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27 Mar2018

The Magic of NLEs and How to Pick the Best for Your Video Editing Project

Great editing is based on ideas, experience, and the eye of the editor. But that doesn’t mean that the right tools aren’t important as well. Over the last few decades, the tried-and-true methods of film (and then video) editing have been revolutionized by non-linear editing (NLE). What is NLE, what did it replace, and what are its advantages? And, if we’re going to do video editing, what are the best NLE software platforms that we should use when we dive into a video editing project?

What is NLE?

Film editing began with the cutting of film. To create a transition from one piece of footage to another it was necessary to physically trim pieces of footage and splice them together. With the advent of digital video, it was possible to remove the destructive element of cutting film from the act of editing. Instead, editors can manipulate clips on the timeline of a software program – rearranging, trimming, and manipulating the footage as much as they wish without losing any of the quality of the original footage. This system is non-linear, in that the editor can access any portion of the clip directly, without having to play through an entire tape or film clip.

Linear Versus Non-Linear Editing – What’s the Advantage?

With early video productions, editing had to be done tape-to-tape. This had to be a linear process – you couldn’t insert or delete scenes later without having to rerecord the entire tape from the point of the change. Not only is this process slow and cumbersome, every time you record from one tape to another there’s a degradation in quality. If you’re old enough to remember VHS tapes you undoubtedly viewed someone’s “copy of a copy” and cringed at the quality.

With the advent of powerful computers, it was possible to break the boundaries of tape to tape editing – linear editing – and move to a new paradigm – non-linear editing. Digital recordings can be sliced into as many pieces as you want and then arranged on a timeline. Need to add or delete scenes? Just drag and drop and you’re good to go. While non-linear editing had some teething problems related to the quality of captured digital information in the early years, the ever-increasing power of even humble laptops has made NLE the default option for virtually all the video editing that is now performed.

When You Want the Best

NLE video editing software is available at all levels, from simple apps you can download to your phone, to sophisticated and high-end platforms that are utilized by the professionals creating your favorite summer blockbuster. At the high end of the scale, there are three programs that dominate the field – Adobe Premiere Pro, Avid Media Composer, and Final Cut ProX by Apple.

Adobe Premiere Pro

If it concerns digital media, Adobe has a program for it – Printshop, Illustrator; the list goes on. Premiere Pro is Adobe’s entry in the NLE video editing software sweepstakes, and it’s a strong contender. In part that’s because of Adobe’s other products. With a little practice, you’ll soon be deploying Jedi-like skills in integrating materials from Adobe’s other products into Premiere Pro – in particular After Effects, Adobe’s well-regarded animation package.

Adobe’s given a lot of thought on how to design the workspace by giving you a lot of control over how it’s laid out. The user interface is constructed around four windows that can be moved, resized, and customized to suit your style, and you can select or deselect the particular tools you want to be displayed in each. You can save your layout as a preset or choose from a variety of ready-made layouts.

Premiere Pro also gets high marks for its compatibility with a wide variety of native media formats. There’s no modification required to work with them since it’s designed to allow you to edit in the native format. You’ll also find a wide range of rendering options, with a variety of presets for the commonly used device and social media formats.

Avid Media Composer

Talk to long-time video editors and Avid’s Media Composer will be at the top of many lists. Its deep roots in the industry are evidenced by solid, trouble-free performance. The capabilities of Media Composer are many, and that comes with a steep learning curve that may cause cold feet for some less-experienced video editors looking to change programs. But ask the pros, and they’ll tell you that time spent learning will pay off in the end.

Don’t be scared off by the discussion of Media Composer’s learning curve. The basic roots are the same as other programs, with a track-based timeline structure. And Media Composer has powerful collaborative tools that will let a team of editors work very smoothly together. And Media Composer is well-equipped to handle various media formats, both with input and output.

Final Cut Pro X

Apple’s Final Cut series has been around for a while and has stuck pretty closely to the usual track-based structure that’s the model for the majority of NLE video editing systems. Final Cut Pro X (FCPX) has taken things in an entirely new direction.

FCPX eschews the traditional track approach by using a “magnetic” system that lets you arrange and add clips, effects, and more without having to create new tracks. FCPX also relies on a keyword collection system for organizing media, rather than the more conventional bin structure used by other programs (and earlier versions of Final Cut Pro). The downside to this is less manual control to the editor, while the upside is the potential for increased organizational power and flexibility if you trust the software to do more of the underlying work.

While fans of FCPX are applauding its new approach, the slow rollout of this iteration has limited adoption by studios and indie houses. It will be interesting to see how that changes over time with increased familiarity.

– Video Caddy

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