One of the last machines

17th October 2016

I have had a hugely enjoyable morning viewing a 16mm combined optical print on a 4 plate Steenbeck flat bed. The substance of what I watched must wait for a future post, since here I want simply to celebrate the pleasure provided by the wonderful Steenbeck. A time there was when these editing tables were ubiquitous, and of course I recognise that my jouissance came with a a double shot of nostalgia. Such, however, is the age profile of those making television today, that I wager the majority of people in production now have no sense whatever of what I’m talking about. Certainly most of them will not have had the satisfactions of lacing up a print, locking sprocket holes onto the triangular teeth, hearing the nylon rollers click crisply into place, and easing the speed controller into ‘forward’ so as to prompt the hum of the spinning prism and, finally, to see a sequence of tiny still images spring into life.

When I started producing television programmes in the early 1980s almost all documentaries and an increasing amount of drama was shot on 16mm film. From the negative that ran through the camera rushes work prints were made and these were brought to a cutting room for editing on a Steenbeck. For a 50-minute documentary, the director and editor might be hunched over this machine for six weeks or more before the ‘cutting copy’, all marked up with white pencil codes, would be sent off for ‘neg cutting’ and the creation of a first master. As this video demonstrates:

According to the corporate history on the rather charming Steenbeck site, the first flat bed editing table from the company was manufactured in 1953. In the decades that followed variants of that first model, including ones with 6 and even 8 plates (for multiple sound tracks), became the standard production work horses across Europe, in the States and beyond. By the time Channel 4 made independent production a reality in 1982 there must have been hundreds of Steenbecks in London alone. Time and technology march on, however, and pretty soon we were editing with linear tape systems and then with the digital set-ups like Final Cut Pro that today run on laptops. All too soon Steenbecks were mechanical dinosaurs.

One of the few that I know that is kept in immaculate order is in the basement of the British Film Institute offices in Stephen Street in London. This is where the BFI Viewing Service will set you up to watch film viewing copies held by the National Archive that have not yet been digitised. Much of the nation’s film and television collection has migrated to pixels (*see correction below), which means that engaging with the materiality of a print on a Steenbeck is a process to be cherished. As I did this morning watching and listening to a potent strand from my past run smoothly round the rollers, across the prism and onto the spinning take-up spool.

Update: from the excellent Adapt research project, here’s a further, engaging video about cutting film on a Steenbeck, with former editors Dawn Trotman and Oliver White:

Additional links:

‘A Brief History of Film Editing Technology’ by Joseph Herman, from Editors Guild Magazine, May-June 2012.

Comments

  1. John Wyver says:

    And a small correction: I meant that most of the viewing copies I encounter are on DVDs these days, not that the National Archive holds the masters only in digital form. Robin Baker from the BFI rightly points out that less than 5% of the collection itself is held in digital form.

  2. Chris Gavin says:

    Hi, It’s 2019 now, so I’m seeing this 3 years later.

    I’m trying to find a room with a functioning Steenbeck as a location for a one day video shoot. I’ll try and contact the BFI, but if you know where any other working machines are around London, I’d be very grateful for any info. Thanks if you or anyone acan help. my email is chris@chrisgavin.com . Many thanks.

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