This masterclass is a great way to gain an insight into the mind and creative process of this genius filmmaker.
How to pick the right story
For Spike, Lee cinema is about storytelling. But, as he points out, you need to tell the right story. In Spike’s case that is the story, he feels the most passionate about, the one that keeps popping into his head.
How to stay organized when putting pen to paper
It is interesting to see Spike’s creative process laid out. In the first lesson, he explains how he uses index cards to record his ideas and bring some order to them.
He then goes on to briefly explain his research process. Spike Lee’s approach is different from that of other the other storytellers whose masterclasses I have watched. But, I like Spike’s process better. There is a logic to it that works for me and I think will work for many other students.
This section contains several tips to help you to come up with a process that works. A way to ensure that you can pull everything you need to write your script together and be as productive as possible. Importantly, he also covers the subject of writing collaboratively, something you rarely see talked about in other film=making or writing courses.
Storytelling the Spike Lee way
The way in which you tell a story is vital. There is no doubt that the fact he broke the mold and makes films about subjects that particularly resonate with him is a big part of Spike Lee’s success. He explains why he works this way and the principles (outlined below) that he uses when writing his stories.
- How to create distinct characters
- How to avoid falling into the trap of creating a one-sided narrative
- How to find a story that resonates with you
- Learn not to be afraid to do things differently – there is no formula
- How to connect with today’s audience even when dealing with historical themes
How films can speak truth to power
Filmmakers are perfectly placed to bring about change. Films are a great way to highlight issues and move others to action.
Using the medium of film you can change the way people think. As Spike puts it you are in a position to … “speak truth to power”.
To speak truth to power means to demand a moral response to a problem, rather than an expedient, easy or selfish response.Grammarist.com
There is no doubt that Spike does this with his films. Yet, refreshingly, he uses someone else’s movie to illustrate how you can paint a picture using the medium of film. He ably demonstrates his point, and as an added bonus you gain a little insight into how he thinks and feels about one of his On the Waterfront.
Financing and budgeting as a filmmaker
One of the biggest challenges people face when starting out as a filmmaker is finding the money to make their film. It is clear that when Spike started his career, he also had to work with a tight budget. So, the tips he shares with his masterclass students are all practical and sound.
By way of explanation, Spike shares how he financed Malcolm X. This video is a real eye-opener.
I would never have imagined that selling merchandise could be a way to make money for a film that is yet to be made. But, Spike Lee saw the potential of this approach and it is one of the ways he pulled together the cash he needed to make Malcolm X.
He also mobilized the black community to raise the money he needed to ensure that the film got made properly. It needed to be longer than 2 hours to show the full evolution Malcolm X underwent to become the leader he was. That was expensive, but with the funds, he raised Spike was able to do justice to the subject and tell the full story.
How to cast your film
The wrong actors, the wrong roles – it could turn out the wrong movie.Spike Lee – Filmmaking Course Masterclass.com
Spike Lee sees casting as being critical to a film’s success. He takes his time when choosing his cast. On occasion, having people come back 4 or 5 times before deciding whether to hire them.
He shares some fantastic tips in this section. Things I have not come across in any of the other Masterclass film-making courses that I have taken.
For example, the value of casting couples together. This enables you to make sure that there is real chemistry between them. As Spike says, the camera never lies. To make a believable couple you need some natural chemistry to be there between the actors who play those two characters.
To help you to understand his casting process, Spike walks you through how he cast several important characters in his films. He also tells an interesting story which demonstrates that as a filmmaker you cannot afford to be shy. You really have to push to get your script into the right hands and attract the actors you need.
Later in the course, Spike covers collaborating with your actors. He goes through how to draw an actor out. How to help them to fully understand their character. When you do this well, you will usually find that the actor enriches your characters in ways that would not have occurred to you otherwise.
It is very clear that he respects his actors and will go the extra mile to demonstrate this to them. In fact, he dedicates an entire video to this subject.
How to choose your director of photography
Auditioning your director of photography is important. They play a key role in transforming your story into its final form. Once you find someone that you work with well, there is no bickering. You grow together and understand each other in a way that makes the filming process far less stressful. His advice is to go through the movie scene by scene before you start filming as a way of making sure you and really do understand each other.
Here Spike explains how the collaborative process should work. Having this understanding should help you to hire the right person.
A practical look at storybooks
As a non-filmmaker, I find storybooks fascinating. They help me to understand the various elements that make up a movie.
The interesting thing is that each filmmaker takes a different approach when creating their storybook. They all have their merits, but, again Spike Lee’s approach is the one that makes the most sense to me.
Using cinematography to tell your story
How the camera is used, the shots you take, the angle, the lighting and the rhythm of a scene all add to the story. They embellish and strengthen your characters. Spike goes through a scene from Do the Right Thing to demonstrate how this works. Just one example is how shooting someone from below makes them seem more powerful in the eyes of the audience. He demonstrates several other shooting and storytelling techniques, using scenes from 25th Hour.
This was, by far, my favorite part of Spike Lee’s film making course. He built on what I had learned about this subject from Mira Nair’s Masterclass. A course I was able to take for free because I had bought an all-access masterclass pass.
As an aside, if you want to take more than 2 masterclasses this is definitely the way to do it. You get the pass for the same price as the cost of two courses. So, effectively the remaining 48+ courses, that you can potentially take, can all be enjoyed cost-free.
Managing your crew and your shoot
Managing your set is a vital part of the filmmaking process, so it is good to see Spike cover this in detail. He covers:
- How to maintain discipline
- Keeping everything organized
- Avoiding delays
- How to gain the respect and trust of your crew and cast
Putting together your opening credit sequence
Seeing a whole video about putting together your opening credits included in this filmmaking course surprised me. Then Spike took me through the credits for several of his films.
He talked over the top of them explaining, in real time, what he was telling the audience. At that point, it clicked, I could see why the opening credits are so important. As Spike said…
The opening credit sequence is where you have to grab your audience’s attention, from the get.Spike Lee – Masterclass.com
It is the point at which you set the scene, get your audience in the right frame of mood to enjoy your movie.
The role music plays in storytelling
I learned from the other filmmaker courses I have already taken on masterclass, that the score, the music, is a vital component of any movie. Spike, like Mira Nair, brings his composers in at a very early stage in the film making process. He talks to them about all kinds of things including what the colors are going to be. Apparently, a lot of composers use different instruments to represent different colors.
Putting together the film score is a long and complex process. One that you will learn a lot about by taking this movie making course.
How Spike Lee edits his films
The editing process is something I am not at all familiar with. Apart, from cutting together a friend’s wedding video in the 90s I have never done any real film editing. However, I still found this part of the course interesting and informative.
It is very clear from the way Spike Lee explains things that editing is far more about what you leave in than what you cut out. This is actually the reverse of what I thought the process was all about. He goes into a fair amount of detail here, going as far as to explain how to use complex techniques like inter-cutting.
Film as an agent of change
Spike Lee’s discussion of how films and tv shows have affected the way people view others is an interesting one. It is not really about how to make films. But, it is nonetheless very relevant. If you are a filmmaker, listening to what Spike has to say on the subject will help you to make films that are agents of change for the good, rather than the bad.
Storytelling using documentaries
A lot of people forget that Spike Lee is also a documentary maker. Unfortunately, he only covers this subject for just under 7 minutes. So, you are not going to learn much about making documentaries. But, you will better understand how the medium of film can be used as a force for change.
Why everyone can take Spike Lee’s film making Masterclass
I don’t often like something enough to be able to recommend it to virtually everyone. But, this masterclass is definitely the exception.
There is a bit of swearing in the course, but apart from that, it is suitable for most audiences. Fans of his films will definitely enjoy it. Filmmakers will learn a lot. Writers will benefit too. They can certainly learn from Spike Lee’s story creation process.
But, most of all, this course makes you think about the way what we watch impacts how we think and feel. It helps you to understand the potential power of a film. Something we could all do with thinking more about more. What we watch has a profound effect on the people we are and will become.
Spike Lee’s filmmaking workbook
As you can see from my masterclass.com review, you get a free workbook with every course and the chance to ask your instructor questions directly. Both are excellent features. Spike Lee’s workbook is not the best one, but the exercises he includes should prove useful for students of filmmaking.
The list of films he recommends his students watch to learn more about movie making is a long one, but it contains some brilliant films. I for one will be watching or re-watching several of them.