NLE Overview

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This is a great watch if you’re interested in NLE history.

NLE stands for “Non-Linear Editor”. It’s a fancy way of saying that you can pick any portion of any clip and edit it anywhere you want to in your existing video. Back in the tape or celluloid editing days this wasn’t so easy as the tape had to be linearly advanced to the correct point for an edit. Be grateful you don’t have to worry about that. You have options:

Blackmagic Resolve

Resolve started as “DaVinci”, a color correction tool that required lots of hardware and cost as much as my first home. I’m just old enough to remember the glory days of ‘color timing’ when an operator would run film through the DaVinci on its way to videotape; a process known as Telecine. When that specialized software+hardware model ceased to function well (same trouble Avid’s having now but we’ll get into that) Blackmagic bought the tech at a good price and passed on the savings to the customer. Like, majorly passed on the savings. To make a long story short, they added their own editing code to the color tools, bought a similarly successful but struggling set of software from Eyeon and Fairlight, and now had one piece of software that could do editorial, color, sound and VFX inside the same application. And all for the price of…free. There’s a “Studio” version that adds some things many people find they never need, and even then, it’s only $300, and that’s for a perpetual license, not a subscription. I’ve used Resolve since before its acquisition by Blackmagic and since they bought it, I’ve only paid once for each of the licenses I own. How is this possible? Nobody really seems to know; it’s just Black Magic.

I love Resolve as an editor. It has the potential to overtake what Adobe hasn’t been able to crack yet , and Apple has no interest in pursuing: the pro market. I find it combines the best of all the NLEs I’ve used. FCP X’s magnetic timeline, Premiere’s versatility and playback performance, and Avid’s “we’re interested in professionals” attitude.

If you continue reading, you’ll get a general sense that Apple played things to quickly, trying to innovate far beyond what customers could tolerate, while Avid relied too much on the status quo. I feel like Resolve sits squarely between the two, innovating at a rate that is comfortable and secure for the professional and quickly enough to avoid obsolescence. It allows for great metadata tagging and searching, almost as good as FCP X, and it’s Cut page and Edit page have features that allow similar replication of much of what people love about FCP X’s timeline.

And ultimately, for the people I teach, you can’t argue with the price of free. It runs on Mac, Windows and Linux, has an excellent manual, extremely engaged development team, class-leading features, team collaboration, reliable development schedule and company ethos, unmatched workflow for ingest/edit/color/sound/VFX, etc. Because it’s platform agnostic, free and fully featured, I can recommend it regardless of OS, budget or scale of project. It simply represents the most obvious choice for what I’m teaching.

If all of that wasn’t enough, take a look at Resolve’s list of credits in high end Film and TV usage. The inclusion of Fusion alone shows you the caliber of tool now freely at your disposal.

Adobe Premiere

The early ’90s meant big changes for the upcoming world of digital media. Though Premiere supported a max resolution of 160×120 in 1991, it relied less on hardware than the competition.

Adobe had a product that, for some time, was outstanding in its mediocrity. While it got the job done, it simply didn’t boast a feature set or stability that won folks over. Around 2010 or so, things began to really improve. The hardware acceleration of its “Mercury Playback Engine” meant cutting current codecs was possible without transcoding. Its interface got cleaned up quite a bit, small annoyances were addressed, and for the first (and only?) time, it seemed like Adobe was aggressively catering to their professional users. When Apple desecrated Final Cut Pro in 2011, Adobe really seized their opportunity, seeking to make Premiere as ubiquitous in the video world as Photoshop is in the photo world. Unfortunately, like Apple, Adobe is a behemoth, and the reality is that out of all the seats of Premiere sold, not that many are pro-level users. Adobe seems far more interested in 2019 in sucking the world into its cloud than nearly anything else.

Adobe abandoned the Mac platform for a time with Premiere.

Sure “Gone Girl” was edited in Premiere, so was Deadpool 1. Deadpool 2 was edited in Avid so what does that tell you. Premiere tracks every piece of media; it could take 25 minutes to open a feature-length project. So editors must work by reels. Gone Girl required specially-crafted SSD pre-caching of all the media on the shared storage.

Apple Final Cut Pro

So a guy named Randy Ubillos created the first few versions of Premiere. Not long after, he started from the ground up with another editor based on Apple’s QuickTime but for Macromedia. The product was called “Final Cut” and was initially available for both Mac and Windows. Apple ultimately purchased that product, but somewhat passively. It was really until the incorporation of IEEE1394 FireWire near the turn of the century that everyone realized how great this combo was. The ability to record with a consumer “DV” camera and digitally transfer to the computer for realtime editing was awesome. This was when I was in middle school and it rocked my world.

By the time Apple hit Final Cut Pro “7” (never an official name BTW), it had been adopted in many a post house. TV commercials, some features, and lots of web content enjoyed the use of FCP. Directors like los hermanos Coen and David Fincher were all about it. From as far back as 2002, (e.g. “The Ring”) to 2016 (e.g. Kubo and the Two Strings) FCP had its place with the big boys in editing. Though it still was certainly not designed for feature film work in the way that Avid was, FCP was reliable, capable, intuitive, and rather universally loved.

Then, in 2011, Final Cut Pro X was announced. It’s price and feature set meant it was ‘democratized’. Now everyone could afford a license. It was 64-bit, had a redesigned UI, and was exactly what Apple said we all needed. But it wasn’t. Ironically, though they’d added the “pro” monicker to “Final Cut’s” name, Apple ultimately removed professionalism from its software. There was an understandable outcry, and everyone, literally everyone I knew who used it professionally, switched to Premiere or AVID.

By 2019, the wounds have healed sufficiently that a lot of people give Final Cut Pro X a go because the negativity surrounding it is waning. But it’s usually smaller groups or individuals, and the occasional post house. Apple has to be credited for innovating. And if anyone on the planet has the authority to encourage us to rethink editorial strategy Randy Ubillos definitely qualifies. FCP X attempts to be “trackless”. Instead, you assign roles to clips before editing which defines their future interactions. Then sync and a host of other editing annoyances are somewhat mitigated. The “magnetic timeline” of FCP X is quite useable once you wrap your mind around it, and the software is quite stable which is huge. However, Apple lost such trust with professionals that it’ll take a new generation to forget its misgivings.

For perspective, there are 1.4 million active seats of Premiere. There are 3 million sold seats of FCPX. Only Apple could make software so thoroughly suck and then ultimately be forgiven for it. We won’t get into what they did to their computers here. Apple has a huge presence and their ability to sell a symbiotic set of hardware and software makes them a force to be reckoned with, no matter your personal feelings on the brand.

Avid Media Composer

Avid was founded almost immediately after I was born. Correlation, not causation, as far as I’m aware. In those days, film was the only professional option, so when Avid brought the convenience of a digital edit with the ability to “MediaMatch” it back to cut the actual film, the Moviolas were shaking in their boots. Physical cutting of celluloid (for the edit phase) was at last threatened with extinction.

But “digital” had an insatiable appetite. It soon was simply an intermediate step for the cutting of film; it was becoming the acquisition format for everything lower budgeted. The consumer digital video boom was a democratization of video-making. The success of the software-based video editing in the ’90s makes sense when you understand the alternative was expensive hardware-based solutions. Avid’s Film Composer was Mac-only, and relied on specialized supporting hardware to run. Nowadays “films” are primarily shot, edited and distributed digitally. And an NLE with its roots steeped in true film production becomes almost a virtue over a vice.

The Hollywood market is Avid, but It’s been the standard due more to tradition than superiority. Modern workflows require reimagining the way things operate today, and where Avid’s organizational niche for working with film-based workflows was unique, it’s hardly applicable anymore. I edited primarily on “Avid XPress DV” for quite some time, but it never matched the competition from a value prospect. Interestingly, it never worked on Windows Vista. But nothing really worked on Windows Vista so I don’t hold it against them. The thing today is, no software company can focus on making Hollywood-specific editing software and make it work financially in 2019. So quite recently, Avid has made huge strides to compete with the likes of the other NLEs. I still say, if you want to edit in Hollywood, learn Avid. Because it’s based on a shared storage work flow of larger operations, even things like media import can seem confusing to beginners. Avid can bring media in as “linked” media where it uses third party “AMA” plugins to read your camera’s native format. Linked media is ‘linked’ to the video file on your hard drive and simply “sees” the media in that folder structure. Alternatively, Avid can “import” media which is Avid nomenclature for importing and converting from the original camera format to an edit-friendly format (e.g. an MXF-wrapped DnX file) and storing the new files in the Avid MediaFiles folder on your hard drive.

Even if Walter Murch (legendary editor who won Avid their first editing oscar) doesn’t like to micromanage his trims frame by frame, much of the editing world relies on it. Avid’s trimming mode was once relatively unique and those used to it couldn’t live without it. Now it’s not such an exclusive thing.

There are more options, but for the sake of everyone’s sanity, I have limited to what are, for better or worse, the most popular ones used in a professional post environment. I loved the editor Vegas for a long time; it’s audio features were second-to-none. Edius also had its place. But in 2019, it’s hard for me to recommend anything more strongly than Resolve.

Basic Operation

All the NLE options listed above are very capable editors. Especially as you begin, the software will not be the limitation. Here are the basics of how most of them work.

Editing, at its heart, means you have a lot of source material from which you need to pull small pieces and assemble into something that conveys a message. Many programs feature a two-window interface with a “source” preview on the left (your original ‘source’ material) and a “timeline” or “output” window on the right (the cut version). Basic editing is as simple as setting an “in” point, an “out” point, and then placing the section of material intelligently into the timeline/sequence.

Knowing only that, you have enough information to create a story inside any of these NLEs.

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