Roland Coburn talks about how technical changes have affected the work of the editor

You were there at Granada when you get this crucial change in film editing?

Yes. One of the great things was, obviously, film would have to move, in the sense that you would shoot the film, it’d have to go to the labs, it’d have to be developed, you would get a print to edit, you’d cut it all up and then you’d have to go back to the labs to match it up with a negative, which would then have to be printed. All this took time, and time could be maybe a day or two days. Often, you might lose a very valuable slot.

So it moved on a bit and the next thing, you thought, would be VHS editing: we’d do it on VHS in the edit suite and then you’d match it to tape, and the programme would then go out on tape. So film was slightly being manipulated out. The only problem with VHS, as you’re well aware, is that once you’ve done one assembly, if you change your mind and try and make another copy of it, the picture quality gets less and less. So it didn’t really quite work.

They then tried Beta tapes, or VTR tapes. The cameras were a lot bigger; a lot more cumbersome. But it was the same again: you’d go on Beta tape and it was fine, but it was always having to have three machines to work. It held its own for quite a few years and then, ultimately, it became what it is now, which is non-linear editing.

The best way of comparing that is that it’s just like if you have a Word document. You cut and paste; it’s exactly the same. All you’re doing is basically cutting a picture and pasting it, and it enables you to move it wherever you want. You don’t lose the quality. You have all the stuff at your fingertips. It’s shot onto a little card, which you can put in your pocket and carry it around with you. Put that card into the machine and it digitises all the rushes. Then you just non-linear edit it. Of course, you’re able to add all the wonderful optical effects that you can do with computers, whereas in the old days, you’d have to make several layers of film to make anything work.

So basically you’re editing on a computer now?

It is, yes. One of the good things in that respect is you see what you are doing. When you used to be on film, if you would just do, say, a simple mix, you wouldn’t see it until it came pack from the print, so you’re always hoping that it worked. Now, with it being non-linear, you do a mix and you can see it instantly. Straight away you can say, ‘Actually, no that’s too short’, or ‘That’s too long, there’s a bit of wobble on that camera movement. We can do it again’.

So with non-linear, you’re now spoilt, because you can just do so many versions, and you eventually get it right. Also, whereas before, on film, you’d just have one little screen when you were working with it, now you can have up to three or four monitors, showing pictures that you’re working on, pictures that you’re about to work on and even, depending on your system, a picture before that. So you have all these images and all the monitors. You know exactly what you’re looking at: if the colour’s good, if the sound’s good, and all those can be tweaked during the edit.

And presumably you can do that sitting at home?

Yes, I have an edit suite at home and four twenty-seven inch screens which I work from. Because of all the applications and add-ons, you can tweak all the sound, you can help lose any hum or distant traffic and things like that. You can clean it all up. You can colour grade pictures. That’s just the way it is: you can virtually do everything you want to do.

Do you prefer doing that or going back to the old Steenbeck machines? 

When the director said, ‘I want thirty seconds of this sequence’, while I’m cutting that he’s got time to write and work out what he wants to do. Whether you write pictures to words or you put words to picture is always open debate. Whereas now, on non-linear, because nothing ever rewinds and everything’s instant, if he says, ‘Put me four shots together’, you can do that within about a second and a half. So that producer doesn’t have that time, that thinking time, to work out. It puts a lot of pressure on them to, perhaps, bring a script into the edit suite. So you used to get two weeks to do it; now it’s down to a week. Things have got a lot tighter; a lot shorter. The thinking time is lost now. I think that’s a great shame.

But the quality of the picture?

The qualities of the picture and the sound are perfect, because virtually everything now is shot HD, which is 1080i. The sound, with all the new microphones and things, is really good quality. When you go back into the old film days, sometimes, if they had to do secret filming, they used to use old Hi8 and Super 8 cameras hidden in the bottom of a bag. Cameramen — people like George Turner — would hold it as if they were stood there watching the world go by, and they were filming you. The quality would be awful. But this was the beginning of new technology.

Is it true to say that you can almost film anything, any way, and you can cover up all the mistakes easier now? 

Yes. Most of the cameras and the editing software have a stabiliser, so if the camera is a bit wobbly, because it’s handheld or whatever, you can stabilise it. You have to zoom in a bit to lose all the shakiness, but you can do it.  If the colour’s terrible because of the sunlight, you can alter the colour, you can change it, and within reason, you can virtually make anything better. Computer-wise, you can copy bits and pieces; you can add bits to the frame; you can blur out bits; you can change things round. So often, what you might think is a normal background, you can actually lose the background and put another background in its place.

When you see any feature film these days, is what you’re seeing real or not? You see a man doing something and you think, did he actually do that? You don’t know nowadays what is real and what isn’t, because of the world of computers.


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