Editing 16mm film for television

The videos highlighted on this page are just a fraction of the hours of footage produced by the ADAPT project, and available to search, view and download on Figshare.
The videos highlighted on this page are just a fraction of the hours of footage produced by the ADAPT project, and available to search, view and download on Figshare.

After a film sequence has been processed, it must be edited before transmission on television. If the film has been made for inclusion in a news bulletin, editing might be very rapid and rudimentary: simply a case of selecting a few seconds of footage to illustrate a story in time for the deadline.

However, most television film editing is a longer and more painstaking process. Documentaries and drama serials, shot in multiple locations over many months, require weeks of dedicated attention from editors and asssistant editors.

It is the job of editors to make sense of the many reels of film exposed by the production. Often working in close cooperation with directors and producers, editors break down and reassemble rushes into coherent sequences which aim to tell the programme’s story as envisioned by the director.

All television film editing is now performed on computers using digital non-linear editing software like Avid Media Composer, Final Cut, and Adobe Premiere. Until the 1980s, however, almost all television film material was edited by hand on flatbed editing tables.

Reenacting television film editing

In this series of videos, former BBC film editors Dawn Trotman and Oliver White use a Steenbeck flatbed film editing table and an Acmade PicSync to demonstrate the working practices of television film editors.

One of the first tasks required of a film editor – and often one delegated to an assistant – was to ‘sync up’ film sequences, matching images with recorded audio. This could be accomplished either on a Steenback editing table, or by using a machine called a PicSync.

With pictures and sound synchronised, editors next watch the footage to discover the shots and sequences which have been captured during the shoot.

These shots and sequences will film the building blocks of the final programme. In some cases, such as drama production, the film crew will have been closely directed to shoot specific scenes according to a carefully constructed shooting script.

In the case of documentary production, the shooting may have been less closely planned, and the editors may have more latitude to make decisions about the order in which the story is told.

In either case, big decisions about the programme content and narrative will ultimately be made by producers and directors. It is for editors and their assistants to make finer-grained decisions about which shots to select, where to cut, and how to deal with the soundtrack.

Once film editors have decided which shots to select and where to cut them, they must physically cut out the desired portions of film footage and join them back together.

In digital non-linear editing this is achieved non-destructively with a click of the mouse, but in the age of physical film editing this meant doing irreversible damage to a film reel. A physical film cut could not be reversed with a click of the ‘undo’ button, and so film editors needed to be cautious about making cuts.

Further Viewing

Geography of the editing suite

Dawn Trotman and Oliver White discuss the layout, technologies, and key features of a typical television film editing suite.

Explore more videos from this collection on the project’s Figshare space, or browse the same content on our YouTube channel.