Brief History of Non-Linear Editors

As a special treat, and as a one month birthday treat you get to learn a brief history of non-linear editors. First a non-linear editor is any editor that allows for non-destructive editing, or editing where you don’t manually cut the film and splice it together as you go  through your edits. It is also common nowadays for these to have multiple video and audio tracks. Let’s dive in.

Surprisingly the first non-linear editor was built back in 1971. It was called the CMX 600, and used the old analog magnetic tapes for storage. It was actually a pretty brilliant setup for the time, and even today it has several neat features. Take a look at this video to see what you are missing learning video editing nowadays.

Still even with this most operations still used Flatbed editors since implementing a non-linear editor was extremely expensive. In the 1980s another company tried to make a different type of non-linear editor, Lucasfilm. Lucasfilm attempted to make a digital non-linear editor. It was still not feasible to do so with hard drives of the time (storage cost on average over $200 per MEGABYTE until the mid 1980s when it fell to the upper $100 range), so Lucasfilm used banks of LaserDisc decks to hold the captured footage. What it did do was introduce the concept of editing bins and timeline editing, both of which are used in todays non-linear editors.

Lucasfilm EditDroid

The first editor was we see them today (digital) was developed in 1989 by a company called Editing Machines Corp. It was a hard drive based non-linear off-line editor. To save on space it only capture at 15 frames per second and used a resolution half that of standard SD resolutions. Off-line editor do not actually output, but instead create an edit list that is then used to capture and recompile footage from the original film stock.

Shortly after Editing Machines EMC2 editor was released Avid released the Avid/1. The Avid/1 was designed for a custom built Apple Macintosh II. It was a great new system that allowed for a higher quality off-line than any other non-linear editor. It was still low in comparison, but that dealt mostly with the codec used to compress the footage. Around the same time several other non-linear editor were in development. Most notably was Lightworks on the PC, Premiere on Mac, and NewTek Video Toaster which built editors capable of live video processing.

Avid Media Composer 4

On of the large problems facing early Avid systems was the inability to access more than 50 gigabytes of storage at a time. This made it impossible to use as an editor for anything longer than commercials. Luckily in 1993 a team at Disney developed a way to make Avid systems capable of accessing more than 7 terabytes of data. It was now possible to use a non-linear editor to edit a feature length film.  Since then Avid has been a gold standard in feature film editing. As of recent it has been given a run for its money by Final Cut Pro, but with the advent of FCPx we will see what happens.

A lot more happened in the next couple of years, but it was mostly dealing with other editors coming to be as well as cheaper and more accessible products getting released. To read more about this and other things written thus far read this.

Premiere Pro 5

Between 1996 and 1998 a team of developers left Adobe to create a new improved non-linear editor that had better capabilities than those available in Premiere at the time. They went on to develop a program for Macromedia called KeyGrip. Due to licensing  agreements Macromedia could not release the program, so it was show at the 1998 NAB conference. With Premiere and Avid focusing more support on Windows than Mac, Apple wanted to maintain it’s presence in the professional market bought up KeyGrip in a defensive move in hopes that they could resell it to an Apple development team.  When no buyer could be found Apple decided to continue the development under a new name, Final Cut Pro.

Final Cut Pro 7

Currently Avid and Premiere maintain versions for Windows and Mac. Final Cut Pro is Mac only, and Lightworks is in a transitional period where it is currently Windows only, but will be released on Mac and Linux. Other editors do exist, but for the sake of brevity I focused on the largest of the editors currently in use.

For more history on non-linear editors read here, or here for Avid, or here for Premiere, or here for Lightworks.

Software Platform Price
Avid Media Composer Mac/Windows $2295 Full / $300 Student
Adobe Premiere Pro Mac/Windows $799 Full / $1699 Production Premium Full / $390 Pro Pre Student
Apple Final Cut Pro 7 Mac No longer available / $999 Full Price / $599 Student
Apple Final Cut Pro X Mac $299 all versions
Lightworks Windows / Mac & Linux support by end of the year $0 Yes that is a free Pro level editor


Have a question you want answered? Send it

    • Nick Dixon
    • July 18th, 2011

    This was an awesome post and it’s really good to know some of the history behind NLE’s. I think that gives us more to base our guesses for the future on. Thanks!

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