Even Orson Welles Makes Mistakes…

29 07 2009

… but you have to be over 40 to know it.

Shane Ross, over at his fantastic blog Little Frog In Hi-Def, has posted an old video in which Orson Welles talks about editing.  It’s an incredibly wise, and short, piece in which, standing over a 16mm flatbed, Welles talks about the musicality of editing and how being in an editing room is “home” for a filmmaker.

“A Moviola is as important as a camera… This is the last stop between the dream in the filmmaker’s head and the public.”

But there’s one big mistake which makes me realize just how divorced he was from the actual mechanics of editing. See if you can spot it.

This does raise the issue of the difference in involvement from the great editors of the past and today, but we’ll talk about that when I see what sort of response I get to this challenge.



16 responses to “Even Orson Welles Makes Mistakes…”

29 07 2009
Dave Taylor (17:00:55) :

It the mistake to say that the Moviola is the last stop? That he’s omitting color timing and the sound mix? These seem to me to be the next two artistic creative tasks in the celluloid filmmaking process.

The rest of the print processes seem fine to omit; neg matchback and release prints and such, strike me as fairly artisanal in nature and not artistic in the strictest sense.

29 07 2009
Norman (17:31:39) :

Nope. At the time of the shooting of the spot, that was pretty much as far as you could go in the editing room. The error was an error even back then.

But thanks for playing, and we’ll send you a copy of our home game.

[Note for readers: There is no real home game. This is another ancient reference, from 1970’s game shows. No contest to guess that reference.]

29 07 2009
GB (19:57:27) :

He refers to the Steenbeck as a moviola.

29 07 2009
Dan (19:59:33) :

It’s not a Moviola!

29 07 2009
Norman (20:07:29) :

Correct. As GB says in his comment, it’s a Steenbeck. I wonder how many people today refer to Final Cut or Avid generically, when they mean to say “A non-linear digital editor.” I don’t think many do, and that’s an interesting comment. Now, perhaps, many directors who don’t know a thing about the editing process wouldn’t know the difference between an Avid and a Moviscop, but every director and most producers I know, know enough not to call Final Cut an “Avid.”

How much time did Orson Welles actually spend in an editing room?

And that may be the biggest difference between then and now.

29 07 2009
Norman (20:10:36) :

Correct on all counts. And, as editor/director Allan Holzman pointed out in a separate email, Moviola did make a flatbed editing machine (though it was all funkily electronic controlled and often sent film flying off in weird direction).

That having been said, the sentiments that Welles expressed are really really important to know. Allan said that it should be played on a loop in the lobby of the USC cinema building.

29 07 2009
GB (20:37:46) :

I miss the ol’ Uprights and flat beds.

29 07 2009
Matt (21:30:12) :

I may be under 40, but the only comment I might take exception to was the comment that the Moviola is the last step before the audience sees the film, which isn’t the case, obviously requiring further intervention such as a sound design and mix, negative cutting, et al.

29 07 2009
Norman (22:08:39) :


About the only thing that I miss about the uprights is that it was easier to fix them when they broke — toss in a bulb or a belt and voilá.

Otherwise, if I never have to search for a two frame trim again, I’ll be just fine.


29 07 2009
Dave hardy (22:34:50) :

This clip might actually be an outtake from Welles last feature film F- Is For Fake. He came from that generation of filmmakers that were particularly enamored with the practical. Welles variant on the practical joke was the hoax.
This was his own personal editing table that he had crated & had shipped to follow him wherever he went in Europe. He knew it wasn’t a Moviola & he knew that any film editor or director would would also know it wasn’t a Moviola, but what made the hoax worth doing was that potentially millions of people who saw the clip would be duped into thinking that they knew what a Moviola looked like. After all he says with apparent utmost sincerity that the machine is in fact a Moviola The icing on the cake of course was that both the Moviola & Steenbeck companies would both have their feathers ruffled when they saw the clip.

Anyone who hasn’t seen F Is For Fake can see it on YouTube in a series of 9 Parts. This is really Welles at his best & thoroughly delightful. There is also a video clip of Peter Bogdanovitch discussing F Is For Fake.

29 07 2009
Norman (23:38:39) :


Wow, this is fantastic. Frankly, aside from the fact that he looked completely zonked on something, it never really occurred to me that this might have been a great put-on. If this is the case then the man is a certified Genius in my book, and the funniest person ever to be in an editing room and talk about the equipment.

Thanks for the info.


30 07 2009
Dave hardy (19:45:10) :

Whether his father actually was a personal friend of the magician Houdini, may or may not be fact. However, like Bergman, he did become fascinated with theatre radio & film as a result of his interest in magic. Whereas Bergman interest was in plumbing the depths of the human condition, Welles was completely bored by the truth, regarding it as an obsession of mediocrities.
What interested him was spinning the web. He was one of the great masters of the tall tale. Did it really take months to persuade people to return to New York City after his War of the Worlds caper & did he really launch his acting career in Ireland as a teenager passing himself off as a famous american actor? Probably not, but the tale certainly was an interesting yarn.

Interviewers found him frustrating as he would constanly fabricate new variations on the facts of his life, swearing that this time the information was the honest to goodness truth. Certainly a larger than life caracter.

5 08 2009
Brian Williams (15:19:54) :

As others have pointed out, the 16mm flatbed is not a Moviola. To Welles, working in 35mm, Moviola may have been a generic term. Most features were cut on uprights until, i donno, later 70s. The Steenbeck might have been a more interesting, modern looking prop, but he is speaking about the role of editing in the filmmakers process, and referring to Steenbeck or “flatbed editing table” would not have had the more universal meaning at that time.
I’ll let Orson slide on this one.
Beautifully written.
Brian Williams
Twitter: avidalone

13 08 2009
John Larsen (18:25:38) :

For me Mr. Wells is absolutely correct in stating that editing is the final stop in the creation of a film. It is the last foxhole you leave from to the battle ground of release and you better have gotten it right or the audience will kill you! (I tried tapping that out that in my best O. Wells oratory-weak at best!) I too agree with Brian W letting Wells slide about the difference between a Moviola or Steenbeck (I learned on an upright Moviola and moved to flatbeds of both flavors just as “video editing” was being introduced-and I do not miss digging the bin looking for a lost frame). Not that many people were movie editors back then in the old ’70s. Then and the brand of our application or OS platform made little difference. Now that every kid and his grandma is a video editor with dozens of programs to choose from its a brand war for market share so the name is the game. But the last fox hole is still just that – there is just more brave but dead bodies on the battlefield and happily some fine survivors. Cheers to all!

18 08 2009
Frank Reynolds (12:11:03) :

Back when it’s student films were cut on film, UCLA had Movieola flatbeds. I worked on them a few times, and what I remember most about them is that the prism glass could be pushed down so you could grease-pencil the frame, but that glass got really hot, so you had to be careful with your fingers whenever you wanted to mark a frame.

By the way, Arri actually made a flatbed for a while..it was really funky-looking, kind of retro-modern. A friend once referred to it as “Captain Kirk’s flatbed.” The coolest thing about it was that you could control exact fps speed on it from 1fps until about 50fps. Was great for ordering speed-change opticals. When I was at AFI in the early 90s, they had a few.

While I do think Welles should have gotten it right in the piece, I do believe that “Movieola” was probably a generic term at the time, like “Xerox” for copy machines.

1 02 2010
website design (00:36:16) :

While I do think Welles should have gotten it right in the piece, I do believe that “Movieola” was probably a generic term at the time, like “Xerox” for copy machines.


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