[Frame of Reference] with Editor Eddie Hamilton

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Eddie Hamilton recently cut Universal’s Kick-Ass 2 for writer/director Jeff Wadlow, and was co-editor on 20th Century Fox’s X-Men: First Class (with Lee Smith) for director Matthew Vaughn. After 17 years in the industry Eddie has cut over 20 feature films (both indies and studio movies) in a wide variety of genres as well as TV dramas, documentaries and award-winning shorts. His enthusiasm for big screen storytelling is matched only by his total dedication to the craft of film editing, his world-class technical expertise and his undisputed love of chocolate. He has also given presentations on Avid Media Composer editing at NAB and IBC. Eddie is a member of American Cinema Editors and BAFTA, and was on the feature film panel at EditFest London 2013. Let’s get started.

What got you interested in editing?

This is a very simple answer. When I was seven I saw Star Wars on tv and I noticed the names at the end of the film for the first time and I thought that people must do this for a living. So I became a film knots from the age of seven. I then read as many books as I could and watch films and documentary about how films were made. I was never really taken to the cinema by my parents and I had to beg my friends parent to take me to see all the big movies in the 80’s like Radars of the Last Ark and Temple of Doom. I grew up in a very small town in the South of England where working in the film industry seemed like an impossible dream. So I read as many books as I could, listened as many film sound tracks and I watched a lot of movies. When I was about seventeen, I thought I would be a director at that point I hooked up 2 VHS machines and I basically edited little music videos and family holidays videos on 2 vhs machines and the hours would fly by in the creative process. I found that the combination of story telling and technology really suited my personality. Effectively we are professional storyteller and what I study is story telling. When I am not editing, I am reading books about story telling and I’m trying to learn how to be a better storyteller. And then I actually studied Psychology at university but that was because there weren’t many films school in England and they had a really good student film society at University College of London, which is where I studied. The guy who was the president of the film society, the year above me, was Chris Nolan and he went on to great success. he was an incredibly nice person and very intelligent, he was studying English Literature at UCL. There were quite a few people there who were very passionate about films and we use to hang out every day talking about making films. I spent about 4 hours a day editing student films, I mean about everyday through the 3 years of university I would spend  about 4 hours editing even though I was studying Psychology. I then applied to film school but back then there were only 3 or 4 film schools in the UK that were very good. I applied to them all and I didn’t get into any of them. So I didn’t get into film school but I still really wanted to do this so I got a job as a runner in an editing facility in central london and I taught myself how to use all the hardware and all avid editing software. I also taught myself how to use all the hardware machines and how to copy tapes and all the technical stuff that you need to know. Somebody was making a very very low-budget film and I asked if they had an editor and they didn’t so I went straight to where their production office was and I managed to persuade them to give me the job editing the film.

When I started in the first 2 or 3 years I did a lot of television and I actually spent most of my time editing portuguese and spanish sport programme and I don’t speak portuguese or spanish and I don’t really like sport. It was very pressured editing and it was very time sensitive. There were very hard deadlines so I had to work hard and fast so I got to learn the media composer very well in that time, but I really wanted to work in film. If you have a passion for something you need to single mindedly aim for it otherwise you will get sidetracked and end up doing something else and then its quite hard to get back on track, so you have to make sure that you are always aiming for what you want to do.

What is your prefered NLE(s) of choice? Why?

Working on a movie where people are collaborating, where you have an editor or 2 and several assistants Media Composer is the only choice, especially for a movie of a certain budget. I haven’t used the new Adobe Premiere very much. I’ve done 2 films on Final Cut Pro 7 and i find it not professional. I found that it was a struggle to work with it professionally and its very hard to work with for anything longer than half an hour.

Give us a run through of your editing process?

I’m one of these editors who work quite a lot with sound effects and music to polish what i do. So I normally bring audio and sound effects into the project straight away and set up a folder structure that works well for me. I’m very strict on quality control and I make sure that everything that goes into media composer is video legal and there is no illegal blacks or whites. I make sure the sound is perfectly synced. So I will get my assistant to check the sync on the sound and make sure its perfect. They will group multi camera clips for me so that I can switch between multi cameras if there is 2 or 3 camera filming a scene. Then they will lay out the bins for each scene with a certain structure that I like and that I have developed over the years. I like to have all the sound imported not just the editors mix tracks so that I can dip into the isotracks and make sure that I am using the best quality recording for each line of dialogue. What I’ve been doing over the last couple of years is that I won’t watch all the dailies before I cut the scene, what I’ll do is I’d watch a wide shot to get the idea of the pace and the flavour of the scene and then I’d just cut the scene quite quickly without worrying too much about whether I’ve got the best performance or anything. So I will just go through and I will just cut the scene so I’ve got like this framework. Then you’ll start to get the sense of what the strengths and weakness are within the scene when you’ve done that, you start to get a feeling of where the actors are struggling or where they are doing well and you will start to find out the problems that you need to solve to make the scene work well. Then I will sit and watch all the dailies and I normally load out the dailies in a single sequence on the source timeline and I will play it through and anything that i like or anything that strikes me as being good I’ll just drop it in my sequence that I’ve thrown together in roughly the right place. After I’ve watched like an hour or 2 hours of dailies or however much there is, I’ll have like a big sequence, which is all the best fits of the scene and then I can go through and refine that. It’s fairly quick but also once you’ve watched the dailies you then intimately know what the director was trying to guide the actors to do in each take. I will then go through and work on the sound for the scene and often spend as much time on the sound as I do on the picture because its half the storytelling. Sometimes I will cut with no sound and I will just listen to the sound after I’ve put the scene together. So I make sure that all the dialogue tracks are beautifully clean and I have my edit suite calibrated to a theatrical level so when I’m playing with sound back I know how it will sound in the theatre. I also like to work with 5.1 in my edit suite so that I know what is coming from the centre speakers, the  sides and back and the subwoofer. On the timeline I have 4 mono dialogue tracks, 4 mono effects tracks, 2 stereo effects tracks and 2 stereo music tracks. I have quite a detail soundtrack built up and for a simple dialogue scene you don’t use very much, you might use a couple of dialogue tracks and a bit of music, but when you get to the effects heavy scene you use all the tracks and the timeline gets very full. Then I’ll work on it and refine it and make sure that it is presentable and it looks and sounds great. Then lastly show the director. I’m one of those editors who must be left alone at the first assembly to watch the footage and figure it out and then ill let the director watch it when i think I’ve got something thats worth watching.

What tips were you given that has been really helpful?

It’s more of a kind of work ethic. I would say always try to do your best work everyday. Never settle for second best, set your quality bar very very high because your reputation is everything in the industry and if you have a reputation of somebody who works fast and hard, and completely reliable then you will succeed because producers need you to do your job and they need you to do it fast and well. Once you have all those qualities then people will want to hire you again. The main thing is always work incredibly hard and never turn in a work if you don’t think it’s as good as it can be.

How do you deal with problem clients/directors?

If the director is open to discussing the problem then we can find a solution but if they’re not open to discussing the problem then there isn’t much you can do. You have to let the director make the film they want to make and my job is to help the director make the film they want to make. So if they disagree with me then its their film and they get to make the final choice. All I can do is bring my storytelling experience and tell them what I think but if they disagree with me then there is nothing I can do.

What advise can you offer to get through complex edits?

The most important thing is to just get to the end of the scene somehow. don’t worry about the quality of what you are doing just get to the end because it is similar to when you are writing a script, you have to get to the end of the script and then you can actually start to refine it. If you get stuck on a scene just force yourself to go through it even though it is painful and then get pass it and then one of 2 things will happen, you either come in the next day and say hey thats not bad or you will look at it and you will be fairly clear on whats wrong and what you need to do. But you must have something so that you can start assessing whether you can turn left or turn right. If you just have a blank canvas there is nothing you can do. So my advise will be to just get through the scene, get to the end of it. If you need to take a break for 10 minutes then do that, if you need to take a walk or go buy an ice-cream or get a smoothie or something then do that but get through it and don’t waste time on the internet checking social media just sit and force yourself to get through it because once you get to the end it will be much easier to figure out how to get to the next step.

What’s your overall philosophy about editing?

The most important thing is the emotion of the story at that moment. The editor has to be puppet for the audience’s emotion. You have to understand what you are doing to the audience’s perception of the film when you make a cut. You have to understand what story am I telling here and then when I make a cut what story am I telling here and are the audience’s emotions going to alter. So effectively your job is to make sure that you manipulate their emotions in the best possible way. So you have to make sure that with every cut you are telling a particular story or inferring some emotion whether its tension, or excitement or action or love or fear or horror; every cut contributes to that. In my opinion, the editor is the master of emotions.

What advise would you give an aspiring editor?

I would say edit as much as you can because you only improve by doing the job. So get in touch with young film makers or directors and offer to edit their films for free and do as much as you can. The other thing I would say is working at a professional level as an editor is not just about storytelling and creativity, it is very technical and you have to be very meticulous and very organised. It is very important that you understand how the technology works intimately so that you don’t make technical mistakes that cost a lot of money to fix. So I would say strongly, if you want to be a professional editor you need to get professional experience somehow and that means getting a job in a post production facility and working there for 2 or 3 years teaching yourself how everything is done properly, so that you understand how every single piece of equipment works, you understand how everything is done, you understand how not to make mistakes. Then you can either get yourself a job as an assistant and watch the editor or just start editing and i did that, I just started editing very low budget and feature films and slowly built up from there and this process takes a long time, it will take a few years unless you are incredibly lucky and one of the films you worked on wins the palm door at Cannes, it will take quite a long time to get established. When you are working on studio/hollywood films you must have a strong track record and they prefer to hire older more experienced people that they know will do the job quicker and better than younger people who are inexperienced.

So the main thing is, edit as much as you can, and if you don’t have any footage to edit then go and shoot something on your phone and go edit and put it on youtube. Write a script on saturday morning, go and shoot on saturday afternoon, edit it on sunday and put it on youtube on sunday night. and if you do that for like every week for a year then you will be pretty good.

Bonus Insight

Be grateful that you are doing the job and don’t complain.  I meet a lot of editors who complain and I don’t understand why because you are doing the best job, you have one of the best jobs and you are very lucky being paid to do that. So even when it seems bad it’s no where near as bad as virtually every other job you could be doing.  So be grateful that you are being paid to do something that you love.

I feel like we have the best job because when you make a film you have many people working on the film to make the magic happen between action and cut, to get the images in the camera, teams upon teams of people such as art department and wardrobe, hair and makeup and special effects and visual effects and actors and camera teams, and then all the footage comes to you and it’s just you and you are the first person to see the film come to life before anybody else on the planet and thats a very privileged position to be in because you heard that a lot of people will see the film but you are the very first person even before the director so how the scenes are coming to life and how the actors are bringing the scene to life and that’s great and I love it, I never lose sight of that. I really treasure that every day.

Follow Eddie on twitter @eddiehamilton or his check out his website

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