What was your first Spike Lee movie? I came into his work in a pretty unconventional order, watching He Got Game before I knew who the director was and then circling back to Do the Right Thingwhen I got to college. 

The thing about Spike Lee is that he's got something to say, and he's going to make you listen. His work is so singular and transformative. when you finish one of his films, it is hard to imagine anyone else being able to do what he does. 

But I think if you study him and his work, you can emulate what makes him so great and apply those lessons to finding your own voice. 

Let's delve into the intricate process of how Spike Lee blocks and shoots a scene and examine the filmmaker's signature techniques and his unwavering dedication to the craft.

Table of Contents

Pre-Production: Conceptualizing and Planning

One of the most important theatrical experiences in my life was seeing BlacKkKlansman. The movie closed with scenes from a Klan rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. It was a current event at the time, and it refocused the entire movie to show that we were not dealing with the past, but ongoing racism that doesn't end when the movie ends. 

It was so startling I sat through the credits in awe. 

Lee has a knack for choosing stories that resonate with real-life events. For instance, in his 1989 film Do the Right Thing, the chokehold scene involving Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) was inspired by the death of Michael Stewart, a graffiti artist who was strangled by 11 New York City transit police in 1983.

Similarly, the scene eerily foreshadowed the tragic death of Eric Garner in 2014. By drawing from actual events, Lee creates a sense of authenticity in his work, inspiring a deeper emotional connection with the audience.

What drives your storytelling? 

Spike.lee_.jpgCredit: AtlantaFi

Collaboration with Key Department Heads

Lee believes in collaborating closely with his department heads during the pre-production phase, ensuring that everyone is aligned with his vision.

For Do the Right Thing, he specifically instructed his Director of Photography Ernest Dickerson, Production Designer Wynn Thomas, and Costume Designer Ruth Carter to create an atmosphere that would make viewers feel the sweltering heat of a hot summer day in Brooklyn.

This level of collaboration ensures that each department contributes to the overall visual and emotional impact of a scene.

Location Scouting and Set Design

Lee is known for his meticulous attention to detail when it comes to selecting the perfect location for his films. In Do the Right Thing, the entire film was shot on one block in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. This location was later renamed "Do the Right Thing Way," making it the only street in New York City named after a movie. The choice of location contributes to the film's authenticity and sense of place.

Do_the_right_thing'Do The Right Thing'Credit: Universal Pictures

Crafting an Immersive Set Design

Sets are what sell worldbuilding, and it doesn't matter how big or small the production. 

In Do the Right Thing, the iconic Sal's Famous Pizzeria was situated on the corner of the block, directly opposite the Korean fruit and vegetable stand. This deliberate placement allowed for the climactic scene to spill out from the pizzeria onto the street, involving the entire block in the narrative.

Working closely with his production designer, Lee ensures that each set contributes to the overall atmosphere and tone of a scene. 

Think about how in Da 5 Bloods the club is set up to homage to Apocalypse Now, but also show the division of old and new Vietnam. It tells us so much about the society involved in the storytelling. 

Ezgif.com-webp-to-jpg_10'Da 5 Bloods'Credit: Netflix

Blocking: Positioning Actors and Camera

In Lee's movies, the camera follows actors with dynamic and innovative blocking techniques, which serve to heighten the emotional and visual impact of a scene. Let's go back to one of my favorites, He Got Game

Camera Placement and Movement

He Got Game is about a talented high school basketball player who must navigate the pressures of his troubled past, his strained relationship with his incarcerated father, and the relentless pursuit of college recruiters as he faces a pivotal decision that could determine his future both on and off the court. 

In one of my favorite scenes, Jesus Shuttlesworth (Ray Allen), engages in an intense one-on-one game with his incarcerated father, Jake Shuttlesworth (Denzel Washington).

As the scene begins, the camera captures the vastness of the court, surrounded by chain-link fences and dilapidated buildings, creating a sense of isolation and urban decay. The lighting is stark, casting long shadows on the court, emphasizing the tension and emotional weight of the encounter.

But the lighting is just on them, they're the only ones who matter in all of this. 

As the game begins, the camera starts to move dynamically, following the characters' movements with smooth tracking shots and quick pans. The blocking allows us to witness the athleticism and skill of both characters, capturing their fluid basketball maneuvers. The editing is precise, cutting between wide shots to showcase the entire court and close-ups of the characters' faces, capturing their determination and the emotions running through their minds.

Throughout the scene, the blocking creates a sense of rhythm and intensity. Jake's aggressive and physical style of play is juxtaposed with Jesus' graceful and strategic movements. They constantly challenge each other, and the camera captures their interaction with well-timed cuts and framing.

The scene culminates in a climactic moment when Jesus attempts a dunk over his father. The blocking intensifies, with Jake realizing he can't bully his son anymore. He's proud but also knows the power dynamic has shifted.

The "Spike Lee Shot"

Spike Lee is so cool he even has a shot named after him. The "Spike Lee shot" also known as the double dolly shot or floating dolly shot, involves the use of a specialized camera rig. This rig typically consists of a track or dolly system on which the camera is mounted.

The camera itself is attached to a separate platform or arm, which allows it to move independently of the main dolly.

The shot involves two types of movement. First, the main dolly moves forward or backward along the track, creating a smooth lateral motion. At the same time, the camera platform or arm moves up or down, creating a vertical motion that adds a floating or hovering effect.

The combination of these two movements creates a visually striking shot. The lateral movement of the dolly can be used to track characters or objects across the scene, following their actions or emphasizing their movement. The vertical movement of the camera platform adds a sense of depth and dimension to the shot, creating a unique perspective that draws the viewer's attention.

Spike Lee has used this shot in many of his films to great effect, often employing it during moments of heightened tension or to emphasize a particular character or event. It has become a signature technique associated with his filmmaking style and has been widely adopted and emulated by other directors and cinematographers.

It is a prime example of how camera movement can be used creatively to enhance storytelling and visual impact in filmmaking. It adds a dynamic and immersive element to the viewer's experience, making the shot memorable and engaging.

Lighting: Crafting Mood and Atmosphere

Spike Lee has used both natural and artificial lighting techniques to create a specific mood and atmosphere in his films. 

Collaboration with the Director of Photography

As with other aspects of his filmmaking process, Lee works closely with his Director of Photography to ensure that the lighting choices align with his overall vision for the film. This collaboration ensures that each scene is visually cohesive and contributes to the film's overall tone and atmosphere.

Think about how Lee collaborated with cinematographer Malik Sayeed to create a visually gritty and atmospheric depiction of the urban landscape in Clockers. They used a mix of natural and artificial lighting to accentuate the shadows and contrasts within the film, enhancing the dark and intense tone of the story.

Lee worked with cinematographer Ellen Kuras to craft the visual style of Summer of Sam, set during the summer of 1977 in New York City. They employed a mix of documentary-style handheld shots, vibrant colors, and period-specific lighting to capture the heat, paranoia, and cultural tensions of that time.

Today-in-hip-hop-history-spike-lees-clockers-debuts-in-theaters-23-years-ago'Clockers'Credit: Universal Pictures

Editing: Shaping the Narrative

Sometimes, the best blocking and shooting actually come out in the editing.  

As with other aspects of his filmmaking process, Lee collaborates closely with his editor to ensure that each scene is cut and assembled in a manner that aligns with his overall vision for the film. This close collaboration allows for a seamless, visually cohesive narrative that resonates with audiences.

Lee is known for his distinct use of music and rhythm in his films. He often collaborates closely with editors to find the right pacing and rhythm for each scene. They work together to ensure that the editing choices align with the intended emotional impact and enhance the energy of the storytelling.

For example, in Malcolm X, the collaboration between Lee and editor Barry Alexander Brown resulted in powerful montages that depict significant historical events and the transformation of the central character.

Acting Tips and Basics for Beginners'Malcolm X'Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

Sound Design: Enhancing the Narrative

You can change the whole atmosphere of a scene with music and sound. In Do the Right Thing, Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" serves as the film's anthem, playing throughout the movie and further immersing the audience in the story.

Collaboration with the Sound Designer

As with other aspects of his filmmaking process, Lee works closely with his sound designer to ensure that the film's audio elements align with his overall vision. This collaboration allows for a cohesive and immersive audio experience that complements and enhances the visual narrative.

Spike Lee teamed up with sound designer Tom Fleischman for the intense heist thriller Inside Man. They worked together to create a detailed soundscape that heightened the suspense and tension of the film. From the precise placement of footsteps and gunshots to the nuanced use of ambient sounds in the bank environment, the sound design contributed to the film's gripping atmosphere.

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Summing Up How Does Spike Lee Block and Shoot a Scene?

Spike Lee's approach to blocking and shooting a scene is a testament to his dedication and passion for the craft of filmmaking. From drawing inspiration from real-life events to fostering collaboration with key department heads, Lee's unique techniques and unwavering commitment to authenticity have solidified his reputation as one of the most influential filmmakers of our time.

By examining the various stages of his filmmaking process, we can gain valuable insights into the methods and techniques that contribute to the creation of a powerful and emotionally resonant film. Aspiring filmmakers can learn much from Spike Lee's dedication to his craft and his unwavering commitment to telling authentic, impactful stories.

Let me know your favorite parts of his work in your comments.