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1970, this changed significantly as Steenbeck editing tables [made] “the standard Moviola film-editing machines seem as outdated as a pinhole camera” (Gussow 1).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).
Analog vs. Digial
Pro-Analog: The Steenbeck Still Breathes
The Steenbeck is an analog, linear, film-editing machine, meaning it works with continuously variable elements (sound and light waves), inscribed in a durable object (film). And there are certain film editors that stand by this process despite advancements that have been made in film-editing technology. As we see in the case of an editor by the name of Tom Rolf, “‘The physical handling of film is a tactile pleasure lacking in the digital process…who at first missed ‘having the film in [his] hands, around [his] neck, in [his] mouth’” (Weiner 26). Similarly, due to the direct contact with actual film when editing with an analog machine like the Steenbeck, many believe that one is able to grasp the concept of editing film more astutely and can therefore produce better results. “The editor literally cuts up a print of the film, then tapes selected pieces back together in a new order. The entire process is very physical and easy to grasp” (Argy 92).
Other positive claims of analog-based editing on the Steenbeck over digital-editing on a computer involves a more precise product, because as editor Doreen Matthews says: “It is a more direct route if you’re going back to negative” (Argy 92). With the Steenbeck, one has the ability to have a print to look at as it’s projected on a large screen, whereas on a computer screen, according to film editor Lewis Schoenbrun, “‘Something can be slightly soft (out of focus), and you won’t know.’” (Argy 92).
Furthermore, with film, one can see much closer to the real colors; but “When working on a computer, ‘You can’t make a lot of calls on color. It’s a whole different medium, so the colors don’t correlate’” (Matthews as qtd by Argy 92). And lastly, filmmakers with low budgets are able to rent a Steenbeck for “about one-fourth of what a digital system would cost” (Argby 92).
Pro-Digital: The Steenbeck is Officially Obsolete
When the technology of digital, non-linear, editing systems entered the scene in the early 1990s, it brought the near, if not complete end to the Steenbeck’s forty year rein over the world of film editing. To edit film digitally meant a move away from the physicality of analog editing, towards a more abstract and computer-driven system. “The big advantage of this [shift] is that once footage has been digitized [(made into discrete entities or ‘states’)] and loaded into a non-linear editing system, any number of edit decisions and effects can be tried out, modified and changed without the commitment of having to either record them on videotape or physically cut the original celluloid” (Creative Review Magazine 57). Furthermore, with digital, non-linear computer systems comes an increase in the amount of optical effects one can employ in their editing, as well as gaining the ability to “see how a particular cut or effect works immediately instead of waiting days for their work to return from the opticals house” (Creative Review Magazine 57).
In 2001, a film-maker by the name of Atom Egoyan created a very interesting art installation in London at the former Museum of Mankind. Highlighting the disparity between the analog and digital world, Egoyan’s Steenbeckett was a film of Samuel Beckett’s play: Krapp’s Last Tape, “in which the 69-year-old Krapp listens to a 30-year-old recording of his younger self recounting a love affair he has long forgotten.” (Thorson 8). As Thorton described in his article, “Egoyan Mounts an Ode to Analogue”, the art installation started:
In one small room [where] the viewer [was] overwhelmed with a huge projection of the film from a digital source. In the next room, analogue [took] over and the film [was] shown on a computer-sized Steenbeck screen. But that screen [was] positioned beyond our reach. Between the Steenbeck and the viewer Egoyan [had] spun out all 2,000 feet of the film. It [hung] like a spider web from roof to ceiling, but the web was] actually the film we [were] watching, spinning through spools around the room until it [was] projected on the Steenbeck (8).
Therefore, in Steenbeckett, we see that Egoyan attempted to tackle and really demonstrate the uniquely human experience and tangibility attached to analog editing. Whereas nonlinear and digital technology is abstract and detached from a person’s physical interaction with the medium, “the idea of time and the recording of time taking up a certain amount of physical space” (Egoyan as qtd by Romney 7) is specifically characteristic of analog media, as demonstrated with the display of all 2,000 feet of film in Steenbeckett. But in the same regard, the 2,000 feet of film resembled a spider web, indicating analogs tendency toward degradation and decay, an issue that appears absent in the room with the digital source.