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Steenbeck Editing machine as advertised by the Steenbeck Company


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1970, this changed significantly as Steenbeck editing tables [made] “the standard Moviola film-editing machines seem as outdated as a pinhole camera” (Gussow 1).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.

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According to an edition of Variety Magazine, Francis Ford 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 who 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 film-editing machine, meaning it works with continuously variable elements (light and sound waves), inscribed in a durable object (film), and despite advancements that have been made with film-editing technology, there are certain filmmakers that continue to stand by this process. 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"(Argy 92), an opinion that centers around the fact that "Human beings are incapable of observing digital information in the same way that they observe continuous analog information" (Goodell 183). Therefore, "an image or sound that has been translated into digital information must be translated back into analog for us to hear or see it" (Goodell 183). Moreover, 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). Also, working with film allows one to 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).

However, as we will see from proponents of digital editing systems below, there is some discrepancy as to which method actually produces more exact results.

Pro-Digital: The Steenbeck is Officially Obsolete

When the technology of digital 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’ in the form of binary numbers -zeros and ones-)] 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), both of which can result in lost or distorted information. Because each increment of digital media is comprised of a specific address made up of zeros and ones, the clip of information at hand can be located and duplicated with extreme exactness without causing any such damage. Furthermore, with digital 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 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, we are told that the 2,000 feet of film resembled a spider web, indicating analog's tendency toward degradation and decay, an issue that appears absent in the room with the digital source display.

Works Cited

Argy, Stephanie. “Cutting on Film Remains Strong.” Daily Variety. 92. July 16, 1998.

Perry, George. “Focusing on Film in a Small-Screen Frame.” The Sunday Times. June 3, 1990.

"Electric Motor" Wilhelm Steenbeck; U.S. Patent 2,092,339; Patented Sept. 7, 1937; Application March 2, 1935; Google Patent Search.

Fairservice, Don. Film Editing: History, Theory and Practice. 333-334. Manchester University Press, 2001.

“Finding the Edge.” Creative Review Magazine. 57-58. August 25, 1995. Centaur Communications Ltd. Load-Date: November 21, 1995. [author unlisted].

Goodell, Gregory. Independent Feature Film Production: A Complete Guide From Concept Through Distribution. 182-183. St. Martin's Press, 1998.

Grimm, Charles. "Carl Louis Gregory: Life through a Lens Film History." Film History. Vol. 13, No. 2, 183. 2001. <JStor>

Gussow, Mel. "Movies Leaving ‘Hollywood Behind: Studio System Passe – Film Forges Ahead." The New York Times. May 27, 1970.

"motion-picture technology." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2007. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 29 Oct. 2007 <>

Thorson, Bruce. “Egoyan Mounts an Ode to Analog.“ The Globe and Mail. February 16, 2002. Weekend Review; pg 8. Newspaper. Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc., 2002.

Weiner, Rex. “The Cutting Edge Finds Converts.” Variety. 26. June 27, 1994 - July 3, 1994. Reed Elsevier Inc., 1994.

Wolff, Ellen. "Back to the Future." Variety Magazine. 42. August 6, 2001 - August 12. 2001