Working at UHD Resolution, Cutting for Imax, and Building a 'Tapestry' of Sound
With six movies in a little more than 22 years, the Mission: Impossible film series has become one of the longest-running Hollywood franchises — and arguably the most adventurous. With a line-up of directors including Brian De Palma, John Woo, J.J. Abrams and Brad Bird, the M:I series has showcased big action set pieces combined with often idiosyncratic creative flourishes that make them feel more personal and finely crafted than many competing studio tentpoles. The series has settled into a groove lately, with Christopher McQuarrie, the director behind 2015’s Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, invited back to make this summer’s Fallout. Also returning is film editor Eddie Hamilton, who made a name for himself with the propulsive, often madcap action of the Kick-Ass films and Kingsman: The Secret Service as well as X-Men: First Class. We talked to Hamilton about working at UHD resolution in the Avid, evolving the film’s score and sound design starting from a very early stage, and working to make the film even better while star Tom Cruise recovered from the broken ankle he sustained getting one of the film’s many dangerous stunts in the can.
This interview took place June 19, with the film in the home stretch of post-production.
Give us the big picture of cutting Mission: Impossible – Fallout. What was your cutting room like, and how many different locations did you work in over the course of production and post?
Fallout started filming in Paris in April 2017 for six weeks. I was finishing Kingsman: The Golden Circle, so I was doing evenings and weekends on Mission: Impossible and finishing Kingsman on my weekdays. After that, they filmed in New Zealand for about eight weeks, and I actually did go out to Queenstown, where they filmed the climactic third-act action sequence. They built a very large set in a beautiful valley in a remote part of the South Island. The main action here was a complicated helicopter chase — Ethan Hunt gets into a helicopter and tries to chase down one of the villains in another helicopter, and they filmed it all for real. Tom Cruise learned how to fly a helicopter and do incredibly dangerous stunts, and the production had to invent camera rigs that mounted safely to his helicopter, both outside looking in and inside looking out over his shoulder. They filmed for several weeks. It was nerve-racking to watch, and they generated about 70 hours of incredible Imax footage. It was an interesting challenge for me, editorially, to work through all of it. When Tom took off, they started the cameras, he flew for 40 minutes, and then he would land and the cameras would stop. That’s why it ended up being so much footage.
Then we went to London and filmed at Leavesden and on location in London. We were also in Norway for a few days for the climactic battle. Overall, it was about 160 days of filming. You may be aware that Tom Cruise broke his ankle in London doing a stunt where he was jumping between two buildings. We had to stop filming for about 12 weeks. However, post-production continued. We kept fine-cutting everything that had been filmed, and we looked at improving everything that was left in the script. But it did mean we didn’t have very much time from the end of filming to the release. We finished filming 12 weeks ago, and now we’re just finishing the movie. That’s a very quick turnaround, but we’ve managed to do four previews. Everything has gone incredibly well, but it’s been very hard work.
My team uses Avid Media Composer. I had a Mac Pro trashcan attached to a DNxIQ box, plus a digital 5.1 speaker setup so my room had a great theatrical quality when I pressed play.
What was your editorial team like?
I have two first assistant editors, Riccardo Bacigalupo and Tom Coope; two second assistant editors, Chris Frith and Ryan Axe; an editorial trainee, Hannah Leckey; a lead VFX editor, Ben Mills, alongside VFX editor Robbie Gibbon; and a music editor, Cécile Tournesac. Chris Hunter and Michael Cheung joined later as 3D editors. Plus Nicola Ford is our 3D/post coordinator and Susan Novick is our legendary post supervisor. There are quite a lot of us on the team.
And which version of the Avid are you cutting on?
We’re all using the latest version of Avid Media Composer. I upgrade to the latest version soon after a new release comes out. There are almost always new features that are helpful to us, so we try the latest version.
What was new for you this time out?
This was a brand-new opportunity to work at 2160p. A lot of the movie was filmed on 35mm anamorphic film, which we scanned at 4K at Pinewood Post, and then I was given 2160p MXF media so I could work at ultra-high-def resolution, using the Avid DNxHR LB codec (which is only 144 Mbps). I have a 65-inch Panasonic OLED in the cutting room and the images look just fantastic on that. Hopefully I won’t be going back to standard HD any time soon.
So UHD is part of a completely smooth Avid workflow now?
Yes. All of our negative existed as 4K DPX files, meaning pulling VFX shots was a quick process of transcoding files off our server to EXR and sending them to Double Negative. Fluent Image managed the entire data and color pipeline for us, making it very straightforward to send data from Pinewood Post out to Double Negative and then in again and back out to Molinare, our DI facility.
Does the higher resolution actually help you see detail in the picture that affects your edit, or is it more about the feel of such a large, high-quality image?
It’s mostly the feel of the picture, being able to assess the quality of the image in terms of density of the negative and focus. When you see the difference, it’s extraordinary. The detail that appears before your eyes is great, in the way that going from SD to HD was revolutionary for us all. Obviously, UHD will be a tidal wave that consumes us all in a few years when it becomes the standard. Everyone’s phone can record in UHD now. So it was the luxury of having the extra quality to look at and the fact that the bitrate is relatively low for such an enormous, high-quality image. We could fit all our dailies on 40 TB of storage, so I used a 32 TB G-Speed Q RAID, plus two 4 TB Lacie Rugged drives, all three connected to a USB 3.0 hub.
So you’ve reached a sweet spot now between quality and portability.
For two weeks towards the end of the schedule, we shot a complex skydiving sequence in Abu Dhabi. I’m on a military base in a trailer editing on my laptop, with 40 TB of storage attached, and putting the images up on a big screen. I also worked in a hotel in New York, I worked at the director’s house, I worked at the sound mixing stage — I’ve worked all over the place with this portable drive. And one of the benefits of Avid media management is you can take a drive and plug it into any Media Composer system and your project will pop up immediately, which is fantastic. When you’re working on a film under enormous time pressure and there are expectations for the cutting room to deliver high quality work in a short period of time, it’s nice to have that technology available and be able to trust that it’s going to work.
How complicated was your Avid timeline, and what other new features have you been using?
I work with 5.1 audio on the timeline, using all the panning and plug-in tools available. If I’m working on a portable stereo system, Media Composer will downmix the 5.1 sound to stereo on the fly (retaining all the 5.1 panning). Also we’re doing a very labor-intensive, carefully crafted and beautiful 3D post-conversion, which has taken months and months, so we have several layers of the timeline dedicated to 3D. There are lots of tiny Avid features that have evolved over time that we use on a day-to-day basis, such as the ability to mute clips on the timeline, or awesome trim tools. Those kinds of things — small, incremental changes to the software that are fed back to Avid over time by the users — are invaluable. There are more things we editors are asking for, and Avid is getting to them. Background auto-saving would improve my workflow dramatically. When you are late in the process of editing the film, the bins themselves get quite big, and saving takes more seconds than you’d like. Within the year, I hope they’ll implement background auto-saving, which I would value enormously as someone who works with complex timelines.
Do you still use a Razer Naga gaming mouse with customizable buttons?
I do — I still use that mouse and tweak that customization week by week as I refine what I do. I use it to turn waveforms on and off, to go to color-correction, to switch between cameras in multicam and, if I’m on my laptop, I use it to switch between full-screen mode and timeline. It allows me to zoom in and out of the timeline and work incredibly fast. It’s very nerdy — but I’m a post-production nerd and I love all this stuff.
How much of Mission: Impossible – Fallout was shot on film and how much was digital?
Most of the movie was filmed with 35mm anamorphic film cameras. However, the skydive sequence was digital because film cameras are very heavy to carry. The skydive cameraman was wearing a Red camera on his helmet with a small crosshair over his eye so he could roughly guide where he was pointing the camera. Also the climactic helicopter sequence was shot digitally so we could record for 40 minutes at a time. Both those digital sequences were recorded in the larger Imax aspect ratio. That means if you see the film in Imax, the aspect ratio changes from 2.40 (for anamorphic film) to 1.90 (for those digital sections of the movie). The quality of the digital footage is fantastic.
I’ve always wondered — the 2.40 version of those shots must feel tighter than the 1.90 versions. Does that ever have an impact on your approach to a sequence? What I mean is, do you feel like you consider the different framing when deciding how exactly to cut the sequence?
That’s a good question. I think you’re aware of this, but ultimately it does not change how you tell the story. I worked [on X-Men: First Class] with Lee Smith, who cuts Christopher Nolan’s movies, many of which have Imax film sequences. He told me that when they were doing tests for The Dark Knight the Imax shots didn’t really affect his choice of shot length. He just wanted to tell the story, and his instinct remained the same, whether it was 70mm Imax or 35mm. The story, and the adventure you’re taking the audience on, overrides the aspect ratio considerations. I’m aware it will be bigger on screen, but I want the pace of the film to be exciting and play well regardless of the format.
Along the same lines, you mentioned the serious injury that Tom Cruise sustained. Does that have an effect on your edit — to know how much raw effort and pain went into a given shot or stunt or sequence?
I feel a great responsibility to honor the hard work that everyone puts into the film, especially Tom’s. He cares passionately about the audience’s experience watching the film, and he wants people to understand that what they’re seeing is real. It makes a tangible difference when you watch the film and know what you’re seeing actually happened. There are stunts he does in this film that are astonishing, and people will not believe it’s real unless they see footage of him flying a helicopter, or falling off a helicopter, or doing 360-degree dives in a helicopter. It’s exhilarating to watch all the footage, and I’m mindful of the fact that I want to honor and preserve all the very best moments of the action, so that you get an exhilarating ride.
I don’t shortcut anything. I watch every frame of footage very carefully and assess it. For the 70 hours of helicopter footage, I got it down to 15 hours, and then to five hours, and then two, then one, then 40 minutes, then 20 minutes … in the finished movie it’s around seven and a half minutes of action-packed stuff, and it’s the very, very best footage. I’ve simmered it down to make sure that you’re seeing the greatest hits of what he did — the most dangerous things from the most exciting camera angles. Alongside it, there is extraordinary music by Lorne Balfe and an outstanding soundtrack. [Supervising sound editor] James Mather and his team have created immersive, beautifully mixed sounds that go along with the stunts to create the total cinematic experience. It will be world class.
I understand that you take sound very seriously during the edit.
I value the input of the music editor and sound editors early on. Chris McQuarrie does not like to use temp score when he edits. He feels it does the film a disservice to take music from other movies. So we work with no score, but we do craft sound. When I’ve done an assembly of any kind of scene, especially an action scene, I will turn my roughest sketch over to the sound team and have them flesh it out and send back stems of all the elements so that, when I’m recutting and refining the scene with Chris, I can use those sound effects and recut them to fit the scene as it’s revised and improved. Those original effects remain throughout the entire process of cutting the film, so we get used to hearing the sounds that end up in the movie, and Chris can start feeding back about the sound immediately.
Lorne came on board just before Tom broke his ankle, about two-thirds of the way through filming, and had about five months before we finished filming where he was writing music based on scenes — not necessarily writing to picture, but writing music that was emotionally and tonally accurate. He wrote large suites of music, I’d say two or three hours’ worth, so our music editor had a wealth of original music to start experimenting with. We had original music laid on at an early stage, so the process could evolve in tandem with the sound design. We were screening the film and listening to the audience and feeling the pace to see how it could be improved with score adjustments, and Lorne would write new music with Chris and myself. Nothing is left to chance. Every sound, piece of dialogue, editing choice, musical note and visual effect is part of a carefully constructed tapestry. The last piece of music was written about two weeks ago, recorded a few days later at Abbey Road, and mixed into the movie a few days after that.
I’ve always heard that Tom Cruise’s producer credit is not just an honorific — that he is deeply involved with the creative process, too.
Unequivocally. He’s been instrumental in the best way. These movies are his pride and joy and he is an active producer on a daily basis, from inception through to the process of finding locations, casting, wardrobe, production design and cinematography, all the way through to music and editorial. He spends a lot of time with us — in the cutting room if he’s in the country — discussing the storytelling process every single day. He watches the movie when we screen for an audience and gives us detailed notes and feedback. He knows the character of Ethan Hunt better than anyone. He knows minute-by-minute what he wants the audience to feel, and it’s our job as collaborators to help him achieve that.
What do you think viewers should keep an eye out for as they watch the film? Were there any specific aspects of it that were especially challenging, or that you’re most proud of?
Well, the movie is two hours and 20 minutes without credits. It’s a very rich meal, but it moves, and so far audiences have not had a problem with the pace. To get that right was a huge challenge. From the moment you sit down and watch the logos to the very last scene, we want you to be engaged, immersed, excited and surprised. And we want you to love the characters and feel their emotions and laugh and cheer and gasp. I hope we’ve delivered on that. You will see Ethan Hunt go on an incredible journey through different environments. And a lot of the sequences have multiple layers to them, which is extremely rewarding. Chris McQuarrie excels at this. When you watch the film a second time, you see different textures and character motivations at play. Another challenge was the intercutting of the action. The third act is a long ticking-bomb sequence that plays out over a large chunk of time, and I really hope the audience enjoys that ride. We worked for months experimenting with the intercutting until we found the sweet spot. Hopefully it feels effortless and exciting when you watch it. Check out the movie on a large Imax screen if you can — it’s a rollercoaster ride.
Mission: Impossible – Fallout opens this week worldwide.
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