Pictures film SHUTTER ISLAND. I caught up with Scott Brock ( BLUE ROAD ), an accomplished editor and Thelma Schoonmaker's first assistant on ( CASINO, THE DEPARTED and GANGS of NEW YORK ) and many other projects. Scott has a deep history with Lightworks. He was employed there for a time in the early days and also trained editors how to use the system.
Scott Brock: "The most important tools an editor has are his or her eyes and ears. The Lightworks editing surface facilitates using these better than any other system."
Back around 1990, when digital non linear editing was making its move with the first systems like EditDroid and others there was a small company in England, put together by a team of editors, who were developing a computerized editing system for editors, designed by editors.
In fact, that was one of the early slogans of Lightworks as they tried to compete with a Boston company called Avid, who was also making huge inroads in Hollywood with their digital editing tool, Avid Media Composer.
As was the case with many early systems, Lightworks was designed with a software and hardware component in mind. It deployed a controller which emulated a KEM or Steenbeck film editor. They wanted to take all of the "non linearity" of film, and the ease and control of screening footage back and forth from film editing, and place it squarely in a computer environment.
A lot has -- and has not -- happened in non-linear editing since then. Avid attained world dominance for a time, until Apple purchased a piece of software from a company called Macromedia and released a "semi-professional" DV editing software system called Final Cut Pro.
At a cost of about five percent of a full blown Avid system, users could quickly import DV camera footage, edit, title, output and distribute motion images like never before. The tide shifted, Apple's Final Cut Pro became more refined, and soon it was making inroads in educational environments, TV series. Film makers like the Cohen brothers became fans and users, and Avid persisted -- but had to make changes to their business model to compete and survive.
The big news here, though, is that Lightworks, a tool that many people have found to be the best editor in the category, is going open source. That means Windows, Linux and Mac versions will be available for free -- a little bit of trivia that some editors might be ecstatic about.
I've often maintained that while FCP and Avid are capable tools, it seems that they require many keystrokes with a deep knowledge of the software, and while both have expanded their "capabilities", neither has ever improved the basic way we, as editors, put shots together. Chris Gill agrees:
Chris Gill: "Other systems have never improved the art of editing, whilst Lightworks always had it nailed from the start."
While somewhat cautious about what open source can bring, Scott Brock describes why editors will gravitate toward this tool, not because it is free, but because he feels it really is the best.
Scott Brock: "It's hands down the best editing surface. To me Lightworks means creative freedom. Where Lightworks frees you up is in terms of editing, is that the interface is 'loose'. In Lightworks you customize it completely. It does get back to how editors think about what they are doing -- what they cut."
Chris Gill doesn't make any apologies when he talks about how great the system is.
Chris Gill: "I've always liked that simplicity of it, as well. Nothing ever gets in the way of Lightworks, you edit as your brain is thinking, which is fantastic to have that instant access to your editing knowledge. It's amazingly quick and easy to use -- and I know people say it's a bit quirky, but once you get to know it, the more you realize it's just a direct route of getting something from your head onto the screen in a very simple, organic, speedy way."
But what about Hollywood? Long known as an Avid town after Lightworks lost the battle over feature film editing supremacy in the mid nineteen-nineties, there are still some editors like Scott Hill, (Bruce Almighty, Evan Almighty, DanceFlick) who lament that they are forced onto Avid, like he has been on his latest project. Moving from Lightworks to Avid has been an eye opener, and it's the perfect time to draw direct comparisons between the features of each NLE.
Scott Hill: "Lightworks has been great. I have used Lightworks on every film I've edited up until this one. I'm currently editing a movie that required me to use an Avid. The silver lining is that I can speak intelligently when comparing the two systems. My assistant and I were asked by Avid to submit a wish-list of items that we were able to do on the Lightworks, but not on an Avid. That took days to type up. We both want to scream to Hollywood: There is a better way!"
One huge feature on large projects is the idea of autosaving. The Lightworks remembers every keystroke, thus eliminating the need for an autosave feature.
Scott Hill: "I have learned the hard way that you are going to loose stuff on the Avid. It crashes alot in comparison and if it has not saved in that time frame, well..."
But it's not just the fact that Avid needs to autosave, it's what that situation creates creatively.
Scott Hill: "Avid interrupts my train of thought all the time. For example, the process of backing up: I have the auto save feature set to back up every 17 minutes. When it does, everything grinds to a halt. Initially, everyone in the room would ask, "What's happening, Scott?" It has now become routine to call out when the Avid is saving so they know why the room has come to a stop. Since Lightworks saves in the background, the work?ow in the editing room is never interrupted."
Chris Gill: "The Lightworks is constantly saving. You never have to set anything at ten minutes time save, the fact that it is always saving and you never actually loose anything. In Lightworks, you never have that issue because it is constantly saving. It's nice to have that peace of mind. Also, if it does go down, it reboots in fifteen seconds."
I was shocked when I heard this. The software reboots and picks up where you left off in fifteen seconds! That alone is a feature I would switch for. It's also the kind of feature that shows the initial thought that went into the creation of Lightworks.
Scott Hill notices that turning on waveforms on Avid has it's challenges.
Scott Hill: "It's so much easier to cut with waveforms; I can cut dialogue, sound effects and music much faster. On an Avid, you are constantly waiting for the waveforms to refresh. Even if I just trim one frame in the edit, all of the waveforms have to rewrite over again for every track of audio one track at a time. Since I'm cutting with 16 tracks of audio, I have to wait quite a while for them to refresh. Lightworks writes it once -- when you import (or digitize) the audio. That's it. You never wait for it again."
One of the most pleasant things I discovered is that Lightworks has a one button autosync feature. This frees you up to be creative without worrying about keeping the audio in sync at every moment. If you are reworking a scene and knocking all kinds of audio out of sync, you literally hit one button when you are done -- every track is put back in sync with the picture.
The sync button serves two functions really, because it lets you edit the picture freely and it puts any audio out of sync while you edit. This can be a nightmare in Avid or Final Cut Pro, and it has forced me to edit with locked tracks almost all the time. Chris Gill explains it well: It's a one button solution called the 'sync button'.
Chris Gill: "One of the great strengths of Lightworks -- and I don't know why other systems haven't adopted it -- is the sync button. Basically, you can just edit the picture, and at the side of the timeline it will tell you what is going out of sync, and it will tell you: track 4 is 4 frames out, track 7 is ... frames. You literally hit a button and it puts every track back in sync with the picture for you. It means you never, ever, have to worry about sync."
And Scott Brock reminds us of another little feature you might appreciate when you are editing audio.
Scott Brock: "Lightworks has total analog scrub across ALL tracks of audio and it is a true analog scrub, not the digital 'eh, beep, eh, uh' sounds other software emits."
While it may seem picky to go into detail about small features, the fact is that all of these seemingly small things, when totaled, equal the most important and appreciated feature of all: overall speed and use of the software. I call this an editing intangible. You first have to understand the editors mind, which is basically constantly looking for efficiency.
When I was editing network documentaries on a daily basis, there was very tight deadline pressure almost every day. Films were scheduled for broadcast slots and every move in the edit room made a difference. You become a pretty fantastic "backtimer", working a critical path against a series of actions. The same skills have made me an excellent cook, able to put all the hot food on the table at the same moment or delay certain things until a second course.
In the editing room the phrase "time is money" is very appropriate, but having an efficient system can also drop your overall stress level which frees you up creatively. This is the greatest benefit each of the editors described to the speed and time saving Lightworks allows you.
Chris Gill: "The big advantage is the speed. It is so much quicker. It is big because I have tried them all. It is so quick and thereby gives you more time in the end to be more creative. So, in an eight hour day, because it is so quick, you can experiment a whole lot more."
Scott Hill could not over emphasize how fast Lightworks is to work with, and he relayed a great story that occurs regularly while editing with Lightworks.
Scott Hill: "Lightworks is a multitasking machine, whereas I refer to Avid as a singular thinking machine: you can only do one thing at a time."
In terms of key strokes, all of the editors noticed that the LW means using about half the key strokes you would on Avid or Final Cut. That means an overall time saving. It means freeing up techie time for creative time. That is what you gain in Lightworks, the time for more creative freedom.
Scott Hill: "Speed is what I keep going back to -- how fast the system is, how fast I can cut something together. I have a great example with a picture I edited at Paramount called "Dance Flick." It was a Wayans Brothers production, directed by Damien Dante Wayans. Damien and Keenen Ivory Wayans (one of the producers and writers) were in the cutting room the entire time. While editing, they would ask, 'What if we did this, and changed the cutting pattern of this scene ...' and as they were talking I would just start cutting. I often was able to show them the recut by the time they finished their train of thought."
Done. And that would include keeping all dialogue before and after in sync and dynamic trimming of all the audio and video tracks at once.
When speaking to editors, the software graphical user interface is an important conversation. Editors sit in front of a computer screen often for many more than ten and twelve hours a day, so the software you are looking at, working and interacting with should be comfortable and customizable to the way you like to work.
Both FCP and Avid, along with most other offerings that have been presented through the years have a kind of linear approach to the interface. The software opens up and everything is docked and structured in its little boxes everywhere. You usually have a source, record, bin or media window, arranged in a very orderly fashion. Even in this regard Lightworks is different.
Scott Brock: "The default setup is 'open' in that as soon as the software opens up for the first time, it shows you the windows. It's inviting you to arrange them on your screen, in your workspace, according to how you work. It's the finessing capability from the jump, really, that you can do with Lightworks so much better."
Chris Gill: "Elegance and simplicity would define Lightworks as a tool."
Scott Hill: "Lightworks has a really nice feature where you can have multiple edits and their corresponding timelines open at the same time. That's not quite the same as having them open in different tabs. In LW you can look at several timelines side by side to compare edits and have the ability to cut sections from one edit into another easily. It's also a great feature when comparing edits -- you can lock them together and compare them cut by cut while seeing all the timelines at the same time.
It's rare for editors to meet and speak with each other, as it is a singular Key position which requires solitude and a small group of other creatives. Getting a chance to speak about editing with editors is a rare event. While I had their ear, we all managed to have a conversation about the craft of editing and how the introduction of NLE's has changed the landscape. While each of the editors I spoke with work tightly in an environment with assistants, the modern NLE has pronounced multitasking and efficiency as their "features".
I believe this has created a gunslinger mentality and also it's led to burnout. Editing any feature length film, MOW or TV series requires an enormous amount of work, time, and organizational skill. More than too often, I see editors who live in a world where all of the footage has run downhill into their edit suites, left for them to manage and shovel through.
That situation crosses three generations of editors too. One thing all of the editors spoke about was the idea of apprenticeship. In the era of modern NLE software, something seems to have been lost. The idea of being a craftsman, and passing your craft on to others in a working environment which includes education and learning.
When asked, Chris told them that the ideal situation for him would be that he edit in Lightworks, his first assistant works in Avid and his second assistant works in Final CutPro. The Lightworks team told him. "That's what we are going to do."
Still Scott Brock would like to see one simple standard in Digital Non Linear editing.
"I would like to see, NLE -- Motion picture Pro, a very streamlined app. [There would be] no configuration at all, it runs 24 frames per second, period. That means if you shoot film or digital, everything goes to 24. The reason for that is that it has been a standard since the advent of sound."
And there is the great hope from Chris Gill that making this tool free and available all will help creative editors understand that there is a very intuitive alternative to what is now being offered from some of the major players.
Chris Gill: "I'm just hoping Lightworks can get it right, get it out there so people will hopefully grow to love it. If Lightworks can get everything together with the system that is coming on line later this year, it could be the holy grail. They've found the holy grail."
I certainly echo this. In all of my years of editing I have never felt that any new software offering was really thinking and working like the editor's mind. Maybe this will be it.
All images, including title image, from Centurion, Currently being edited by Chris Gill on Lightworks.