Non-linear editing (NLE for short) is the standard mode of editing today. It is ubiquitous and ever-present in our modern post-production world. In fact, most have forgotten that there was even a time when editing non-linearly was entirely out of reach, particularly in the dawn of film and TV production. 

In these days – and up until the 80’s when digital technologies began to arrive – there was only one way to edit, and that was “linear” – i.e. an edit built in a deliberate order, from one shot to the next, either in “Reel-to-Reel” flatbed editing machines or some other cumbersome tape-based system. 

In this article, we’ll learn a little bit about the history of post-production editing, how the older linear methods worked, and how the concept of non-linear editing ultimately revolutionized the world of post-production workflows forever. 

By the end, you’ll understand why professionals everywhere prefer non-linear editing and why it remains the gold standard for post-production today.

What is Linear Editing and Its Disadvantages

From the very dawn of film in the early 20th century until the latter decades of the century, there was only one predominant mode or means of editing film content, and that was linearly. 

A cut was precisely that, a physical cut with a blade through celluloid, and the “edit” or the successive shot was then needed to be selected and spliced into the print assembly, thus completing that intended edit. 

The entire process was (as you may imagine) quite intense, time-consuming, and laborious to say the least, and was generally not accessible to anyone outside of the studios. Only die-hard hobbyists and independents were making homemade edits of their 8mm or 16mm home movies at the time.

Titles and all manner of visual effects that we largely take for granted today were sent to specialty optical processing companies, and these artists would oversee the opening and closing credits, as well as all-optical dissolves/transitions between scenes or shots. 

With the advent of Non-Linear Editing, all of this would change greatly.

What does Non-Linear Mean in Video Editing?

In the simplest of terms, Non-Linear means that you are no longer restricted to working exclusively in a straight and linear assembly path. Editors could now utilize the Y-Axis (Vertical Assembly) in tandem with the X-Axis (Horizontal Assembly).

Why is It Called Non-Linear Editing?

It is called Non-Linear because in NLE systems, the end user and creative can assemble freely in multiple directions, not simply forward only, as was the case with Linear editing in the past. This allows for greater innovation and artistic expression, as well as more complex editorial assembly throughout.

What is Non-Linear Video Editing Used for?

Non-Linear editing is boundless in a sense, though still limited by your imagination and the limits provided by the software you are editing within. 

It really shines when doing composite/VFX work, color grading (using adjustment layers), and is excellent when using the “pancake” edit method – ie. stacking and syncing multiple layers of synchronous video (think music videos, and multicam concert/event coverage/interview content). 

What is an Example of Non-linear Editing?

Non-Linear Editing is the de facto standard today, so it’s relatively safe to assume that anything you view today was assembled in a Non-Linear Editing manner. Though, the precepts and fundamentals of Linear Editing are still very much in use, if only subconsciously at this point. 

In other words, despite the wild and infinite complexities of your sequence, when printed, the shots will still appear in a singularly linear sequence to the end-user – the random array is simplified and reduced to a single linear video stream.

Why is Premiere Pro Considered a Non-linear Editor?

Adobe Premiere Pro (like its modern competitors) is a Non-Linear Editing system due to the fact that the end user is not restricted to cutting and assembling in an exclusively linear fashion. 

It provides users with a seemingly endless array of sorting/syncing/stacking/clipping functions (and far more than can be listed here) that gives one freedom to edit and organize shots/sequences and assets as you wish – with imagination and overall mastery of the software being your only true limitations.

Why is Non-Linear Editing Superior?

As a young hopeful filmmaker, I marveled at the opportunities that were unfolding all around me in real-time in the late 90’s. In my TV Production class in high school, I witnessed first-hand the move from VHS tape-based linear editing machines to fully digital Mini-DV Non-Linear Editing systems.

And I can still recall the first time I was able to sit in on a short film edit on a non-linear AVID system in 2000, it absolutely blew my mind. I had been using a software at home called StudioDV (from Pinnacle) and I still have very fond memories of my time editing with it, even if the software had myriad issues and was far from professional.

Having used the clunky linear VHS machines at school for many years and then being able to use a fully non-linear system at home was a complete and utter revelation, to say the least. For once you try a non-linear editing system, there is really no going back.

The reason non-linear is superior may seem obvious but at the same time, most of the editors and creatives today simply take its myriad benefits for granted, especially in a world where you can shoot/edit/publish directly from your phone to the world at large.

However, none of this would have been possible were it not for the digital revolution that progressively unfolded throughout the 80’s, 90’s and 2000’s. Prior to this, everything was analog, and linear based, and there are several factors for this.

What Are the Advantages of Non-Linear Video Editing?

Perhaps the two most crucial advancements that enabled the NLE functionality were first, Storage Capacity (which has scaled exponentially over the past 30-40 years) and second, Computing Capacity/Capabilities (which would also scale in parallel exponentially alongside Storage Capacity in a similar span of time). 

With greater storage capacity comes lossless master-quality content and final deliverables. And with the need for handling these massively data-intensive files in parallel, greatly enhanced computing capabilities were required in order to do all of these tasks in real-time without fail or loss of quality throughout the edit/delivery pipeline.

Simply put, the ability to store, randomly access, playback and edit in parallel using multiple audio and video streams, from a massive storage array of high-resolution footage was impossible until the last twenty years or so, at least with regard to consumer and prosumer levels. 

Professionals and Studios have always had greater access to high-end tools, but also, at far greater costs than consumers or prosumers would have ever been able to afford at home.

The Future of Non-Linear Video Editing

Today, of course, all of this has changed. If you have a smartphone, chances are you have at least HD or 4K video (or higher) and you are able to immediately edit and publish your content through a variety of social media outlets. Or if you’re a video/film professional, your access to the highest fidelity means of video and audio editing are unparalleled and unmatched with respect to all that has come before. 

If one were to go back in time to the dawn of cinema with our 8K HDR editing rigs and lossless R3D files, we would likely either be thought to be aliens from a distant galaxy or wizards and mages from another dimension – that’s how profoundly different our current Non-Linear Editing (and Digital Imaging) advancements are in comparison to the initial Linear Reel-to-Reel methods that prevailed for the majority of the twentieth century when celluloid was king. 

The very fact that today we can instantly ingest master quality footage, sort it and label it, create sub-clips, generate and sort infinite arrangements of sequences and subsequences, layer as many tracks of audio and video as we please, drop any number of titles and effects on our shots/sequences, and even undo and redo our editorial tasks to our heart’s content, all of these tools and means are entirely taken for granted today, but none of them existed even a few decades ago

To say nothing of the audio design/mixing, VFX, motion graphics, or color timing/color grading/color correction work that is not only possible, but standard in today’s NLE software suite offerings from Adobe, Davinci, AVID and Apple. 

And what this means is that any individual can now shoot/edit/print their very own independent content entirely by themselves, from end-to-end, and in the case of Davinci Resolve, they can even obtain this professional-grade software for free. Let that sink in for a moment.

Final Thoughts

Non-Linear Editing has changed the game for all creatives to come, and there is no going back. With the ability to randomly access your library of footage, cut and splice and layer to your heart’s content and print to any social media or film/broadcast format available today, there’s very little that cannot be achieved in the NLE software suites of the modern era. 

If you are sitting there reading this, and you’ve always wanted to make a movie, what’s stopping you? The camera in your pocket is likely more than enough to get started shooting (and it’s leagues above what was available when I was growing up with my single CCD MiniDV Camcorder). And the NLE software you need to edit is now free, so what are you waiting for? Get out there and start making your movie today. The only thing holding you back is you at this point. 

And if you’re saying, “It’s easy for you to say, you’re a professional.” Allow me to counter this by saying that we are all novices in the beginning, and the only things that separate you from your dreams and goals are determination, practice and imagination. 

If you’ve got all of those in spades and it’s only knowledge you seek, well, you’ve certainly come to the right place. We’ve got you covered with all things video editing and post-production, and while we can’t guarantee you’ll be working in the industry, we can certainly have you working like a professional in no time at all.

As always, please let us know your thoughts and feedback in the comments section below. Would you agree that Non-Linear Editing represents a massive paradigm shift in film/video editing?