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An excerpt from ALL ALONE IN THE NIGHT: The Making of Babylon 5, 1987-1994 (forthcoming)

There are three phases in the production of a television episode: Pre-Production, Production (aka Principal Photography), and Post-Production.

At 6:47pm on Thursday, 2 December 1993, principal photography on “Chrysalis” (112) concluded in Morden’s Quarters. After seven days of work and 19,940 feet of exposed negative, Babylon 5’s first season finale was in the can—halfway through the season, to allow for extensive cgi. While the cast and crew would move on to “DeathWalker” on Friday the 3rd, the aforementioned can(s)—containing the day’s exposed Super 35 negative—would go to be processed at the lab and transferred to VHS cassettes for the producers to review.

Meanwhile, the film shot on the previous days of production had already been loaded into the Avid of Lisa M. Citron, one of three editors who worked on Babylon 5’s freshman season. (Suzanne Sternlicht cut 101, 104, 107, 110, 113, 116, 119, and 122, Skip Robinson cut 102, 105, 108, 111, 114, 117, and 120, and Citron cut 103, 106, 109, 112, 115, 118, and 121.) The editor begins their cut as soon as footage becomes available, assembling the show according to the shooting script, exercising their personal taste in choosing the shots and takes. As scenes are cut together, Citron would report back to the script supervisor, Haley McLane, noting the length of assembled scenes so that the production could keep an eye on the episode’s running time. If the scenes cut together shorter than expected, the episode will underrun and require costly additional photography that will eat into a later episode’s schedule, not to mention the expense of recalling guest actors, if required.

Meanwhile, in Valencia, 19 miles northwest of Babylon 5’s stages in Sun Valley, Foundation Imaging worked on the cgi, but with the footage rendered at roughly one frame per seventy minutes, a second of video material—24 frames—required more than a day of computer processing during the first season. Citron would estimate the length of the shot based on pre-production discussions, placing a note into the episode that might read “EXT. BABYLON 5 – ESTABLISHING” or “SHADOWMAN CRUISERS FIRE ON MOONBASE” as a placeholders. By the end of Friday, 3 December, Citron’s cut would be complete.

From the advent of motion pictures, film editing was both a manual and linear activity. The editor physically cut and spliced the film to create edits. Thousands of feet of footage would be organized in bins, with the constituent shots of the scene in progress within arm’s reach. Until the 1970s, most film was edited on a Moviola, an upright machine that allowed the editor to run the film forward and backward, making cuts and splices as required. Flatbed systems—like those produced by the German companies K-E-M and Steenbeck—became the norm from the 1970s, allowing the editor to sit comfortably during the days and weeks and months of cutting. The creation of this work-in-progress edit is called an offline edit, one in which the original materials are not affected; the editor uses a work print, a dupe of the negative created specifically to be personhandled in the editing suite.

Once the final cut was approved by the required parties, the negative would be conformed to the editor’s notes, a terrifying process where a single mistake would destroy a frame of film forever; this is the online edit, from which there is no return. If one were philosophically inclined, the conformed negative is The Film, the Platonic ideal, the actual artifact from which all copies derive. When you see on the package that a Blu-ray was created “from a 4K scan of the original camera negative,” that means that you’re viewing a clone of the original, albeit one restricted in resolution to the Blu-ray standard and compressed accordingly.

It’s worth noting that most prints you saw in the movie theater prior to the advent of digital projection in 1999 were three generations removed from the negative, usually struck from an internegative made from an interpositive that was duped from the negative. That’s why you sometimes see the strings in special effects shots on Blu-ray when you’re certain they weren’t visible in the theater; until the age of high-quality home cinema, no one ever expected to view the negative (or a compressed clone thereof), just copies three generations down the line.

(As an aside, when cinema enthusiasts lament the lack of a high-definition release of the 1977 release of Star Wars, they are effectively mourning the death of that version, which was disassembled splice-by-splice to create the 1997 special edition. Yes, there are extant release prints—three generations down from the negative—but there is no longer a conformed negative of that movie as it appeared in 1977. The Special Edition is The Film now.)

By the 1980s, filmed television shows were often being edited on videotape. The film would be transferred to videotape and edited linearly, one scene after another, on an apparatus that was effectively two VCRs controlled by a simple computer, accumulating start and end times for each shot, then exporting them to a master broadcast-quality videotape from which further copies could be dubbed, losing picture quality with each subsequent generation (or cloned without such loss in the digital era). This approach would cause problems after the introduction of high definition television. As noted above, a conformed negative can be scanned to obtain an image of higher resolution than a 4K television can present, but the best DigiBeta videocassette of a show finished electronically without a conformed film negative is locked in standard definition forever…unless, as happened with Star Trek: The Next Generation, a studio pays to have the negatives of every shot of the series exhumed and painstakingly assembled into a conformed negative, giving the show a new lease on life for modern broadcast, home video, and streaming applications. (It should be noted that some studios continued to create conformed negatives for their series, avoiding the issues faced by those that took the less-expensive post-production route.)

Avid Technology changed everything. In 1988, the company introduced The Avid/I, a non-linear editing system based on the Apple Macintosh II. Editors could digitize the dailies—at much lower than full broadcast quality, due to the data storage limitations of the era—and create an editorial timeline, dropping shots onto it with a mouse. It was no longer necessary to build the scene in order, splicing one shot after another with actual film, and if the director wanted a reaction shot dropped in the middle of the scene, no de-splicing, cutting, and re-splicing would be necessary. With the Avid, everything was drag-and-drop, and simple alterations were effectively instantaneous.

Additionally, the system allowed filmmakers to experiment with transitions in real time. The creation of a dissolve—where one image fades in while another fades out, typically to indicate a passage of time—or fades—where one image emerges from or submerges into blackness, as usually happens at the beginning or ending of a show, or at commercial breaks—used to require an optical printer. The optical printer was a contraption consisting of one or more film projectors affixed to a film camera, allowing the latter device to photograph the output of the projectors, creating effects in the process; in short, every time you see a picture fade to black prior to 1980, that entire shot was rephotographed via optic printer to achieve that effect. Then it had to be processed and edited into the conformed negative; and because it was effectively a generation removed from the shot preceding it, the drop in quality before a fade or dissolve is often evident before it begins; the image gets suddenly softer and grainier. The Avid could execute dissolves and fades on-screen in real time, at the push of a button.

(Optical printers were also used to superimpose credits over live-action footage. For reasons I haven’t been able to ascertain, it seems that optical printers are infrequently cleaned, and you can see specks of detritus in exactly the same positions during the credits and subtitled sections of Four Weddings and a Funeral [1994] and Backbeat [1994], which apparently went through the same apparatus relatively close together.)

When the cut was finally locked, the Avid would export an Edit Decision List (EDL), a digital account of every cut in the episode, logged by frame numbers on the negative. That EDL, housed on a 3.5″ floppy disk would be taken to the editorial facility where the negative would be conformed to the instructions exported from the Avid.

As with any new technology, the entertainment industry was slow as a whole to embrace the new technology, but television was faster than film, and Babylon 5 was among the first generation of series cut digitally on a non-linear platform. (In 1997, Walter Murch won the Academy Award for editing The English Patient [1996] on the Avid. For more on Mr. Murch and editorial philosophy, I recommend IN THE BLINK OF AN EYE: A Perspective of Film Editing by Murch [Silman-James Press, 2001] and THE CONVERSATION: Walter Murch and the Art of Film Editing by Michael Ondaatje [Random House, 2004].)

On Monday, 6 December, director Janet Greek began working with Citron to create her director’s cut. The Directors Guild of America mandates that directors get two days to create their cut of a television episode. Greek might prefer a closeup to a midshot, favor one take over another, trim the air out of a conversation by tightening the cuts between speakers, delete a line of dialogue she found unnecessary to telling the story, or eliminate an entire scene if it proved redundant in the context of the assembled episode. The director’s cut also offers an opportunity for experimentation, perhaps intercutting two adjacent scenes to ratchet up the tension between them, cutting back and forth, back and forth, and building to a double climax. Depending on the director, their cut may be close to the target running time, or they may leave the episode a little long, deferring to the producers.

With the director’s cut completed, John Copeland and J. Michael Straczynski would review the it multiple times and make notes. They’d then join Citron in the edit suite and begin the producers’ cut. Like the director, the producers adjust shots, vary takes, or perhaps resequence an entire act; the producers’ cut is effectively the final re-write. Unlike the freelance director, who comes and goes, handling maybe three or four episodes of Babylon 5 per season, the producers have the big picture in mind. Their adjustments are made in the context of all the episodes to date and those planned down the road; they see the series rather than the show.

Originally published as the 15 October 2021 installment of the Babylon 5 Preservation Project weekly briefing.