Herb Dow and the Non-linear Revolution
In the early 1980s, editor Herb Dow, ACE was cutting TV shows for executive producer David Gerber on the Culver City lot. “It was heaven,” says Dow. “I had a corner office with a big picture window, my assistant in another room, my car parked outside.” He moved to Universal, where he found himself in a small windowless room, working on a show that drove him to distraction. The combination pushed him to tell the head of post production he’d had enough and was quitting. “He told me they were doing a new show, ‘Still The Beaver,’ in the Oakwood Apartments on this new editing machine called VidiCut,” recalls Dow. “And he asked me if I’d be interested – and I said, sure.”
At the Oakwood Apartments, there were windows – and Adrian Ettlinger, a broadcast engineer who had pioneered non-linear editing with the CMX-600 and created instant replay. “I saw a 64K Commodore computer controlled by a light pen and six VHS decks,” recalls Dow. “The most interesting thing was something he called ‘the script,’ which gave every line of dialogue a number and let you call up every performance for that number.” That, he says, was “God’s gift,” since producers constantly wanted to see other performances. Dow was sold. Ettlinger asked to be Dow’s assistant editor, to see first-hand how an editor worked, which would allow him to improve the system.
Dow remembers asking Ettlinger for specific features, and then getting them the next day. Once, after three hours of work, the machine crashed. “Adrian had always told me to remember to save everything,” says Dow. “When I told him the machine crashed, he asked if I’d saved it, and of course I said no.” He had lost everything, a blow to an editor who had “never lost a frame of film in my life.” Dow told Ettlinger that editors are usually too caught up in their work to remember to save. To fix that, Ettlinger created auto-save.
What started as one machine became a business, Cinedco, with financing and support from Milt Forman, who was also behind Steadicam. The name of the system changed to Ediflex when there was a possibility of funding from Arriflex; instead, New World Pictures bought 50 percent of the company in 1983. Ediflex’s first real-world test came when Lorimar vice president of post Chuck Silvers asked Dow to train the respected ACE editor Fred Berger – who was editing “Dallas” – on the system. “He was 69 and had never seen a computer,” says Dow, who recounts that Berger was soon up and running with Ediflex. Soon, the Cinedco system was being used on “Knots Landing,” “Falcon Crest,” and “Dallas,” three big shows of the era.
With stupendous growth, Dow and his Ediflex colleagues found themselves in full training mode. “At one time we had 24 trainers, all of them editors or assistant editors,” says Dow. “We’d send the trainer to the editing room and he’d stay as long as needed.” The free, comprehensive training wasn’t the only plus. Dow could easily convince post production heads based on the economics. “It was $2,500 a week for our equipment,” he says. “And Lorimar said they spent $3,000 to $3,500 a week on print dailies. So I could tell them we would save them $500 to $1,000 a week.” Within two years, says Dow, the company controlled 80 percent of the market. “We buried EditDroid and Touchvision because of our service and training,” Dow says. “And, as an editor, I spoke the language.” In 1986, Cinedco won a Technical Emmy for “Design and Implementation of Electronic Editing Systems for Film Programs.”
The downfall came when Cinedco’s owners decided to use the company’s cash reserve to make an “interactive” movie, by which the cinemagoers decided the direction of the movie at several points by voting. The film was a flop – and the money was gone. “We had just built a digital Ediflex that even people from Avid and Lightworks liked, because we had the script in it now and a great controller from the guys who built the Nintendo controller,” Dow says. But the company closed its door in the early 1990s, selling the script patent to Avid.
The impact that digital nonlinear editing had on the film/TV landscape is hard to overstate. Dow notes how, with film, if the editor made a mistake and had to splice it back, everyone saw it in the screening, which could draw unwelcome attention. That put a damper on experimenting in the edit suite. And if a producer wanted to see a version from three weeks previously, it wasn’t possible unless there was a B&W dupe, which few productions could afford. “Being able to save versions, I could always put it back the way I wanted,” says Dow. “Being able to look at all the performances, and being able to try anything I wanted freed me up. As an editor, it gave me the greatest freedom I’d ever had.”
Although Dow is receiving a Lifetime Achievement award, he’s still actively involved in the latest revolution in the post production industry: post production in the cloud. In charge of global sales at BeBop, a cloud technology company, he’s focused on getting the hardware out of the edit suite, another massive game changer. “I was interested in the cloud two years ago,” says Dow. “Our motto is keep the art, lose the hardware. Post production will all be in the cloud.” Post in the cloud saves money, says Dow, and it will allow editors to work from anywhere. The company is currently doing “proof of concept” tests with several major media companies.
“Post production is my fraternity/sorority that I belong to,” says Dow. “I’m still about making it easier for editors. With Ediflex, I was able to help all those editors by making their jobs easier. And, now, by getting rid of hardware, we’re enabling them to get out of those small windowless rooms many of them are still working in. I have my Avid wherever I want my Avid to be.”