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The Steenbeck refers to the flatbed, multi-dialed, film-editing table invented and manufactured by Wilhelm Steenbeck in Hamburg, Germany. The Steenbeck machine was patented on March 7, 1934, and it soon became the dominant piece of equipment used to edit film throughout Germany. Likewise, by the 1950s and 60s, “it began to be successfully imported into Britain and America” (Fairservice 333-34), becoming the most advanced and internationally established machine of its kind.

Prior to its near-ubiquitous presence, up-right editing machines like the Moviola were predominately used. However, as noted in a New York Times article from 1970, this changed significantly as Steenbeck editing tables [made] “the standard Moviola film-editing machines seem as outdated as a pinhole camera” (Gussow 1). The Steenbeck surpassed its vertical predecessor in speed, sound quality, and it operated more quietly with larger viewing monitors (Encyclopedia Britannica). And while the American-manufactured KEM editing table posed some competition within the flatbed market, the high engineering standards of the Steenbeck allowed it to excel as the principle-editing tool employed for nearly forty years.

According to an edition of Variety Magazine, Francis For Coppola was one of the first people in America to realize the superior ability of flatbed editing equipment, and as “His longtime collaborator Walter Murch recall[ed]: “‘The Rain People' was edited on a Steenbeck,” and “the ground we broke creatively and technically with 'The Rain People' was continued with 'THX' (1970) and 'American Graffiti' (1973)” (Wolf 2001).

How It Works

The Steenbeck is a flat, table-based machine on which film and soundtracks lie on their sides on flat rotating plates (Fairservice 333). There is a take-up plate for each supply plate, and each pair is responsible for transporting one image or soundtrack. Via a series of mirrors, the film is then clearly projected onto a screen after passing in front of a multi-sided, “rotating prism illuminated from behind” (Fairservice 333). The picture could be paused, or played forward and backward at any speed to allow for very close and precise examination of each frame.

The Steenbeck was built to handle both 16mm and 35mm film of which hundreds of thousands of feet were used for each production. The editor would make his/her desired cuts in grease pencil, and splice with cement or tape. But it was generally the assistants to the editor that were responsible for “manually enter[ing] scene numbers, take numbers, and roll numbers into notebooks” (Encyclopedia Britannica).