Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


Digital Disruption in the Film Industry – Gains and Losses – Part 2: Non-Linear Editing

Posted on | August 26, 2020 | No Comments

In 1999, The Matrix (1999) won 4 Oscars with the Avid, a non-linear video editing computer system, that launched a revolution in the production of audio-visual materials. A new years before, James Cameron edited much of Titanic (1997) himself with an Avid application on a computer at his house.

This post returns to the theme of digital disruption in the film industry. In Part 1, digital cameras were discussed. Below, I examine the transformation of post-production practices with the advent of Non-linear Editing (NLE) and digital-enabled special effects (F/X), paying particular attention to the introduction of the Avid NLE. These technologies came about when computer micro-processing power was sufficiently miniaturized, and software applications became efficient enough for immediate interaction.

To get a quick overview of the digital transformation in the film industry, this quick summary of Keanu Reeves’ documentary Side by Side (2012) is useful:

NLE clearly came about because customers were often under-served by traditional film/video editing technology. While chemically-coated film had been used for over a hundred years, it required a massive industry to operate and thrive. Cameras and their film reels were heavy and difficult to transport. Silver oxide film is dangerous and complicated to develop.

Cameras would capture the action on film but the film could not be viewed until after the film was processed. The director and his team would gather after the shooting and view the “dailies.” They would make decisions on which film was good and any adjustments on camera lighting or style.

Editing was a manual chore requiring sifting through scores of film reels to find the right clips. It was a laborious activity that often left editors with bloody fingers. The final project required literally cutting the film and taping them together.

Finally, only a few techniques existed to add special effects to the film in post production.

Early NLE technology was cumbersome and weak, but it progressed rapidly. This is in line with Clayton Christensen’s theory of innovative disruption. While early developments in digital video were crude and presented little aesthetic and production efficiencies to challenge film, innovations increased rapidly as the PC integrated the fruits of Moore’s law, the rapid increase of transistors on a microprocessor chip. Eventually, the sophistication of digital technologies presented a major threat to the film industry.[1]

While the digital non-linear editing process was conceptualized in the early 1970s, when CBS and Memorex collaborated on the CMX 600, the technology was not practical enough for commercial use. It used washing machine-size storage disks and cost a quarter of a million dollars to record and edit low resolution black and white images.[2]

The next stage in digital editing stemmed from George Lucas’special effects empire with the invention of EditDroid. This computer used footage stored on LaserDisks. EditDroid was sold by a George Lucas spin-off company, DroidWorks. The technology did not really work very well, and the company shut down in 1987.

The major disruption came with the development of the Avid NLE system. Bill Warner, the founder of AVID Technologies, Inc. had been crippled in an accident that rendered him unable to walk. In 1984, he sought to buy digital editing equipment but was surprised that the technology didn’t really exist on the market.

Warner spent the next few years in production to create a non-linear editing system. In 1987 invented the digital editor and formed the Avid company. At first, the digital editing took place in the Apple Macintosh and then it would render the edits on tape offline by controlling a stack of regular video editing machines.

He started the company in September of 1987, but then in November, the stock market fell apart. Warner said, “I started the company in September of 1987. I got going and then in November of 1987 boom, the stock market fell apart, Black Monday, 500 point fall in the Dow and people said to me, they said, they said oh, now you’ll never raise money. And I said I just need one — I am just one person who needs money. I need $500,000. It’s still out there. I’ll get it.” He took his Avid Technology to the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) annual trade show and found the response overwhelming.

A colleague of mine was at the 1988 NAB conference and was intrigued with the Avid. Patricia Amaral was the head of the Media Lab at the University of Hawaii and worked with Professors Stan Harms and Dan Wedemeyer to get the Avid NLE. In 1989, the University of Hawaii was the first educational institution to purchase the first Avid.

I was intrigued when I first saw the AVID non-linear digital editing system as a PhD student at the University of Hawaii in 1989. It was a clunky system but connected to a new Apple Mac that brought up thumbnails of all the clips that had been digitized. Using a mouse and keyboard, the clips could be edited/assembled and transformations added, but it took a while for video assemblage because the editing technology still required the actual rendering to take place using traditional 3/4 inch tape drives. At the end of the day they would start their laborious task and in the course of a few hours, they would finish their edits.

How does it fit the requirements of Christensen disruptive innovation model? For Christensen, almost all disruptive innovations happen when a new entrant can enter a market, and by starting with simple technology. Eventually, they improve enough to seriously disrupt the market. He distinguishes disruptive innovation from sustaining innovation, when a company continues to improve an established product. While film editing made continuous improvements over the course of its history, NLE made transformative changes over a short period of time. The results were so weak in the beginning, that film advocates quickly dismissed it, only to be surprised when it later became competitive so quickly.[3]

Now, several NLEs compete with each other in the cinema, consumer, and television industries. Adobe Premiere Pro, Avid Media Composer, DaVinci Resolve, and Final Cut Pro X are the current leaders in the NLE technologies. These editors below discuss the current state of the NLE editing.

In an upcoming post, I will discuss digital’s influence on special effects.


[1] From Clayton M. Christensen, Michael E. RaynorRory McDonald, et al. “What Is Disruptive Innovation?” Harvard Business Review, 19 Dec. 2016,
[2] From First Cut 2: More Conversations with Film Editors
By Gabriella Oldham. p. 4.
[3] Raynor, Michael E.; Christensen, Clayton M. (2003-10-09). The Innovator’s Solution: Creating and Sustaining Successful Growth. (p. 18). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.


AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is Professor at the Department of Technology and Society, State University of New York, Korea. Before joining SUNY, he taught at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas, where he maintains his US address. From 2002-2012 was on the faculty of New York University and held his first academic position at Victoria University in New Zealand. He has also spent ten years at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii.


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    Professor at State University of New York (SUNY) Korea since 2016. Moved to Austin, Texas in August 2012 to join the Digital Media Management program at St. Edwards University. Spent the previous decade on the faculty at New York University teaching and researching information systems, digital economics, and strategic communications.

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