Eddie Hamilton is a film and television editor. He worked on X-Men: First Class and Kick-Ass and is currently editing Kick-Ass 2. He kindly sat down with me to chat about his career.
What exactly is the role of a film editor?
The role of a film editor is to look at all of the footage shot by the crew and tell the best story that is within that footage. Regardless of what’s in the script and regardless of what the director had in mind when he shot it, you look at the footage independently and you decide what the best story is that exists in the footage. You never get there straight away – it’s a long process of starting with a first draft and redrafting.
Do you have much guidance from the director?
You start editing the day after the first day of the shoot on most films. You work on your own predominantly for most of the film because the director is busy shooting the film. You may see the director in the evenings if they’re not too tired, or on a Saturday just to review what you’ve done. But I insist on being on my own for the first assembly because it is the time when you can watch all the footage and start to feel the film coming to life. It is best to do that on your own so that you have space to explore options and be thorough. On a film like X-Men: First Class, quite often they’re filming with four cameras, so whether it is a large action scene or a dialogue scene it is a large undertaking and you need to be able to watch it, concentrate and think it through carefully. You can’t do that if there’s somebody standing over your shoulder.
Do you have an assistant editor?
Not on the first ten films I edited. Then I got to a certain level where there was the budget for an assistant. On a film like X-Men: First Class there were about six assistants.
What roles do they play?
Importing all of the footage from the previous day’s shoot. If it’s digital they transcode the files to something Avid Media Composer can read, then they have to sync up sound. On a big film you can have as many as eight to twelve tracks of sound on each slate, and they break the slates down into sub-clips in the Avid. Then they prepare “bins” for me with tiles so I can see all the shots for a particular scene. During the shoot they prepare dailies for the producers to watch or output sequences if I need them to do that. After they finish shooting they work on visual effects, supporting me if I need to have a remote edit suite somewhere, or they help me find music…there’s lots of things to do.
X-Men: First Class is a pretty visual effects heavy film. Did you have to assemble a lot of rough footage? How did you work without the effects to guide you?
The last 20 minutes of X-Men, with the Russian and American navy face off and the X-Jet ends up crashing on the beach, I edited in its entirety about a month before they shot a single frame of film. I edited it with “pre-vis” which is where you build the sequence in a kind of computer game cut-scene style graphic. You build up every shot with sound effects and music and send it to a producer to watch and assess it. They break down the shots by cost. Some of those shots, for example the submarine being pulled out of the water, cost hundreds of thousands of dollars each. They are complex to render with photo-real quality, so the producers decide what they can and cannot afford. Then eventually they shoot scenes against a green screen and you have to match it up to what you’ve got in the pre-vis, so you’ve always got a guide of what you are working with. The sequence where Kevin Bacon attacks the CIA building was a bit more difficult because that was refined a lot. You mock up as much as you can on the timeline so people can imagine roughly what it is going to happen, and you keep refining as the visual effects improve.
Do you work closely with the visual effects companies?
With X-Men: First Class it was mostly Weta in New Zealand or Rhythm and Hues in New York with some bits in London. There were several time zones working on it round the clock. There is a visual effects supervisor, an amazing man called John Dykstra who got an Oscar for the first Star Wars. He invented the motion control systems that were used to film the spaceship sequences in the first Star Wars film when he was like 26, and he’s an utter genius at what he does. He is in charge of communicating with the visual effects companies, and myself and the other editor Lee Smith worked very closely with him day by day.
Film editing is practically invisible when done properly. When did you decide you wanted to edit films?
Editing is a dark art. You don’t get making of documentaries about editing because it is not an interesting spectator sport. There’s a really interesting documentary on the DVD of Matchstick Men about the editing of that movie, but generally it is not really understood by the public. Effectively, all you have without editing is a lot of footage which doesn’t mean anything, and the whole film is created when you edit it. You decide the pace; how to tell the story; whose point of view to tell the story from; how you start the film; how you guide the audience through the film; how exciting you can make the action sequences; how linear you can make the story – it’s eveything.
I decided I wanted to work in the film industry when I was about seven years old when I first saw Star Wars. I saw names on the credits and I thought, “Oh, people do this! That would be fun.” So I read as much as I could about films and filmmaking and watched as many films as I could. When I was seventeen I played with two VHS machines hooked up, and I discovered I quite enjoyed the combination of storytelling and technology. When I was making student films it was my favourite part of the process, and I didn’t mind working on my own for hours in a dark room focusing on the minute details of each cut and the grand overview of the whole story.
I failed to get into film school, but undeterred I applied to get a job as a runner in central London. I taught myself to use Avid Media Composer every evening and weekend I had free, and slowly worked my way up to an editor in television. After I did that I single-mindedly aimed towards working in films rather than TV. I’ve done quite a bit of both over the years, but in the last few years it’s been pretty much exclusively films. You’re very lucky to be employed in this industry. Sometimes the films you do are not as good as you hoped. Nobody wants to make a bad film but it’s very difficult to make a good one. Hundreds of movies are made every year and probably less than five of them we would genuniely say are great films. So the odds of you working on one of those great films are pretty small. But I look forward to going into work everyday and I’m thrilled to be working on Kick-Ass 2 with a great team. No two days are the same.
Are there many projects you realise aren’t going to turn out great while you are working on them? Or is it only when the film is finished you realise it isn’t quite as good as you’d expected?
Some of the films I’ve done I’ve known they haven’t been as good as I had hoped. I set the bar incredibly high for my work. With Kick-Ass, I think we did get that as good as it could possibly be. Matthew Vaughn is a very uncompromising director, and it is probably the film that turned out the best in terms of what we set out to do and what we ended up with. Your job is to minimise the bad things and maximise the good things, but you probably see less than five good films a year. Matthew understands storytelling, actors, production design, music, cinematography, so it is a pleasure to work with him because I know he will make good films.
He started as a producer, so I suppose he has to be able to wear all those caps.
Do you have anything planned for after Kick-Ass 2?
There are two or three films that I have had calls about, but nothing confirmed yet. There are some challenging and exciting projects that I would love to do if the wind blows that way.
How do you choose your projects?
It’s a bit of a myth that you choose projects and very rarely have I had more than one film to choose from. Quite often you’re just offered a job and you’re delighted to have it. Recently though I’ve been turning down films because I don’t care for the scripts that much, and it all comes down to the writing really. I’ve read hundreds of scripts and I trust my gut feeling and reaction when I read them. Mainly because over the years as I’ve edited films, any problems that I felt were in the script always come and bite you in the arse when you’re editing. It’s a lot easier to fix them at script stage, so I’m pretty ruthless when I send feedback to friends who send me scripts to read. I’m always very honest, and most of the time I’m quite negative. There is no point in sugar-coating anything in this industry because the audience will be utterly merciless if you are not. Audiences will not forgive bad films, and why should they? They paid money, and they deserve a good film.
Scripts can often change during the shooting of a film, do you have a copy when you edit?
I get given the script every day if it changes. What I tend to do is just watch the footage and work out what scene I filmed. Quite often it’s not what is in the script because actors have had ideas on the day, or the director’s had an idea…so I tend to watch the wide shot and decide what I’m trying to do with it. Then I watch the other coverage and cut the best scene that exists in the footage regardless of what is in the script. The script is a guide, but the moment the film is shot it does not apply, because all that is matters is what is shot.
Can it be a pain if the footage does not match the script exactly?
Sometimes, but you just have to adapt. You don’t know what the pressures on the set are, and it’s very easy to sit in a chair in a warm edit suite, looking at footage without having to suffer shooting it. My job is to make the best of the footage that’s been shot. Unless you’re Steven Spielberg or James Cameron, a director will only get around 10-20% of what they wanted to shoot, because so much changes on the day. The job of a director is soul-destroying as you have your vision utterly destroyed the moment you walk on set. There are plenty of moments you find you have to shoot the film in three shots when you wanted to do it in twenty.
Sounds like it’s enough to put you off being a director.
What has been your toughest challenge and how have you solved it?
Working on X-Men: First Class. The start of the shoot to the cinema release was just nine months, which is about half the time you get for a film of that size. So the pressure on the editing team was very high. It was such a dream come true scenario that it didn’t matter how pressured I was, but it was an enormous challenge to make a good film under the time pressure.
Did you use the previous X-Men films to prepare for the job? Or talk to the other editors?
I watched all of them, of course. I didn’t talk to the editors. I know Matthew [Vaughn] very well, and film is a director’s medium so it wouldn’t have mattered what the other editors had said.
Are you involved with the upcoming X-Men film?
Nope. As a fan I’m just as excited to see it as everyone else!
Do you have any advice for budding film editors?
Edit as much as you can. You never stop learning, so the more you edit, the better you get. If you’re just starting out, I recommend shooting a film on your iPhone. You can make a three minute film on your phone on a Saturday, edit it on Sunday, and put it on YouTube on Sunday night. If you do that every weekend for a year you’ll be pretty good at editing by the end of it.
To find out more about Eddie’s work, follow these links: