How 'Mission Impossible' Editor Eddie Hamilton Skipped Film School & Worked His Way to Cutting Blockbusters
This is a guest post from Paddy Bird, founder of Inside the Edit, with a brief introduction by Robert Hardy.
The heartbeat of any great action film is the editing.
Cut too fast, and you risk completely disorienting the audience. Cut too slowly, especially during an action sequence, and you risk boring the audience. All of this is to say that editing an action film is a balancing act, and it takes a deft, experienced hand to get it right.
Our friend Paddy Bird, who runs Inside the Edit (an online course for aspiring editors), and who has been editing professionally for more than 15 years, recently sat down with Eddie Hamilton, a world-renowned editor who has cut some of the biggest Hollywood action films in recent memory, including the upcoming Mission Impossible film. Paddy was kind enough to not only share this interview with No Film School, but to make it exclusive to us.
Before we get to the interview with Eddie, here are just a few of the credits that he has notched as lead editor in the past few years of his impressive 20 year career:
- Resident Evil: Apocalypse
- X-Men: First Class
- Kick-Ass 2
- Kingsman: The Secret Service
- Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation
Needless to say, Eddie is an incredibly experienced editor working at the highest level in the industry. And like many folks making a living in film, he started at the very bottom, worked tirelessly, and slowly moved his way up through the ranks. For that reason, he has some excellent advice for anybody looking to get started in the editorial department and the film industry in general. And that's what the first half of this interview focuses on, what it takes to succeed in this notoriously difficult industry.
Just as a heads up, this interview is pretty lengthy, so we'd recommend grabbing a cup of coffee, getting comfortable, and really digging into part one of Paddy's interview with Eddie Hamilton. Hope you enjoy.
Paddy Bird: Thanks for joining us, Eddie. How did you get started in the industry?
Eddie Hamilton: I started editing when I was seventeen, but I wanted to be in the film industry since I was seven. I started seeing people’s names on the movies and thought, "Hang on, people must do this for a living." I read as many books as I could, watched as many movies, watched as many making-of documentaries (of which there were virtually none back then in the late 70s and early 80s).
At the age of seventeen, I hooked two VHS machines up together and did a bit of editing. I wore down the 'Aliens – Special Edition' VHS by winding it back and forth so much. I would discover that hours would fly by in the creative process. I liked the combination of storytelling and technology, because I’m quite a nerd in terms of the technical stuff and I love film storytelling and the immediate effect that you can have on an audience.
I thought I had my whole life mapped out. And I didn’t get in [to film school]. It was probably a good thing because I had to reassess everything and work out what I really wanted to do.
I did a psychology degree at UCL of all things. There were no undergraduate film degrees in the early '90s. Upon graduation I applied to film schools: The National Film School, the Royal College of Art, The Northern School of Film and Television, and failed to get in to any of them, mainly because I was quite young and was probably, to be honest, a little bit arrogant. I thought I had my whole life mapped out. And I didn’t get in. It was probably a good thing because I had to reassess everything and work out what I really wanted to do.
I spent a couple of years in the wilderness, temping in banks and police stations, and then I thought, "I can’t do this, I have to try and get into the industry." So I handed in my notice and gave myself a month to get myself a job as a runner, around 1994/95. I managed to get a job in a very small post-production facility and spent every evening and every weekend learning how to use every piece of kit in the facility, including the very early Avid Media Composers. I did a lot of on-line editing, off-line editing, some sports television, and when I felt I had really got a grasp of Avid, I put my feelers out in the low budget film industry to see if anyone needed editors because I really wanted to work in film.
I managed to get a job on my very first feature which was called ‘Urban Ghost Story’, which Genevieve Jolliffe directed and Chris Jones produced. Those were the guys who wrote The Guerrilla Film Makers Handbook. From there I did two other films for free, supporting myself by cutting promos for the Paramount Comedy Channel.
Then very, very slowly I worked my way up to a film that had a £500,000 budget, then a £1m budget. The biggest break I had was probably working on a film called Mean Machine that Matthew Vaughn was producing. The way I got that job was through a friend of a friend who knew somebody who was associated with the film and I heard on the grapevine that they were looking for someone. And I got someone to phone someone and they phoned someone who got through to Matthew and said this young editor wants to meet you. "He’ll work for virtually nothing and sleep on the cutting room floor."
That’s how I ended up working on Mean Machine and I’ve worked with him on several other films. I’ve recently just finished Kingsman: The Secret Service. But that’s twenty years from when I started as a runner to now. A very, very long time. Slowly, slowly, climbing up the ladder of the industry to where I am today.
PB: What was the thing that attracted you to editing? Was it the technical side or the power of storytelling?
EH: You know, editing is a very solitary process but you also have to be meticulously organized and I don’t mind being both of those things. I am happy to concentrate on the tiny details of a cut down to the frame, and also I love working out the puzzle of the bigger picture of the picture, manipulating the audience in terms of the pace of the film and how bits of information are revealed to them so they can put the story together in their head in the most interesting way. I am constantly thinking back over all the films that I’ve seen.
I love working out the puzzle of the bigger picture of the picture, manipulating the audience in terms of the pace of the film and how bits of information are revealed to them so they can put the story together in their head in the most interesting way
I have to say, the biggest privilege which some people don’t think about, is being the first person to see the film come to life. You’re working on a movie you hope a lot of people will see. For example Kingsman. The sky dive scene was 15 hours of footage and it took me a month to do my first cut, which is about 4 ½ minutes of film, an incredibly long process of going through 15 hours and finding 10 frames here, and 18 frames there and a few seconds, and finding all these tiny little moments and then building a sequence and imagining the music that was going to come, and the sound design and slowly, slowly building it up. Being the first person to see that, it’s a great privilege, and I never lose sight of that.
Every day when I get new footage from the film shoot, I start putting the film together and I’m the first person to see it, even before the director. It’s fun, and because I love my job and because I feel very grateful to be employed in this industry, it’s very rewarding to come in every day and do this. I think I have the best job.
PB: There is a word that I have avoided saying for most of my career, certainly when editing documentaries, and a lot of editors I’ve spoken to have not mentioned the ‘M’ word: Manipulation, do you feel free to use it?
EH: I have no qualms about that. Most people who buy a movie ticket are buying an emotional experience. They’re buying laughter, or they’re buying terror, or they’re buying roller coaster thrills. That’s what you buy a movie ticket for — to be manipulated. You’re sitting there to get lost in the story. And in all the best films you lose sight of the fact that it’s a film and you get lost in the world of the characters. You care about them and you want to know happens to them, you root for them and you imagine what you would do if you were in that situation. You want to be manipulated.
The editor’s job is to go: "What information does the audience need right now?"
There are certain types of films which are not about that, but 95% of films are about manipulating the audience. People want to be manipulated because they have paid money to be manipulated. So the editor’s job is to understand how to manipulate the audience. The editor’s job is to go: "What information does the audience need right now?" I’m going to choose to give them this piece of information right now in the story. I’m going to show them an establishing shot of something, and they’re going to go, "OK, where are we in the world?" And I’m going to show them a close up of something.
Human beings are ‘meaning-making’ machines. We always try to find meaning in everything that we see, so you’re immediately trying to join the establishing shot with the close up and establish where it is. The editor’s job is “How can I tell the story that I want to tell in the most interesting way possible so that I engage the audience and give them the information they need exactly when I want them to have it." Effectively puppet their emotions throughout the entire movie, that’s what we do.
If you want to do something exciting you choose to use exciting music, or quick cuts, or you choose to reveal bits of information, or hide bits of information from them. Obviously it all starts with the script but in terms of the exact timing that you’re using, that’s down to the editing of the film, and to a certain extent the cinematography and the lighting and the visual effects, but in terms of what the audience sees and where their eyes are guided around the screen, for the entire movie that is editing.
PB: How do you think getting into the industry for editors has changed since you started?
EH: It's pretty similar. The main thing is knowing that you want to work in editing. A lot of people want to work in film but they don’t know what they want to do in film. So if you know you want to work in editing, there’s nothing stopping you getting a running job in the industry.
To achieve success in the industry you have to work phenomenally hard, and a lot of people aren’t cut out for that. But if you really, really want to succeed, none of that will bother you because you’ll want to do it, you’ll want to be the best, you’ll want to succeed and work harder than anyone else.
I will not hire anybody as a trainee on a big movie unless they’ve done at least two years in a post facility on a variety of hardware and software. They have to have a really good understanding of Avid Media Composer. Ideally they will also have experience working with HDCAM decks or DaVinci Resolve or some other kind of knowledge, because when they come on they have to be able to do everything here.
I will never hire somebody straight out of film school. I would say to them, you are going to have to get a job as a runner in a post facility. Very good runners are hard to find. People with the right combination of attitude and skills are very rare because, to be blunt, most people can’t cut it, and they discover that working really hard is not what they want to do. To achieve success in the industry you have to work phenomenally hard and a lot of people aren’t cut out for that. But if you really, really want to succeed none of that will bother you because you’ll want to do it, you’ll want to be the best, you’ll want to succeed and work harder than anyone else.
It is last man standing. It is tough to live on the low pay. The hours are relentless and the sacrifices that you have to make personally in terms of your relationships with your friends and your family are considerable, so a lot of people give up. If you keep going you’ll succeed because everyone else will have given up around you. So I would say get a job as a runner in a post production facility, get a couple of years of really good, hard experience with deadlines that test you. Then write to editors that you like, or first assistants you have seen credited on films that you like and ask if you can meet them. I get a dozen emails a week from people. I do try and meet them if I can.
On every film I always try to hire a trainee and give someone a break. Erline O'Donovan whom I hired on Kick-Ass 2 went on to do Ex Machina and then Tarzan. Rachel Durance whom I hired to help me on Kingsman, she was offered a job on Tarzan as well, so it is possible to get a job and work your way up and find yourself on a decent sized film very quickly. But I promise you, they worked incredibly hard and they did not mess up.
There is no room for errors in a feature film cutting room — that is so important. Everything has to be checked and double-checked and has to be accurate. The producers need to know that any information leaving the cutting room environment is accurate. Every file must be checked, every document that is released has to look perfect, everything has to be labeled correctly. I tell my guys, if you’re too tired to check it, ask someone else to check it but never, never, ever send anything out that hasn’t been double-checked thoroughly for errors. It’s so important. Everyone’s human and mess-ups do happen, but if you check your work you can avoid them.
PB: What is the software that you expect people to know?
EH: Avid Media Composer, DaVinci Resolve to a certain extent, QuickTime Pro, Compressor, pieces of software like that. The problem with leaving film school is that you haven’t got any industry experience, so I don't know what you are like in a professional environment and I can’t take the risk that you’re not going to cut it. If you have done two or three years working in a post-production facility, and you’ve risen from a runner to a VT operator, to a trainee assistant editor, to an assistant editor, I know you will have succeeded in a professional environment, which means working under pressure with tight deadlines and not messing up. Or, you will have messed up and learnt never to mess up again.
Edit as much as you can because you only get better by doing it. It doesn’t matter what you edit, even if you shoot something on your phone on a Saturday, edit it on a Sunday and put it on YouTube on a Sunday night for people to watch. It’s very important that you edit something, and that you finish it properly.
I remember that there was one really big screw up that I made when I was a trainee assistant editor, and I never did it again. But it was pretty bad at the time and took many, many hours to fix. And I didn’t fix it; some other poor editor had to save my skin on that. But it’s the way that you learn, and if you’ve worked in a facilities house you have probably made those mistakes before you come to work on a feature film where there’s no room for error at all.
PB: Final advice to young editors?
EH: The advice is: edit as much as you can because you only get better by doing it. It doesn’t matter what you edit, even if you shoot something on your phone on a Saturday, edit it on a Sunday and put it on YouTube on a Sunday night for people to watch. It’s very important that you edit something, that you finish it properly and nowadays, if you put it online, you can get reactions to it straight away. Seeing something through to the end is very important. Understanding about sound design, the music and color correction is very important, but the main thing is just to keep editing.
PB: Awesome advice — just keep on cutting, it doesn’t matter what you’re cutting.
EH: There’s a theory that you only get good at something with 10,000 hours practice. I think it’s about 4 years solid. If you’re doing 10 hours a day, 250 days a year, 4 years is 10,000 hours, roughly. Four years and you’re probably starting to get quite good at it. I’ve been doing it for 20 years, so that’s 50,000 hours.
That’s a very long time and I still am learning something every day, learning new stuff and getting to the end result quicker. The other thing you do when you’re really experienced is that you make the right decision for the story faster, with confidence. So when a producer walks in, you can say: "I believe this is the best version of this story." Generally you have a lot more confidence in what you present people because you have all those thousands of hours of experience to back it up.
PB: Eddie, thank you so much.
EH: It was a great pleasure and congratulations on Inside The Edit. Your website really is a terrific achievement.
Thanks to both Paddy and Eddie for taking the time to share this with the No Film School audience. Part two of this interview will debut early next week.