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When creating videos, the editing process can follow either a linear or non-linear workflow. What’s the difference and when is each approach best applied? This article will break it down.
The video editing process has evolved dramatically from the era of cutting and splicing physical tape to the flexible digital workflows of today. Those fundamental shifts in approach can be categorized into linear and non-linear methods. In this comprehensive guide, we’ll unpack the key differences, benefits, and appropriate use cases for linear and non-linear editing.
What is Linear video Editing?
Linear editing was the original video tape editing method before non-linear editing computers became available in the 1990s. These days, many people consider linear editing to be obsolete. Although non-linear editing is the preferred method for most projects, linear editing still has a place. See Linear vs Non-Linear Editing for more information.
Linear editing follows a sequential, chronological order. It dates back to the analogue tape editing days when videographers would physically cut and splice tapes together in the desired scene sequence. To assemble a video, editors would use specialized machines to physically cut tapes and then splice together shots in the desired order. The resulting master tape unfolded continuously from beginning to end in a set sequence. The editor possessed limited ability to rearrange or access individual clips out of order.
With linear editing, the source footage had to stay intact. Any modifications occurred in real-time during the recording process before the material was permanently lost. The editor would need to play back the tape to view and alter footage from start to finish only. No way existed to fast forward or rewind to isolated scenes easily
Here are some characteristics of linear editing:
- Sequential scene order makes review and rearrangement more difficult
- Requires constantly rewinding and forwarding the tape
- Files are overwritten during recording so no undo options exist
- Sequential Order: Scenes follow a set chronological flow without random access. Rearranging involves re-splicing tape.
- Destructive Process: Original footage is cut and then lost. Alterations happen in real-time during recording.
- No Undo: Any errors made permanently damage the source tape. No way to revert changes.
- Single Editor: Tape-based systems only facilitated a single editor accessing/modifying footage.
- Limited Navigability: Constantly rewinding and forwarding the tape to find desired clips is cumbersome.
- No Metadata: Minimal ability to search, log or organize media effectively for management.
Overall, linear editing imposes greater restrictions for accessing and manipulating footage. It follows a more regimented, start-to-finish approach.
While cumbersome by today’s standards, linear editing played a monumental role in revolutionizing broadcast and film production. However, emerging digital workflows will soon enable more powerful creative capabilities.
Key Linear Editing Milestones That Shaped Video History
To appreciate present editing systems, it helps to understand the breakthroughs that formed the foundations of video editing:
- 1952 – Ampex debuts the first video tape recorder enabling recording footage outside of bulky live studios. Portable cameras and recorders have emerged.
- 1956 – Ampex introduces a prototype videotape editor that lays the groundwork for linear editing stations.
- Early 1960s – Sony developed the helical scan recorder enabling instant replay slow-motion functionality.
- 1963 – Instant Replay is used to replay JFK assassination footage, proving the technology’s significance. Video editing enters public consciousness.
- Early 1970s – Timecode technology was developed to uniquely identify every video frame across tapes and enable basic synchronization.
- 1975 – CMX unveils the 600 Editing System using computer processing to automate splicing and linear workflow tasks.
- Late 1970s – New video recording formats like Betacam improve quality and accessibility outside broadcast networks.
- 1982 – The Sony BVE-900 enables more affordable linear editing with dual players for basic A/B roll transitions between sources.
Linear milestones made video production and broadcast editing practical for a widening range of creators. Next, we’ll explore pioneers who made the nonlinear transition possible.
What is Non-Linear Video Editing?
The rise of non-linear editing workflows in the late 1980s radically transformed video production. Enabled by emerging random-access media like hard drives, non-linear systems allowed editors to instantly jump to or rearrange any clip in a project.
Rather than recording directly to tape, source footage is first copied over to a digital format. The media is then stored as individual files on disk rather than sequentially. Sophisticated editing software empowers creators to piece scenes together on a virtual timeline, inserting transitions and effects with endless flexibility.
In contrast, non-linear editing provides editors full, random access to all video clips in a project. Digital random-access storage media like hard drives enabled this nonlinear approach.
With non-linear editing, the original footage is copied and stored in digital files rather than recorded sequentially on tape. This allows instantly jumping to or rearranging any clip without needing to sequentially scrub through irrelevant footage. Additional capabilities include:
- Quickly finding clips using metadata tags and searches
- Rearranging Scenes: Editors can freely drag, drop and reorganize clips as creative needs evolve. Scenes can easily be moved, trimmed, duplicated etc.
- Simultaneous Multi-Editor Access: Leveraging shared storage media like SANs allows collaborative workflows between editors.
- Powerful Clip Management: Logs, metadata tags and AI assistance aid in searching vast media libraries for specific clips.
- Undo Capabilities: Editors can quickly revert unwanted changes and experiment without permanent damage to source files.
- Isolated Preview: Sequences and clips can be queued up and reviewed in real-time without scrubbing through entire footage.
- Advanced Automation: Tasks like colour grading and audio mixing incorporate specialized AI tools for streamlined workflows
By organizing media non-sequentially and leveraging the power of digital workflows, non-linear editing supercharges creativity and flexibility.
The Rise of Non-Linear Digital Editing Revolutionizes Workflows
While linear editing ruled broadcast and film workflows for decades, innovators recognized emerging digital technologies could enable more flexible editing paradigms:
- 1970s – Researchers at MIT, New York Institute of Technology and Bell Labs expand on nonlinear theories.
- 1979 – CMX develops the MemorEXCOM system allowing offline digital editing separate from online linear work.
- 1980 – Montage Picture Processor enables primitive nonlinear edits and previewing between laserdiscs.
- Mid 1980s – AVID unveils the first nonlinear editing system using magnetic disks for digital media storage and manipulation.
- Early 1990s – Digital formats like QuickTime and MPEG along with higher-powered home PCs help non-linear editing proliferate beyond just professional studios.
- 1991 – Adobe Premiere launches giving home editors first access to basic nonlinear software and hardware.
- 1993 – Adobe releases After Effects 3.0 with layered compositing, effects and keyframing techniques that pair with Premiere. This adds more sophisticated capabilities.
- The late 1990s – The introduction of HDV and prosumer camcorders led to an exponential growth of affordable non-linear editing.
Pioneers had envisioned nonlinear potential decades prior, but ubiquity only came as digital storage and processing crossed performance thresholds while dropping dramatically in price. Within 20 years after the mid-80s, over 90% of all editing shifted from linear to nonlinear systems.
Examining Modern Non-Linear Editing Capabilities and Configurations
Thanks to the non-linear revolution, professional creators possess a breadth of solutions for crafting stunning video content:
- Native NLE Software
- Applications like Adobe Premiere Pro, Final Cut Pro, DaVinci Resolve and AVID Media Composer provide sophisticated tools for large-scale post-production within standalone editing environments. Timelines with multi-track audio, compositing, colour correction and effects enable polished Hollywood-grade results.
- Cloud-Based Apps
- Web apps like WeVideo, Clipchamp and Kapwing allow access to core editing tools and limited media storage through browsers. These facilitate basic editing on the go but lack capabilities for full-scale video work.
- Mobile Apps
- A new generation of mobile apps like Lumafusion, Kinemaster and InShot provide quality editing with multi-layer timelines, effects and audio mixing right on smartphones and tablets. Ideal for fast in-the-field work.
- Collaborative Platforms
- Tools like Frame.io enable powerful team workflows. Editors can share work-in-progress timelines, discuss feedback, and review annotations and revisions in real-time. This facilitates better client and stakeholder collaboration.
- Hybrid Workstations
- Integrated hardware/software solutions like Blackmagic Design creative stacks combine optimized editing software with high-performance media ingest, storage, playback and encoding hardware purpose-built for 4K+ workflows.
Any of these setups can facilitate polished results. Choose based on project scale, portability needs, collaboration requirements, and budget considerations.
When Is Each Approach Best Suited?
So when is each editing approach best suited for video work? Here are some general guidelines:
Linear workflows make sense when:
- Recording live events like news, sports and concerts where media continuously streams in real-time. Pausing to log and transfer footage would mean missing live action.
- Producing lengthy productions like documentaries with terabytes of video. The overhead of organizing massive volumes of media might inhibit agility.
- Quick-turnaround edits are needed like breaking news or in-game broadcast highlights. Taking the time upfront to log non-linear slows response.
- Specialized linear features like in-camera slow-motion replays are strategically needed.
- Budgets are extremely tight. Tape remains cheaper than digital storage infrastructure.
For most other video work, non-linear editing empowers:
- Documentaries, films, and commercials require mixing narrative scenes fluidly out of chronological order.
- Explainer videos, testimonial montages etc. where rearranging evolves with the edit.
- Collaborative workflows between editors, producers and clients. Comments can be marked on shared clips.
- Marketing content requiring rapid iteration and experimentation based on feedback.
- Automated assistance like AI-powered colour correction to speed up intensive processes.
The Future of Video Editing: Where Next?
Video editing continues rapidly evolving. On the horizon, emerging trends like these may shape future post-production:
- AI Assistance – Tools like auto-highlight detection and auto-editing for rough cuts
- Multi-Angle Editing – Leveraging metadata syncing to quickly cut between cameras
- Volumetric Video – Manipulating life-like 3D video captured in VR/AR
- Touchscreen Workflows – Interacting directly with clips via gestures on displays
- Cloud-Based Environments – Expanding collaborative workflows with remote media access
- 8K Adoption – Manipulating processor-intensive ultra-high-res footage
- Mobile/Tablet Workflows – Creating more complex edits directly on portable devices
And one day extended reality interfaces may allow editing immersive 3D scenes by directly ‘stepping into’ the edit.
Creators now possess capabilities once unimaginable. But human creativity, emotion and storytelling will always remain at the core of impactful editing. Technology merely provides the canvas.
In summary, non-linear editing empowers video creators with maximum creative control and convenience. But linear approaches still serve select real-time production needs. Understanding when to apply each enhances efficiency and outcomes.