The ability to quickly grab a shot and drop it where you want it has given editors far more freedom to experiment with different shots and techniques. No longer do they have to worry about how long it would take to put a scene together and then take it apart to redo it if it didn’t work out. With a nonlinear system, if something doesn’t work it takes mere seconds to swap it out to see how something else works, all with the ability to retain your previous attempt. This allows the editor to compare the same scene in multiple different techniques to discover what fits best.
Experimentation is what makes great films. Could you imagine how The Limey would have been if not for its experimental timeline and dynamic cuts (or even more recently, Memento)? Digital non-linear editing allows filmmakers to branch out and be able to physically see how it works before actually committing to it. Don’t get me wrong, you could experiment on the KEM—and to a lesser degree the Moviola—but it was a much longer process that involved multiple editors with multiple assistants. If at the end of the day they decided to scrap the idea, they’d wasted a day’s work on a failed attempt, having to restart next morning. This process isn’t cost effective. Especially when you consider that now a single editor can cut a quick five minute sequence in about 30min (rough cut mind you) and if he doesn’t like it he can change it just as quickly. Don’t get me wrong it has its faults on occasion.
With editing, any shot can be “the one”, whether the rest of the scene was an outtake, there might be one close up in all that mess that just screams to be used. With a non-linear system you could think to yourself “Let’s use shot 46, that one was great.” So you pull up shot 46 and put it where you want to, completely ignoring or not even seeing the perfect shot you had in that outtake. With a linear system, like the KEM, you don’t have that problem. When you want shot 46 you have to grab the reel it’s on, then cycle through all of the other shots either 1-46 or the other way around before you get to your desired shot. You have the opportunity of seeing a myriad of other possibilities for what you want. By no means does this mean linear is better. It is an advantage, but any editor worth his salt should be checking all of his footage for those perfect shots regardless of the system he uses.
Non-linear’s impact on the film industry can be summed up in one word: possibilities. It’s given editors more freedom to be creative and experimental, and made the editing process much quicker, allowing for more time with the special effects and other aspects of post-production.