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An industry pioneer remembers...
The (Painful) Way it Was

By Peter Fasciano

In these days of advancing digital complexity I sometimes yearn for the simpler times. But then some inner part of me knows that them "good ol' days" are more a process of mental fermentation than fact. All of us have our tales about, "...walking X miles to school- uphill- both ways- yadayada." (yawn) But, in the early broadcast days most things that we mouse-click for granted today were technically complex (hard).

Most of us understand that videotape editing is (or was) essentially a time-precise copying process. You sequentially copy only the exact parts of original scenes/takes onto another tape in order to build the story in linear fashion. Most also know that film editing is a physical process of splicing- cutting and pasting strips of pictures and sound. Film editing is also nonlinear as the physical clips of film can be re-cut and re-ordered. For a brief period (about a decade) physical cutting was also true for broadcast videotape.

Looking like an industrial strength film splicing block on steroids, the Smith Block videotape splicer demanded exacting care and patience for every splice. For the video to play smoothly on-air, (no picture roll or breakup on the TV screen) you had to cut and join the splice at a very precise spot on the tape. Using this beast was like splicing film blindfolded because you couldn't see any pictures. When you held videotape up to the light all you would see was a brightly lit ribbon of dull brown plastic.

Where on quadruplex videotape does one video frame end and the other begin?

The above diagram shows how video is recorded as a modulated radio frequency in vertical stripes on the videotape. One of every 8 or 16 stripes had an edit pulse above it. This small magnetic marker along the top edge of the tape indicated a new video frame. The 'sprocket hole per frame' for 16mm film is similar in concept.

These magnetic patterns were made visible by lightly dabbing the videotape ends to be joined with Edivue, a solution of iron rouge dust suspended in Freon. After carefully aligning the two overlapping videotape ends through a microscope, you made a very careful razor cut at precisely 87.3° across the tape (at 15ips), and an equally careful application of thin adhesive backing tape to hold it all to - gether... aannnd - Ta-Daaaa,
one clean videotape splice. (maybe)

I started at a small TV station, WMUR Channel 9 in Manchester, NH, where I edited videotape mechanically - cut by agonizing cut- on a routine basis. A few network shows like Laugh In were also cut by hand in this way.

The last time I worked a Smith Block was circa 1976-uhh-ish at WSMW Ch 27. Newly post-Watergate. Leo D., a staff technician was preparing to make syndication copies of the nationally distributed David Susskind Show from the just completed (and only) master tape. As Leo rewound the 90 minute master reel there was a momentary power failure and a loud plastic "SNAP!" in the dark. When lights returned a second later there were bits of brown plastic confetti flappa-flapping in the air. Both tape reels were freely spinning and spewing tape all over the floor around our feet. (???) - That can't be good. Waves of confusion, agony, and that helpless, "Houston, we have a problem", look swept over Leo. I said, "Don't move or step on anything."

We spent five minutes slowly cleaning and cranking tape off the floor and back onto the reels by hand. The same conspiratorial forces of nature that make open face sandwiches always land jelly-side-down also make videotapes wrinkle or snap apart at the most interesting part of the program. We all know such phenomena so I won't dwell. Leo and I spent a sharing moment as guys do, exchanging the obligatory supportive mutterings, whimperings and epithets about stuff like job security and damage reports. Then I said I'd be back in two hours, and drove to Channel 9, hoping to borrow the old Smith Splicer. Found it where I left it some years earlier under a thick blanket of dust in that closet of, "stuff-we're-gonna-toss".

Back at the debacle I dragged tape ends across audio heads as best I could to mark some cut points that made sense in the heated debate Susskind was having with Haldeman (or was it Ehrlichman?) Whatever. Alchemy! Leo watched with dummied wonder as I daubed chemistry to frayed ends and gingerly moved gewgaws and vernier wheels while peering into the microscope. Leo sucked his cigarette. Hard.

Leo was not confident.

"It'll never play. It's gonna break up all over the place. My ass is toast."

"No, Leo. Not toast. Grass. Your ass is gra - Hey! - A little faith over here?"

Cutting videotape by hand involves hushed, delicate moves, like safecracking, punctuated by slamming and banging as you open and close the tape retainers. It's hard to combine both actions and instill confidence. I never saw Leo suck on a cigarette so hard. Long ash hanging down. I loaded the joined reels and rewound about 30 seconds.

"Leo, stop sucking. Stop pacing. Watch and tell me when you see the splice."

I hit the button. We watch. We wait. We wai-i-t - - I tape and announce that the splice went by about a minute earlier. Leo doesn't believe. So I hit and the tape again, snapping my fingers and pointing at the silver joining tape as it glides smoothly through the vacuum canoe on the video scanner.

Leo, sucking, squinting - thinking.

No breakup. No noise. No nothing. No problem. As the splice passed by, the picture switched neatly from Susskind to Erhlichman (or was it Haldeman?) Whatever.

Leo sucked some more - and thought hard about what he had just seen. For him it was disquieting and calming at the same time. Some of us know this moment as falling up- where the smoke and chaos run in reverse to coalesce and spontaneously form a neat pile of building materials, a multistory office building or perhaps a pyramid of oranges.

It's rare to see someone so still.
Quietly squinting, sucking, steeped in cognitive dissonance.

Tools of the ancients had come down from the sky.

Deus ex machina.

I packed up the Smith splicer and chemistry.

As we made copies of the show through the night we did the ceremonial happy dance as the splice sailed by smoothly each time. It was a nice way to end an era.

Visit Jack Calloway's Museum of Early Video Editing on the web:

- Pete Fasciano

One of the designers of the original Avid editing system, Peter Fasciano is Corporate Fellow, Advance Development, at Avid.

P.S.: The transport buttons in the body copy are a fair replication of the old
RCA TR-60 tape deck controls.

Copyright 2000, Peter Fasciano, all rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Posted: 17 August 2005
Bob Lamm, SMPTE/New England Newsletter/Web Page Editor