Moviola: A Modernist Editing Aesthetic


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Basic operating parts of the Moviola. (1) Sound take-up. (2) Magnetic reproducing head. (3) Photographic sound reproducer. (4) Sound gate. (5) Coupling bar for synchronous picture and sound viewing. (6) Speaker. (7) Constant speed motor switches. (8) Amplified/volume switch. (9) Picture take-up. (10) Viewing screen. (11) Hand-brake. (12) Variable speed motor switch. (13) Optional head-hone outlet. (14) Variable speed foot switch. (15) Constant speed foot switch. (Walter 1973:52)


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ynchronizing equipment: 35mm film synchronizers. (a) 4-way synchronize connected to amplifier/loudspeaker (1), (2), (3) and (4), Volume controls. (5) Footage counter. (6) Under-film magnetic sound heads. Front drum of synchronizer for picture. (b) 2-way synchronizer. (Walter 1973:64)


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One of the methods of tape-splicing positive film. (a) Area of transparent tape across splice. (b) Tape splicing machine. (1) Cutting blades (also one at rear). (2) Punches to perforate the transparent tape. (3) Register pins. (4) Transparent tape. (5) Operating handle. (6) Punch holes. (7) STraight cutting knife. (8) Diagonal cutting knife. (c) Operation. The straight cutting knife cuts the film along the frame line. Two picture cuts are brought together in register and transparent tape is positioned over the two pieces. The top of the splicer is brought down and the operating handle pressed sharply. This cuts the tape level with the sides of the film and punches the perforations. (Walter 1973:67)

Most advances in filmmaking techniques have resulted from a need to improve technical standards which in turn encourages attempts to expand the creative possibilities of the medium. (Fairservice 2001:240)

In the last ten years, no other crew position has experienced such dramatic change in their duties, working methods and collective knowledge base than that of the Editor and the Editor’s Assistant. In the mid 90s a digital revolution occurred that saw tape splicers and film reels replaced by computers, they were coined Non-linear Editing Systems (NLES).

Towards the end of the 90s NLES gradually took over the marketplace and linear editing was considered obsolete. NLES biggest appealing factor was their ability to edit non destructively, they began appearing in film schools, high schools and even private homes towards the end of the 90s with various companies producing different software packages ranging in price and features. From the top end is Avid Media Composer (used by the major studios) to the more affordable Apple based Final Cut Pro and Adobe’s Premiere. Editing had eliminated film stock from its process, film was now cut digitally and played out to tape or a digital file.

To confirm NLES place as the future of editing, Walter Murch was recognised with an Academy Award for his editing on The English Patient (Anthony Minghella 1996), it was the first feature film to win an Oscar that was edited digitally. Since 1999, every film to win an Academy Award in the category of editing has been cut using a NLES, so quick was the rise in popularity of NLES the Oscar name was changed from ‘Best Film Editing’ to ‘Best Editing‘ in 1999.

The evolution singled a turning point in cinema history. For eight decades the practice of splicing and joining film had been passed on from editor to assistant editor but this change meant a new wave of filmmakers could now shoot digitally, cut digitally and screen digitally without prior mentorship. The elitist method of cutting on 35mm working prints became glamorous and overindulgent, limited to the few.

With instant picture editing, sound mixing, compositing, color grading and visual effects all at the touch of a button in postmodern filmmaking, the method of cutting film seems otherworldly. By its modernity, film is an art form that changes with technology and in turn invents new technology. It is little wonder the 20s saw a similar revolution, reinventing the role of the editor by way of an invention called the Moviola, the machine that was to be eventually replaced by NLES.

From eight o’clock in the morning until five-thirty in the evening, he runs miles of shiny film through his fingers, and every time his eagle eye comes across parts that he knows the public isn’t going to want, he takes his scissors and cuts them out. (qtd. in Fairservice 2001:330)

Before the 20s, editing, in the modern sense, did not exist. Such was the novelty of viewing an image that simply moved, early pioneers of cinema did not feel the need to construct elaborate stories, characters or sets to maintain their audiences amusement. Simple events, acts or incidents were merely filmed from a single, static shot with no intercutting. When watching L’Arrivée d’un train à La Ciotat (Louis Lumiére 1895) it stands as a piece of cinema, to postmodern audiences, that is documentary in tone, capturing a slice of life as it happened. To the audiences of Lumiére, who screened the film in a small Parisian cafe, L’Arrivée d’un train à La Ciotat stood as an engaging experience that bewildered viewers, it is widely rumoured the image of the train was feared by early audiences who thought it could come crashing through the wall at any minute.

At the turn of the century, the moving image was still developing and had not yet emerged as a mainstream notion of media or enterprise. Newsreels had become popular, they were one reelers that showed simple events or places, ‘cut’ together with other static shots from around the world. Audiences remained thrilled with the simplicity of an image that simply moved, however entrepreneur Edwin S. Porter saw more artistic opportunities that could evolve from the theory of the ‘cut’ and began to experiment with film and editing.

Porter released a short film in 1903 titled The Life of an American Fireman which combined newsreel footage of a fire, a fire brigade and a woman acting inside a (fake) burning house who is then rescued by a firefighter. The two elements (newsreel footage and the constructed scene) were intercut, the shots alternated from the constructed scene in an interior set to the newsreel footage of the firefighters in an exterior location. The juxtaposition of the woman’s distress against the firefighters frantic efforts to get to her in time created a new reality within the film that was greater than an individual shot. This film gives the first insight into editing in its modern form, by intercutting the event of the house burning with the woman inside with the firefighters created a sense of suspense, intrigue and showed the ability film had to transcend the stage and be structurally dynamic.

The tools available to Porter to cut the rushes together in 1903 were extremely primitive, they consisted of ‘a pair of scissors and a can of cement glue’ (qtd. in Fairservice 2001:330). No regard was given to emotional cutting, Porter simply chopped where he thought it was fit to alternate the scene and join the reels of film.

After Porters evolution with cutting, another American filmmaker known as D. W. Griffith emerged and began to cut to achieve a more emotional affect, whereas previously cutting simply provided a mechanism to move story forward. Griffith constructed shots in form of close-up and extreme long shot, these styles of shots told a story within their framing as well as their juxtaposition and enhanced the overall experience for the audience. Griffith also learned you could replace real time with dramatic time and used this as a criterion for his editing decisions. When most films were simply one or two reels in length (10-20 minutes), Griffith in 1915 released a filmed he is most remembered for, the highly controversial The Birth of a Nation which clearly displays all the editing device and narrative frameworks of previous films, though it ran over two hours. Editing had now developed film into an expressionists media, it allowed the filmmaker to construct story, pace and rhythm as well as build emotional context and promote artistic merit.

The act of cutting from wide shots to a close up was so effective under the Hollywood studio system of the 30s, many producers demanded of directors to cover every scene with individual close-ups of the leads to give complete freedom to the editor and allow him to intercut whenever he felt it was necessary to enhance the emotional impact of the scene or to cover something, he felt, would spoil the scene. This is confirmed by a memo from David O. Selznick from the MGM studios which was sent to Alfred Hitchcock during the shooting of Rebecca (1940) ‘in which he expressed his concern that Olivier’s performance contained too many long pauses and asked for some scenes to be covered also in close-ups’ (Fairservice 2001:252).

By 1910, when silent features had exploded, attracting large numbers of audiences, editing and the editor became such an integral part of the filmmaking process the ‘final cut’ was reserved only for the heads of the studio, very few directors were even allowed into the editing room to make any decisions.

The mechanics of cutting film remained primitive and the skill of a few, scissors and glue were all that was required and if the editor wished to view the film it would have to run through a projector, or, the editor simply held it up to the light to see the images as he pulled it through his fingers to get a sense of rhythm before making the cut accordingly. There was no means, as today, of cutting a film reel and getting instant feedback by viewing the sequence. Even when projecting the film, since it was nitrate-based celluloid (it was highly flammable) a reel would have to be screen in its entirety before being rewound, if the projectionist stopped the film it would simply burst into flames and destroy the reel and working cut. Reels would often contain a whole edited sequence before viewing, and decisions would be made about where the multiple cuts should be moved or removed during playback.

The only method of being able to make adjustments to the cut during the running of the reel was for the projectionist to make a mark with a grease pencil on the film during the playback at the call of the studio executive or editor. The reel would then be given to the editor who would go through and looks for the marks later that evening and reassemble the sequence before conducting another screening.

In Cinema Paradiso (Giuseppe Tornatore 1988) young projectionist Salvator ‘Totó’ Di Vita (Marco Leonardi) is taught to mark the reels for censorship editing by the priest by placing small bits of paper in between the uptake and incoming film which marks the reference point.

The cut and paste method soon grew tiresome and as cinema became a well established industry by the 20s, it was only a matter of time before editing was industrialized by the use of machines that aided in the cutting process. It is Iwan Serrurier, a Dutch born mechanical-electrical engineer who emigrated to the United State in 1904 who is recognised with industrializing the editing process with his invention, it was called the Moviola.

In 1917 when silent films were widely available in public screenings, Serrurier developed an idea of a home movie projector into a working prototype which was enclosed in a compact cabinet, much like a gramophone. This device, he envisaged, could be purchased by families who owned films and would like run them at home in their own surroundings for personal enjoyment. He toured the prototypes after completing their initial design and by 1923-34, he had sold only three Moviola’s which were fitted for projecting films.

Surrurier met with an editor at Douglas Fairbanks Studios as he thought the film industry might be able to utilise the Moviola for playback screenings instead of using a projector. The light bulb fitted in the moviola was cool enough yet still bright enough to allow for a small image to be played without the fear of it catching alight, a variable speed motor controlled the speed of the film passing through by a foot peddle so the viewer was able to pause, play and fast forward the film at will. Surrurier felt this made it an attractive alternative to the large and cumbersome projectors.

After meeting with the editor, it was suggested he modify the Moviola and make it more suited to editing the film. Surrurier modified the Moviola by removing the projection lens, lamp house and by turning it upside down to attach a viewing lens which was simply a magnifying lens mounted on a hinged gate that could be opened like a hinged door, this design aspect allowed an editor to open the door and mark the exact frame with a grease pencil and resume playback. Douglas Fairbanks Studios bought it straight away and soon made it the official machine for editing at the studio.

It was so successful in its simple technique that it became the standard in Hollywood almost over night, with the major and minor studios buying it, securing the Moviola’s future. After its initial introduction, it was clear the Moviola was a superior machine. In 1927, Warner Brother’s released The Jazz Singer (Alan Crosland) which was dubbed the first ‘talkie’ and whereas before, editing simply involved intercutting images, it now included audio editing and a soundtrack and in 1930, the Moviola again upheld its reputation with Serrurier introducing the Sound Moviola, which was equipped to run both the picture and the optical soundtrack locked together, or independently. Once the industry decided an optical soundtrack would be the standard audio recording method it was easy for the Moviola to adapt, the sound head was simply fitted with an optical track reader similar to a projectors which in turn was connected to ear phones or a speaker.

The Moviola’s design was that it was an upright viewing machine, by the 30s, editors had the ability to run a separate sound track, a picture track or run them synchronously, it was compact and easily moveable so larger productions who were shooting on various locations could take the Moviola’s with them and editors could work outside of the studios offices with greater freedom and speed in delivering rushes to studio executives.

With its constant speed motor to ensure correct speed and reproduction of sound also being able to be changed to a variable speed motor when operating pictures only (play, forward or reverse) and being equipped with both magnetic and optical sound reproducing heads, the Moviola allowed the editor to finally concentrate on the art of emotional and rhythmic cutting, freeing his mind from technical burden.

He becomes so skilled in using the machine that the mechanics of operation are automatic and his attention is given fully to the task of film editing. (Walter 1973:56)

Although competition soon emerged in the form of the European Steenbeck, which was a flat table editing system with the film running parallel to the floor, Ernest Walter attests to and describes in his book The Technique of the Film Cutting Room (1973) just how easy it was to assemble the Moviola and get it up and running.

Whereas the viewing table (in the Steenbeck) has its feed plates and take-up plates, always in position, the film traveling from one to the other across the table, the Moviola operates in rather a different way. Very simple “gate” mechanisms are mounted on both sound and picture positions. The film is placed with the perforations over the appropriate driving sprockets, the gate clamped shut and the machine is ready to run. (p. 53)

The other feature which made the Moviola remarkably quick and simple was its ability to allow editors and their assistants to view other rolls of film, which meant they could preview shots before splicing them into the working print. Film was fed through a gate and once passed both picture and sound mechanisms, falls into a ‘bin’ at the back of the machine. An editor who worked with a Moviola usually fed smaller reels of film from hand, allowing the small roll to unwind as he viewed it on the lens, he could then stop at his will and splice the desired take into the main roll which was also located on the machine and examine it straight away. Whereas I previously discussed, prior to the Moviola, a working sequence would have to be screened in its entirety before changes could be made, now editors had the ability to make changes and get instant feedback, allowing for more expressive and creative gestures.

It is little wonder than, with the introduction of the Moviola and thus the arrival of the craft of editing, the 20s saw an explosion in editing theory, especially from practicing Russian filmmakers Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov and Vsevolod Pudovkin who saw montage as the ultimate tool a filmmaker could possess.

...the picture of water and the picture of an eye signifies to weep; the picture of an ear near the drawing of a door = to listen; a dog + a mouth = to bark; a mouth + child = to scream; a mouth + a bird = to sing; a knife + a heart = sorrow, and so on. But this is - montage! Yes. It is exactly what we do in the cinema, combining shots that are depictive, single in meaning, neutral in content - into intellectual contexts and series. (qtd. in Reisz 1968:39)

By 1949 the Moviola company, which was now headed by Serrurier and his son Mark, had a two year back order. Iwan maintained complete control of his design, and in the building of them, the Moviola Company could only produce one per day as they were built by hand to maintain a higher quality rather than go into a production line. Sales for Moviola climbed to $2 million a year, but they had $4 million in orders on the books.

World War II brought a high demand for Moviola’s to fill military and propaganda needs. Again, because of its compactness and ease to be transported from shoot location to shoot location, the military could set up editing houses on the line to deliver newsreels and document air craft tests with speed and efficiency while maintaining tight security.

Cinema is often defined by modernity as the coming of sound and the optical soundtrack, it changed Hollywood forever and introduced films to mass audience appeal. The Moviola also played an important role in shaping cinemas modernity, it transformed editing into a practicing art form and industrial process. In 1924, Serrurier had invented a machine capable of assisting editors with the cutting process and (unbeknown to him) would be the standard in practice for editing over the next eighty years. Such was his contribution to the art of editing his son, Mark, who later took over the business from his father, accepted an Academy Award of Technical Achievement in 1979, only on the proviso his fathers name would be inscribed on the award plaque. Serrurier standardized the process and craft, he presented studios with a viable and economic solution to cutting film that was reliable, efficient and stood the test of time.

The Moviola is no longer in production, although it is still practiced in Hollywood by some, despite the ever growing popularity and now, necessity, for NLES. A shining example of the Moviola’s testament to its design and current use is by editor Michael Kahn who was recognised with an Academy Award for Best Film Editing for Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg 1998) and it was cut on a Moviola, whereas the previous two years and every year since 1998, the Oscar has gone to films cut digitally, ‘Michael Kahn can cut faster on a Moviola than anybody can cut on an Avid’ (qtd. in Corliss 2006).

Works Cited

Corliss, Richard. "A Conversation with George Lucas." 16 Mar. 2006. Web. 20 Nov. 2010. .

Dancyger, Ken. The Technique of Film and Video Editing. 2nd ed. Oxford: Focal, 1997. 3-53. Print.

"The Film Surgeon." American Cinematographer Summer 1983. Print.

Fairservice, Don. "Sounds Promising." Film Editing: History, Theory and Practice. Manchester and New York: Manchester UP, 2001. 223-337. Print.

Reisz, Karl, and Gavin Millar. "Editing And The Silent Film." The Technique of Film Editing. London and New York: Focal Limited, 1968. 15-61. Print.

Walter, Ernest. The Technique of the Film Cutting Room. Second ed. London and New York: Focal, 1973. 50-71. Print.


Life of an American Fireman. Dir. Edwin S. Porter. Perf. Vivian Vaughn and Arthur White. YouTube. Web. 20 Nov. 2010.

L’Arrivée D’un Train à La Ciotat. Dir. Louis Lumiere. YouTube. 30 Jan. 2007. Web. 20 Nov. 2010.

You can download the PDF version of this essay by clicking on this link.

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