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Inventing the non-linear edit suite

How five different products were created from five different philosophies

By ChrisZwar | July 15, 2014

If you're developing a groundbreaking new product, where do you start?  The desktop video revolution was driven by the emergence of non-linear editing systems running on home computers, but adapting them for video production was a gradual process.  The products that were being developed and launched at the start of the 1990s were very different from the products that are available now, and apart from the technological challenges every one of them was innovative in some way or another.

With the benefit of hindsight, we can look back and see how 5 different products from the early 1990s were developed from five fundamentally different philosophies.

Following on from my Desktop Video Revolution series, I’m sharing a few brief thoughts and personal reflections from my experiences during the 90’s.



Lightworks was first released in 1989, making it one of the very first non-linear editing systems to become a commercial product.  It was developed for the feature film market, and so it was designed to be appealing and easy to use for seasoned feature film editors.  Nothing reflects this philosophy more than the iconic Lightworks controller.

Back then, feature films were almost exclusively edited using Steenbeck flatbed film editors, which used a distinctive lever to control playback.  The Lightworks system copied the Steenbeck controller and made the new system feel instantly familiar to anyone who’d ever used a Steenbeck.

Lightworks was developed at a time when you couldn’t expect everyone to be familiar with computers, and even the idea of using a mouse was relatively new. The early Lightworks systems didn’t even run as a Windows application, the system still ran on MS DOS, and so the entire graphical user interface was coded from scratch by the Lightworks developers.

Being designed from scratch, the interface looked nothing like the Macintosh or Windows operating systems and by todays standards has a few bizarre quirks – but the designers were very aware that the users of a Lightworks system may have never used a computer before.  The Lightworks manual even explained what a mouse was and how it worked, because there was a good chance the intended market hadn’t seen one.

One of the most distinctive quirks of the custom GUI was the use of a shark icon to delete files by eating them – the red shark became something of an infamous Lightworks icon and is still used in the current release over 20 years later.  Another cute difference was the way you didn’t “close” a window, you made it “vanish” with the “vanish” button.

We have become so accustomed to computers with “windows” that it’s hard to imagine an alternative, but Lightworks was released a year before Microsoft found commercial success with Windows version 3.0, so perhaps it isn’t surprising that the Lightworks desktop used the concept of “doors” instead.

In the same way that a post production facility might have different edit suites in different rooms, the Lightworks interface showed different projects as a series of doors, which you would select to enter the ‘room’ where the project was being edited.  When you created a new project, another door icon was added to the desktop, and you would enter it to begin work.

Unfortunately I haven’t been able to find any photos of the early interface.  This is disappointing because the early Lightworks interface was quite remarkable in an ‘OMG look at those colours’ kind of way.  At the time Lightworks was being developed, the Macintosh and Windows interfaces were basically monochrome (beveled edges would be introduced with Windows 3.0) so having colours on the desktop was quite revolutionary- especially the vibrant range of greens, reds and purples that the Lightworks used.  At a Lightworks user group meeting I went to in 1997, someone told me that the original programmer had hard-coded the interface colour values in assembler code and no-one had been able to find them since.  I don’t know if that was true, but evidently the early Lightworks was stuck with a colour palette that was turned up to 11 for some time.

Luckily, an early Lightworks manual was recently uncovered which contains some illustrations of the interface, if not photos.  The article is worth a read to fully appreciate how unique the Lightworks was at the time.

Although Lightworks was a software application running on a computer, the iconic Lightworks controller was the primary way that the editor used the system.  The mouse was only there for basic navigation, it was definitely a secondary device.  All editing controls were done with the function buttons on the edit controller.  The keyboard was not really used except to type in text – it could be (and usually was, in our case) pushed out of the way or hidden in a drawer.

So the Lightworks team designed the interface using doors instead of windows, and the Lightworks controller was distinctive and very functional, but once you got beyond the vibrant colours and the slightly clunky mouse, the editing timeline was comparable to the other non-linear systems coming out at the same time.  There were two ‘monitors’ – a source and record, just like a traditional video edit suite.  The horizontal timeline, with different tracks for audio and video, would be recognizable today as a video editing system.  My memory might be faulty, but I think the tracks had sprocket holes to represent the film the system was designed to edit.

Because Lightworks was designed to edit feature films, it was never intended to work with high quality video – it was all about quantity.  The video resolution was 352x240 (the same as mpeg 1, or ¼ the number of pixels of a D1 video frame) and quite heavily compressed.

One benefit of low resolution video was that scrubbing worked really well.  Using the Lightworks controller, video playback could easily be shuttled forwards or backwards at variable speeds – smoothly and without any stuttering.  The simple, intuitive yet very effective playback controls were a huge factor in making the system feel friendly and easy to use.  For film editors used to using a Steenbeck, or video editors used to jog and shuttle wheels, the Lightworks variable speed playback worked perfectly.

The low quality video also enabled the Lightworks to play two streams of video simultaneously, for example a picture-in-picture effect.  This wouldn’t be possible on some other video edit suites for over 10 years.  The longest project I ever completed on a Lightworks was a training video for the hearing impaired.  Being able to edit the “master” video full screen, while editing the footage of the sign language interpreter as a small PIP insert in real time, was not possible on any other system.

Interestingly, although the images were low quality even the early systems could work with Dolby Surround Sound, something else that didn’t appear on other video editing systems for more than a decade.

Every aspect of the Lightworks was designed to be familiar to a film editor – not just the controller but the terminology used in the manual and in the interface.  In many ways, the Lightworks was the result of developers looking at how feature films were being edited and translating the entire process to a computer, with the goal of making the computer as transparent as possible.  There was no indication that the Lightworks was running on a conventional computer – no Windows desktop in the background, no conventional file system to open, save or close projects.  Lightworks is the only non-linear system I have seen that almost totally hides the fact it is running on a computer.  Once the system was up and running it worked more like an appliance than a software program.

The Lightworks was designed, operated, and to a certain degree marketed as an electronic Steenbeck and every effort was made to hide the fact that there was a computer under there doing all the work.  In this regard the designers were very successful and although the underlying hardware was quite anemic, the system was much loved by “serious” editors.

Recently, Lightworks has been completely re-launched as an editing platform.  While the current version has nothing in common with the 1989 release except for the name, it’s nice to see them retaining the iconic red shark logo.

Lightworks (early 90s edition)

Released: 1989

Philosophy: Hide the computer

Strengths:  Steenbeck-like controller with perfect jog/shuttling

Weaknesses:  Low quality video

Fate:  Failed to keep up with Avid as technology improved


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Perry Mitchell: | July, 22, 2014

Hi Chris

I’ve been reading your articles about NLE development with great interest.

I was trained in the ‘70s as a video tape editor in the BBC. Yes I DID cut 2 inch tape! I then spent 6 years at Ampex (1975-1980) and then nearly 20 with Sony Broadcast, where I was first in Product Management but then around 10 years (say the ‘90s) making internal corporate videos. I obviously had my pick of Sony kit (first BetacamSP, then DigiBeta) and had a tape based edit suite but had a great personal interest in Digital video. I used Macs with various boards (Truvision etc) to provide computer sourced animations.

To me, the very nub of the ‘revolution’ was the invention of Firewire. The curious thing is that the subsequent adoption was very haphazard! I remember attending an Apple display in the ‘90s at IBC in Amsterdam (it was actually outside the show in the Hilton Hotel). They had demonstrations of industrial cameras talking to a Mac via Firewire but an actual recently introduced Sony DV camcorder was connected to a Mac showing editing via the analogue ports! It was much later before they included a Firewire port as standard on Macs. Sony itself was completely taken by surprise by the professional adoption of consumer DV and the subsequent NLE systems. They had assumed that Pros would use the more expensive DVCam versions with the dedicated ‘Edit Stations’.  They also (of course) had a lot of existing technology to ‘protect’. In short Sony completely missed the boat when they were in fact in prime position to develop NLE technology.

I could go on at length but I am sure you have better things to read!

thanks again for the ‘memories’.


Perry Mitchell: | July, 22, 2014

As a particular amplification of my DV thoughts above, I left Sony in the late ‘90s and for a few years ploughed a sole trader furrow in mostly Corporate Video land. I used the first Sony DV camera (VX-1000) and I edited on a marvellous little program called EditDV, which came out of the Radius company. It was initially for Macs only, and was a native DV system. You only had to render transitions. Here is the relevant hook to the story - when it was first published there were no Macs with built-in Firewire, so Radius had to ship the program with a card! Unfortunately EditDV was somewhat under-resourced (but with a very helpful user forum) and it eventually got swallowed up in company politics.

I ‘progressed’ to FCP but missed the simplicity and the forum ‘family’.

Folks with long memories will rightly claim that Sony did publish a software based NLE around that time. In fact it was written by the German ‘Fast’ company and it didn’t last very long! Eventually Sony got in via the back door when they bought the Sonic Foundry house, and developed their Audio Edit program into what is now Sony Vegas.

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