Every film editor has a different story about how they worked their way up to the cutting room hot seat but all will invariably share a passion for big screen storytelling, a willingness to work very hard for years (often for very little money), a positive enjoyment of working alone in a dark room but most importantly… the hunger to edit, writes Adrian Pennington.
Eddie Hamilton exemplifies this desire to succeed. Over the last 30 years he has cut nearly 25 features as well as TV drama, docs and award-winning shorts earning a reputation among the very best in the business.
Tom Cruise will work with no other. Hamilton’s relationship with the actor-producer began on Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation and he’s been part of the Cruise ‘brain trust’ alongside the likes of directors Joseph Kosinski and Christopher McQuarrie for M:I – Fallout, Top Gun: Maverick (earning an Oscar and Bafta nomination) and M:I – Dead Reckoning Part One.
The British editor previously collaborated with Matthew Vaughn on blockbusters Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class and Kingsmen: The Golden Circle. He is a member of American Cinema Editors and Bafta.
“Most editors would agree that if they weren’t being paid to edit, they would do it anyway because they love it so much,” Hamilton said. “I feel incredibly lucky earning a wage spending hours doing something I would do anyway as a hobby. The magic of cutting one image to another and the emotional response you can create in an audience as a result of that is something you discover at some point in your life, and grow to love the more you do it.”
Early decisions in movie-making
Hamilton became obsessed by movies and wanted passionately to work in the film industry from the age of seven.
“Pretty young, I agree, but the more films I watched as a teenager and the more books I read about the process of film making, the more I wanted to make movies.”
Aged eighteen he was editing on two VHS machines linked together. “Whether it was recutting Hollywood movies I had on VHS, or holiday videos, or shooting and cutting little short films, or working with friends on student film projects, I edited constantly.”
Studying psychology over three years at university he spent four hours a day - “minimum” - editing student film and TV projects. With equal dedication he broke into the industry from the ground-up as a runner.
“My feeling is that if you’re already convinced that an editing career is for you, film school might not be your best option. It costs money, it will delay your entry into the industry when what matters [to the industry] is how much professional experience you have on your CV. Sure, it gives you access to free equipment, you’ll meet many fellow film-makers and you’ll learn some theory and practise, but you’ll leave the course back where you started.”
Hamilton gives lots of first-hand advice about how to break into the industry on his website. One tip is nailing the CV by explaining exactly what you want to achieve and how to communicate this clearly.
“You’ll be surprised how nice people are in the film industry. They all started somewhere, probably by doing exactly what you just did. Very often you’ll start getting replies quicker than you expect, mostly with advice and encouragement, but if you’re lucky you might be asked for an interview, in which case it’s up to you to prove you want the job more than anyone else out there.”
While this may work for other aspects of the film industry, if you’re specifically interested in editing you are unlikely to get offered even the lowest trainee cutting room position without any experience.
Top tips and Kit Kats
For that he advises you land a runner’s gig at an Avid offline facility. Those two factors are important. Avid is the defacto standard software in Hollywood (and TV/film generally) and offline editing is where the creative storytelling decisions are made during the post production process.
Persistence paid for Hamilton. And chocolate.
“When I was applying for runner’s jobs, I enclosed a Kit Kat with every letter (very envelope friendly). When I went for interviews they always remembered me.”
As a runner he spent every evening and weekend teaching himself how to use Avid. He’d even spend his annual leave in a cutting room working on his own films.
“I strived to work harder than anyone else. One day a freelance editor didn’t show up, leaving their clients editorless, so I volunteered to step in. Luckily all my hard work on the Avids paid off because I flew through the session.”
After that he was promoted to edit assistant, and three months later, to editor. This was summer 1995. For the next 18 months he worked long shifts editing (among many other things), Portuguese and Spanish sports TV shows.
“I don’t speak either language, and I’m not really keen on sport, but nevertheless I worked hard and fast, learnt an incredible amount, and soon found myself with a deep knowledge of the Avid editing system.”
His first solo credit was for low-budget horror feature Urban Ghost Story (1998) made by the Chris Jones and Genevieve Jolliffe, the writers of The Guerilla Film Makers Handbook with whom he has been friends ever since. Hamilton went on to cut two further no-budget features for free, supporting himself with two days a week freelance editing at the Paramount Comedy Channel, “which just about paid my bills.”
Today’s equivalent of cutting together VHS tape is to download clips from YouTube using free software from Avid and Blackmagic Design. Hamilton insisted there’s nothing like real world experience.
Professionalism and flexibility
“You can learn by watching editors but to be honest you only really learn when you are put on the spot to build something on a timeline with people watching you in a room.”
“The reality is that a real job in post, or in the film industry in general, is nothing like film school. You may feel like you have achieved a lot at film school but the stakes are much higher in a real job. In the first week you’ll have to turn up at 8am and learn what people want for lunch and not screw it up.”
That may seem flippant or trivial but for Hamilton it is the foundation of professionalism. “When you are learning there’s no pressure to turn it around fast but being professional means having to do everything incredibly fast and accurately.”
Then there are the interpersonal dynamics of an editing environment which Hamilton admited can “occasionally be very challenging, politically.”
“You have to know when to shut up and when you’re asked a question to speak up,” he said. “It’s an essential skill. Until you encounter the reality of it you don’t really understand what it means. Being aware of politics is something that will mature as you experience it.”
Being flexible and open to creative discussion is another key edit room dynamic. “When someone asks me to try something I always do. It takes 20 seconds and I don’t really mind. I am not emotionally attached to what I do. I just want to make the best film possible.”
During his IBC2023 masterclass Hamilton hopes to show a short breakdown from M:I – Dead Reckoning Part One, a section of Top Gun: Maverick (“which I found incredibly difficult”) and the evolution of the helicopter scene from M:I – Fallout “which started out as 3 minutes and ended up at 12 seconds,” as an example of “how compressed action can get when you are really getting down to the wire.”
Hamilton has been lucky enough to work constantly since 2014 with barely two weeks a year off over Christmas. The hiatus of the writer’s strike means he is catching up with friends and family but also reading all he can about AI tools and taking time with the brain trust to finesse the footage already shot for Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part Two.
“You try to turn every bump in the road to your advantage. I was with Chris [McQuarrie] in Maine last week reviewing footage and examining ways we can make it better or compress the story in advance. We’re also turning over a lot of VFX at ILM so these shots will be done by the time we start previewing the film in six months. If we were still full steam ahead on rolling Part Two we would not have that that luxury.”
Hear Hamilton talk about the art of Cutting Blockbusters: A conversation with Eddie Hamilton, ACE 16 September 15:45 – 16:30 at IBC2023.