Category Archives: post production

Review: HP’s double-hinged ZBook Studio x360 mobile workstation

By Mike McCarthy

I recently had the opportunity to test HP’s ZBook Studio x360 mobile workstation over the course of a few weeks. HP’s ZBook mobile workstation division has really been thinking outside the box lately, with the release of the ZBook X2 tablet, the HP Z-VR backpack-mounted system and now the ZBook Studio x360.

The ZBook Studio x360 is similar in design functionality to HP’s other x360 models — the Pavilion, Spectre, Envy, ProBook and Elitebook x360 — in that the display is double-hinged. The keyboard can be folded all the way behind the screen, allowing it to be used similarly to a tablet or placed in “tent” or “presentation” mode with the keyboard partially folded behind it. But the ZBook is clearly the top-end option of the systems available in that form factor. And it inherits all of the engineering from the rest of HP’s extensive product portfolio, in regards to security, serviceability, and interface.

Performance-wise, this Studio x360 model sits somewhere in the middle of HP’s extensive ZBook mobile workstation lineup. It is above the lightweight ZBook 14U and 15U and X2 tablet with their low-voltage U-Series CPUs and the value-oriented 15v. It is similar to the more traditional clamshell ultrabook ZBook Studio, and has less graphics power and RAM than the top-end ZBook 15 and 17.

It is distinguished from the ZBook Studio by its double-hinged 360 folding chassis, and its touch and pen inking capability. It is larger than the ZBook X2 with more powerful internal hardware. This model is packed with processing power in the form of a 6-core 8th generation Xeon processor, 32GB RAM and an Nvidia Quadro P1000 GPU. The 15-inch UHD screen boosts up to 400 nits at full brightness and, of course, supports touch and pen input.

Configuration Options
The unit has a number of interesting configuration options with two M.2 slots and a 2.5-inch bay allowing up to 6TB of internal storage, but most users will forgo the 2.5-inch SATA bay for an extended 96whr battery. There is the option of choosing between a 4G WWAN card or DreamColor display, giving users a wide selection of possible capabilities.

Because of the work I do, I am mostly interested in answering the question: “How small and light can I go, and still get my work done effectively?” In order to answer that question, I am reviewing a system with most of the top-end options. I started at a 17-inch Lenovo P71 last year, then tried a large 15-inch PNY PrevailPro and now am trying out this much lighter 15-inch book. There is no compromise with the 6-core CPU, as that is the same as in a 17-inch beast. So the biggest difference is in the GPU, with the mobile Quadro P1000 only having the 512 CUDA core, one third the power of the Quadro P4000 I last tested. So VR is not going to work, but besides heavy color grading, most video editing tasks should be supported. And 32GB of RAM should be enough for most users, but I installed a second NVMe drive, giving me a total of 2TB of storage.

Display
The 15.6-inch display is available in a number of different options, all supporting touch and digital pen input. The base-level full-HD screen can be upgraded to a Sure View screen, allowing the user to selectively narrow the viewing angle at the press of a key in order to increase their privacy. Next up is the beautiful 400-nit UHD screen that my unit came with. And the top option is a 600-nit DreamColor calibrated UHD panel. All of the options fully support touch and pen input.

Connectivity
The unit has dual-Thunderbolt 3 ports, supporting DisplayPort 1.3, as well as HDMI, dual-USB3.1 Type-A ports, an SDXC card slot and an audio jack. The main feature I am missing is an RJ-45 jack for Gigabit Ethernet. I get that there are trade-offs to be made in any configuration, but that is the item I am missing from this unit. On the flip side, with the release of affordable Thunderbolt-based 10GbE adapters, that is probably what I would pair with this unit if I was going to be using it to edit assets I have stored on my network. So that is a solvable problem.

Serviceability
Unlike the heavier ZBook 15 and 17 models, it does not have a tool-less chassis, but that is an understandable a compromise to reduce size and weight, and totally reasonable. I was able to remove the bottom cover with a single torx screwdriver, giving me access to the RAM, wireless cards, and M.2 slots I was populating with a second NVMe drive to test. The battery can also be replaced that way should the need arise, but the 96whr long-life battery is fully covered by the system warranty, be that three or five years depending on your service level.

Security
There are a number of unique features that this model shares with many others in HP’s lineup. The UEFI-based HP Sure Start BIOS and pre-boot environment provide a host of options for enterprise-level IT management, and make it less likely that the boot process will get corrupted. HP Sure Click is a security mechanism that isolates each Chromium browser tab in its own virtual machine, protecting the rest of your system from any malware that it might otherwise be exposed to. Sure Run and Sure Recover are designed to prevent and recover from security failures that render the system unusable.

The HP Client Security Manager brings the controls for all of this functionality into one place and uses the system’s integrated fingerprint reader. HP Workwise is a utility for integrating the laptop with one’s cell phone, allowing automatic system lock and unlock when the cell phone leaves or enters Bluetooth range and phone notifications from the other “Sure” security applications.

Thunderbolt Dock
HP also supplied me with their new Thunderbolt dock. The single most important feature on that unit from my perspective is the Gigabit Ethernet port, since there isn’t one built into the laptop. It also adds two DisplayPorts and one VGA output and includes five more USB ports. I was able to connect my 8K display to the DisplayPort output and it ran fine at 30Hz, as is to be expected from a single Thunderbolt connection. The dock should run anything smaller than that at 60Hz, including two 4K displays.

The dock also supports an optional audio module to facilitate better conference calls, with a built-in speaker, microphone and call buttons. It is a nice idea but a bit redundant since the laptop has a “world-facing” microphone for noise cancellation or group calling and even has “Collaboration Keys” for controlling calls built into the top of the keyboard. Apparently, HP sees this functionality totally replacing office phones.

I initially struggled to get the dock to work — besides the DisplayPorts — but this was because I connected it before boot-up. Unlike docking stations from back in the day, Thunderbolt is fully hot-swappable and actually needs to be powered on the first time it is connected in order to trigger the dialog box, which gives it low-level access to your computer for security reasons. Once I did that, it has worked seamlessly.

The two-part cable integrates a dedicated power port and Thunderbolt 3 connection, magnetically connected for simple usage while maintaining flexibility for future system compatibility. The system can receive power from the Thunderbolt port, but for maximum power and performance uses a 130W dedicated power plug as well, which appears to be standardized across much of HP’s line of business products.

Touchscreens and Pens
I had never seriously considered tablets or touchscreen solutions for my own work until one of HP’s reps showed me an early prototype of the ZBook X2 a few years ago. I initially dismissed it until he explained how much processing power they had packed into it. Only then did I recognize that HP had finally fulfilled two of my very different and long-standing requests in a way that I hadn’t envisioned. I had been asking the display team for a lightweight battery-powered DreamColor display, and I had been asking the mobile workstation team for a 12- or 14-inch Nvidia-powered model — this new device was both.

I didn’t end up reviewing the X2 during its initial release last year, although I plan to soon. But once the X2 shifted my thinking about tablet and touch-based tools, I saw this ZBook Studio x360 as an even more powerful implementation of that idea, in a slightly larger form factor. While I have used pens on other people’s systems in the past, usually when doing tech support for other editors, this is my first attempt to do real work with a pen instead of a mouse and keyboard.

One of the first obstacles I encountered was getting the pen to work at all. Unlike the EMR-based pens from Wacom tablets and the ZBook X2, the x360 uses an AES-based pen, which requires power and a Bluetooth connection to communicate with the system. I am not the only user to be confused by this solution, but I have been assured by HP that the lack of documentation and USB-C charging cable have been remedied in currently shipping systems.

It took me a while (and some online research) to figure out that there was a USB-C port hidden in the pen and that it needed to be charged and paired with the system. Once I did that, it has functioned fine for me. The pen itself works great, with high precision and 4K levels of pressure sensitivity and tilt support. I am not much of a sketcher or painter, but I do a lot of work in Photoshop, either cleaning images up or creating facial expressions for my Character Animator puppets. The pen is a huge step up from the mouse for creating smooth curves and natural lines. And the various buttons worked well for me once I got used to them. But I don’t do a lot of work that benefits from having the pen support, and trying to adapt other tasks to the pen-based input was more challenging than I anticipated.

The other challenge I encountered was with the pen holder, which fits into the SD card slot. The design is good and works better than I would have expected, but removing the original SD plug that protects the slot was far more difficult than it should be. I assume the plug is necessary for the system to pass the 13 MilSpec type tests that HP runs all of its ZBooks through, but I probably won’t be wedging it back in that slot as long as I have the system.

Inking
I am not much of a tablet user as of yet since this was my first foray into that form factor, but the system is a bit large and bulky when folded back into tablet mode. I have hit the power button by accident on multiple occasions, hibernating the system while I was trying to use it. This has primarily been an issue when I am using it in tablet mode and holding it with my left hand in that area by default. But the biggest limitation I encountered in tablet mode was recognizing just how frequently I use the keyboard during the course of my work. While Windows Inking does allow for an onscreen keyboard to be brought up for text entry, functions like holding Alt for anchor-based resizing are especially challenging. I am curious to see if some of these issues are alleviated on the X2 by the buttons they built into the edge of the display. As long as I have easy access to Shift, Ctrl, Alt, C, V and a couple others, I think I would be good to go, but it is one of those things that you can’t know for sure until you try it yourself. And different people with varying habits and preferences might prefer different solutions to the same tasks. In my case, I have not found the optimal touch and inking experience yet.

Performance
I was curious to see what level of performance I would get from the Quadro P1000, as I usually use systems with far more GPU power. But I was impressed with how well it was able to handle the animating and editing of the 5K assets for my Grounds of Freedom animated series. I was even able to dynamically link between the various Adobe apps with a reasonable degree of interactive feedback. That is where you start to see a difference between this mobile system and a massive desktop workstation.

eGPU
Always looking for more power, I hooked up Sonnet’s Breakaway Box 550 with a variety of different Nvidia GPUs to accelerate the graphics performance of the system. The Quadro P6000 was the best option, as it used the same Quadro driver and Pascal architecture as the integrated P1000 GPU but greatly increased performance.

It allowed me to use my Lenovo Explorer WMR headset to edit 360 video in VR with Premiere Pro, and I was able to playback 8K DNxHR files at full resolution in Premiere to my Dell 8K LCD display. I was also able to watch 8K HEVC files in Windows movie player smoothly. Pretty impressive for a 15-inch convertible laptop, but the 6-Core Xeon processor pairs well with the desktop GPU, making this an ideal system to harness the workflow possibilities offered by eGPU solutions.

Media Export Benchmarks
I did extensive benchmark testing, measuring the export times of various media at different settings with different internal and external GPU options. The basic conclusion was that currently simple transcodes and conversions are not much different with an eGPU, but that once color correction and other effects are brought into the equation, increasing GPU power makes processing two to five times faster.

I also tested DCP exports with Quvis’ Wraptor plugin for AME and found the laptop took less than twice as long as my top-end desktop to make DCPs, which I consider to be a good thing. You can kick out a 4K movie trailer in under 10 minutes. And if you want to export a full feature film, I would recommend a desktop, but this will do it in a couple of hours.

Final Observations
The ZBook Studio x360 is a powerful machine and an optimal host for eGPU workflows. While it exceeded my performance expectations, I did not find the touch and ink solution to be optimal for my needs as I am a heavy keyboard user, even when doing artistic tasks. (To be clear, I haven’t found a better solution. This just doesn’t suitably replace my traditional mouse and keyboard approach to work.) So if buying one for myself, I would personally opt for the non-touch ZBook Studio model. But for anyone to whom inking is a critical part of their artistic workflow, who needs a powerful system on the go, this is a very capable model that doesn’t appear to have too many similar alternatives. It blends the power of the ZBook Studio with the inking experience of HP’s other x360 products.


Mike McCarthy is an online editor/workflow consultant with over 10 years of experience on feature films and commercials. He has been involved in pioneering new solutions for tapeless workflows, DSLR filmmaking and multi-screen and surround video experiences. Check out his site.

SGO’s Mistika Ultima integrates AJA’s Kona 5

SGO has integrated AJA‘s Kona 5 audio and video I/O cards into its full finishing and workflow solution Mistika Ultima, providing simplified and optimized 8K production for broadcast clients.

The new Mistika Ultima 8K System provides a realtime finishing workflow for 8K full UHD at 60p, even with uncompressed formats. It is comprised of an AJA Kona 5 card with 12G-SDI I/O connectivity, Mistika Ultima software, an HP Z8 workstation, a high-performance SGO storage solution, and other industry-standard hardware.

Kona 5 is a high-performance eight-lane PCIe 3.0 capture and output card featuring 12G-SDI I/O and HDMI 2.0 output. For OEM partners, the card is supported on AJA’s SDK for Mac OS, Windows and Linux, offering advanced features such as 8K and multi-channel 4K. Kona 5 is also compatible with creative tools such as Adobe Premiere Pro, Apple Final Cut Pro X and Avid Media Composer, via AJA’s proven Mac OS and Windows drivers and application plug-ins. Kona 5 enables simultaneous capture with signal passthrough when using 12G-SDI, and offers HDMI 2.0 output, as well as deep-color and multi-format HDR support.

DigitalGlue 3.7

Molinare hires Nigel Bennett as commercial director

Nigel Bennett will be joining London’s Molinare as commercial director. He was most recently at Pinewood Studios and starts in May. 

Bennett brings experience managing creative, technical and financial pressures within post production.

At Pinewood Studios, Bennett was the group director of creative services, a position he had held since 2014, where he oversaw the opening of Pinewood Digital in Atlanta. With a career in post, Nigel worked his way up from re-recording mixer, through operations management across film, TV and games, head of operations of digital content services, up to his most recent role.

As a re-recording mixer at Shepperton Studios, he worked on a range of titles such as Nanny McPhee, Troy, Love Actually, Gosford Park and Last Orders. 

The London facility looks to build on the success of award-winning dramas Killing Eve and Bodyguard, the Primetime Emmy award-nominated Patrick Melrose, the documentary Three Identical Strangers and feature Mission: Impossible – Fallout, all from last year.


Sound designer Ash Knowlton joins Silver Sound

Emmy Award-winning NYC sound studio Silver Sound has added sound engineer Ash Knowlton to its roster. Knowlton is both a location sound recordist and sound designer, and on rare and glorious occasions she is DJ Hazyl. Knowlton has worked on film, television, and branded content for clients such as NBC, Cosmopolitan and Vice, among others.

“I know it might sound weird but for me, remixing music and designing sound occupy the same part of my brain. I love music, I love sound design — they are what make me happy. I guess that’s why I’m here,” she says.

Knowlton moved to Brooklyn from Albany when she was 18 years old. To this day, she considers making the move to NYC and surviving as one of her biggest accomplishments. One day, by chance, she ran into filmmaker John Zhao on the street and was cast on the spot as the lead for his feature film Alexandria Leaving. The experience opened Knowlton’s eyes to the wonders and complexity of the filmmaking process. She particularly fell in love with sound mixing and design.

Ten years later, with over seven independent feature films now under her belt, Knowlton is ready for the next 10 years as an industry professional.

Her tools of choice at Silver Sound are Reaper, Reason and Kontakt.

Main Photo Credit: David Choy


Method Studios adds Bill Tlusty joins as global head of production

Method Studios has brought on veteran production executive and features VFX Producer Bill Tlusty on board in the new role of global head of production. Reporting to EVP of global features VFX, Erika Burton, Tlusty will oversee Method’s global feature film and episodics production operation, leading teams worldwide.

Tlusty’s career as both a VFX producer and executive spans two decades. Most recently, as an executive with Universal Pictures, he managed more than 30 features, including First Man and The Huntsman: Winter’s War. His new role marks a return to Method Studios, as he served as head of studio in Vancouver prior to his gig at Universal. Tlusty also spent eight years as a VFX producer and executive producer at Rhythm & Hues.

In this capacity he was lead executive on Snow White and the Huntsman and the VFX Oscar-winning Life of Pi. His other VFX producer credits include Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, The Mummy: Tomb of the Emperor Dragon and Yogi Bear, and he served as production manager on Hulk and Peter Pan and coordinator on A.I Artificial Intelligence. Early in his career Tlusty worked as a production aAssistant at American Zoetrope, working for its iconic filmmaker founders, Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas. His VFX career began at Industrial Light & Magic where he worked in several capacities on the Star Wars prequel trilogy, first as a VFX coordinator and later, production  manager on the series. He is a member of the Producers Guild of America.

“Method has pursued intelligent growth, leveraging the strength across all of its studios, gaining presence in key regions and building on that to deliver high quality work on a massive scale,” Tlusty. “Coming from the client side, I understand how important it is to have the flexibility to grow as needed for projects.”

Tlusty is based in Los Angeles and will travel extensively among Method’s global studios.


Updated Quantum Xcellis targets robust video workflows

Quantum has updated its Xcellis storage environment, which allow users to ingest, edit, share and store media content. These new appliances, which are powered by the company’s StorNext platform, are based on a next-generation server architecture that includes dual eight-core Intel Xeon CPUs, 64GB memory, SSD boot drives and dual 100Gb Ethernet or 32Gb Fibre Channel ports.

The enhanced CPU and 50% increase in RAM over the previous generation greatly improve StorNext metadata performance. These enhancements make tasks such as file auditing less time-intensive, support an even greater number of clients per node and enable the management of billions of files per node. Users operating in a dynamic application environment on storage nodes will also see performance improvements.

With the ability to provide cross-protocol locking for shared files across SAN, NFS and SMB, Xcellis targets organizations that have collaborative workflows and need to share content across both Fibre Channel and Ethernet.

Leveraging this next-generation hardware platform, StorNext will provide higher levels of streaming performance for video playback. Xcellis appliances provide a high-performance gateway for StorNext advanced data management software to integrate tiers of scalable on-premise and cloud-based storage. This end-to-end capability provides a cost-effective solution to retain massive amounts of data.

StorNext offers a variety of features that ensure data-protection of valuable content over its entire life-cycle. Users can easily copy files to off-site tiers and take advantage of versioning to roll back to an earlier point in time (prior to a malware attack, for example) as well as set up automated replication for disaster recovery purposes — all of which is designed to protect digital assets.

Quantum’s latest Xcellis appliances are available now.


AICE Awards rebranded to AICP Post Awards

AICP has announced the Call for Entries for the AICP Post Awards, its revamped and rebranded competition for excellence in the post production arts. Formerly the AICE Awards, its categories have been re-imagined with a focus on recognizing standout examples of various crafts and technique in editing, audio, design, visual effects artistry and finishing. The AICP Post Awards are a part of the AICP Awards suite of competitions, which also include The AICP Show: The Art & Technique of the American Commercial and the AICP Next Awards, both of which are also currently accepting entries.

Among the changes for the AICP Post Awards this year are the opening of the competition to any entity having involvement in the creation of a piece of content beyond the AICP membership —previously the AICE Awards was a “members only” competition.

For the full rundown on rules, categories, eligibility and fees, visit the AICP Post Awards entry portal. Deadline for entries is Thursday, February 8 at 11:59pm PST. Entrants can use the portal to cross-enter work between all three of the 2019 AICP competitions, including the AICP Show: The Art & Technique of the American Commercial and the AICP Next Awards.

Regarding categories, the competition has regrouped its existing categories, introduced a range of new sections, expanded others and added an entirely new category for vertical video.

Danny Rosenbloom

“While we’ll continue to recognize editorial across a wide range of product, genre and technique categories, we now have a wider range of subcategories in areas like audio, visual effects and design and color grading,” says Danny Rosenbloom, AICP’s VP, post and digital Production.

“We saw this as an opportunity to make the Post Awards more reflective of the varied artists working across the spectrum of post production disciplines,” noted Matt Miller, president/CEO of AICP.  “Now that we’ve brought all this post production expertise into AICP, we want the Post Awards to be a real celebration of creative talent and achievement.”

A full list of AICP Post Awards categories now includes the following:

Editorial Categories
Automotive
Cause Marketing
Comedy
Dialogue
Monologue/Spoken Word
Docu-Style
Fashion/Beauty
Montage
Music Video
Storytelling
National Campaign
Regional Campaign

Audio Categories
Audio Mix
Sound Design With Composed Music
Sound Design Without Composed Music

Color Categories
Color :60
Color :30
Color Other Lengths
Color Music Video

Design, Visual Effects & Finishing Categories
Character Design & Animation
Typography Design & Animation
Graphic Design & Animation
End Tag
CGI
Compositing & Visual Effects
Vertical

In addition to its category winners and Best of Show honoree, the AICP Post Awards will continue to recognize Best of Region winners that represent the best work emanating from companies submitting within each AICP Chapter. These now encompass East, Florida, Midwest, Minnesota, Southeast, Southwest and West.


Industry vets open editorial, post studio Made-SF

Made-SF, a creative studio offering editorial and other services, has been launched by executive producer Jon Ettinger, editor/director Doug Walker and editors Brian Lagerhausen and Connor McDonald, all formerly of Beast Editorial. Along with creative editorial (Adobe Premiere), the company will provide motion graphic design (After Effects, Mocha), color correction and editorial finishing (likely Flame and Resolve). Eventually, it plans to add concept development, directing and production to its mix.

“Clients today are looking for creative partners who can help them across the entire production chain,” says Ettinger. “They need to tell stories and they have limited budgets available to tell them. We know how to do both, and we are gathering the resources to do so under one roof.”

Made is currently set up in interim quarters while completing construction of permanent studio space. The latter will be housed in a century-old structure in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood and will feature five editorial suites, two motion graphics suites, and two post production finishing suites with room for further expansion.

The four Made partners bring deep experience in traditional advertising and branded content, working both with agencies and directly with clients. Ettinger and Walker have worked together for more than 20 years and originally teamed up to launch FilmCore, San Francisco. Both joined Beast Editorial in 2012. Similarly, Lagerhausen and McDonald have been editing in the Bay Area for more than two decades. Collectively, their credits include work for agencies in San Francisco and nationwide. They’ve also helped to create content directly for Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, Salesforce and other corporate clients.

Made is indicative of a trend where companies engaged in content development are adopting fluid business models to address a diversifying media landscapes and where individual talent is no longer confined to a single job title. Walker, for example, has recently served as director on several projects, including a series of short films for Kelly Services, conceived by agency Erich & Kallman and produced by Caruso Co.

“People used to go to great pains to make a distinction about what they do,” Ettinger observes. “You were a director or an editor or a colorist. Today, those lines have blurred. We are taking advantage of that flattening out to offer clients a better way to create content.”

Main Image Caption: (L-R) Doug Walker, Brian Lagerhausen, Jon Ettinger and Connor McDonald.


Company 3 to open Hollywood studio, adds Roma colorist Steve Scott

Company 3 has added Steve Scott as EVP/senior finishing artist. His long list of credits includes Alfonso Cuarón’s Oscar-nominated Roma and Gravity; 19 Marvel features, including The Avengers, Iron Man and Guardians of the Galaxy franchises; and many Academy-Award-winning films, including The Jungle Book, Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance and The Revenant (both took Oscars for director Alejandro Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki).

Roma

The addition of Scott comes at a time when Company 3 is completing work on a new location at 950 Lillian Way in Hollywood. This new space represents the first phase of a planned much larger footprint in that area of Los Angeles. This new space will enable the company to significantly expand its capacity while providing the level of artistry and personalized service the industry expects from Company 3. It will also enable them to service more East Side and Valley-based clients.

“Steve is someone I’ve always wanted to work with and I am beyond thrilled that he has agreed to work with us at Company 3,” says CEO Stefan Sonnenfeld. “As we continue the process of re-imagining the entire concept of what ‘post production’ means creatively and technically, it makes perfect sense to welcome a leading innovator and brilliant artist to our team.”

Sonnenfeld and Scott will oversee every facet of this new boutique-style space to ensure it offers the same flexible experience clients have come to expect when working at Company 3. Scott, a devoted student of art and architecture, with extensive professional experience as a painter and architectural illustrator, says, “The opportunity to help design a new cutting-edge facility in my Hollywood hometown was too great to pass up.”

Scott oversees a team of additional artists to offer filmmakers the significantly increased ability to augment and refine imagery as part of the finishing process.

“The industry is experiencing a renaissance of content,” says Sonnenfeld. “The old models of feature film vs. television, long- vs. short-form are changing rapidly. Workflows and delivery methods are undergoing revolutionary changes with more content, and innovative content, coming from a whole array of new sources. It’s a very exciting and challenging time and I think these major additions to our roster and infrastructure will go a long way towards our goal of continuing Company 3’s role as a major force in the industry.”

Main Image Credit: 2018 HPA Awards Ceremony/Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging

BlacKkKlansman director Spike Lee

By Iain Blair

Spike Lee has been on a roll recently. Last time we sat down for a talk, he’d just finished Chi-Raq, an impassioned rap reworking of Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata,” which was set against a backdrop of Chicago gang violence. Since then, he’s directed various TV, documentary and video projects. And now his latest film BlacKkKlansman has been nominated for a host of Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing,  Best Original Score and Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Adam Driver).

Set in the early 1970s, the unlikely-but-true story details the exploits of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the first African-American detective to serve in the Colorado Springs Police Department. Determined to make a name for himself, Stallworth sets out on a dangerous mission: infiltrate and expose the Ku Klux Klan. The young detective soon recruits a more seasoned colleague, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), into the undercover investigation. Together, they team up to take down the extremist hate group as the organization aims to sanitize its violent rhetoric to appeal to the mainstream. The film also stars Topher Grace as David Duke.

Behind the scenes, Lee reteamed with co-writer Kevin Willmott, longtime editor Barry Alexander Brown and composer Terence Blanchard, along with up-and-coming DP Chayse Irvin. I spoke with the always-entertaining Lee, who first burst onto the scene back in 1986 with She’s Gotta Have It, about making the film, his workflow and the Oscars.

Is it true Jordan Peele turned you onto this story?
Yeah, he called me out of the blue and gave me possibly the greatest six-word pitch in film history — “Black man infiltrates Ku Klux Klan.” I couldn’t resist it, not with that pitch.

Didn’t you think, “Wait, this is all too unbelievable, too Hollywood?”
Well, my first question was, “Is this actually true? Or is it a Dave Chappelle skit?” Jordan assured me it’s a true story and that Ron wrote a book about it. He sent me a script, and that’s where we began, but Kevin Willmott and I then totally rewrote it so we could include all the stuff like Charlottesville at the end.

Iain Blair and Spike Lee

Did you immediately decide to juxtapose the story’s period racial hatred with all the ripped-from-the-headlines news footage?
Pretty much, as the Charlottesville rally happened August 11, 2017 and we didn’t start shooting this until mid-September, so we could include all that. And then there was the terrible synagogue massacre, and all the pipe bombs. Hate crimes are really skyrocketing under this president.

Fair to say, it’s not just a film about America, though, but about what’s happening everywhere — the rise of neo-Nazism, racism, xenophobia and so on in Europe and other places?
I’m so glad you said that, as I’ve had to correct several people who want to just focus on America, as if this is just happening here. No, no, no! Look at the recent presidential elections in Brazil. This guy — oh my God! This is a global phenomenon, and the common denominator is fear. You fire up your base with fear tactics, and pinpoint your enemy — the bogeyman, the scapegoat — and today that is immigrants.

What were the main challenges in pulling it all together?
Any time you do a film, it’s so hard and challenging. I’ve been doing this for decades now, and it ain’t getting any easier. You have to tell the story the best way you can, given the time and money you have, and it has to be a team effort. I had a great team with me, and any time you do a period piece you have added challenges to get it looking right.

You assembled a great cast. What did John David Washington and Adam Driver bring to the main roles?
They brought the weight, the hammer! They had to do their thing and bring their characters head-to-head, so it’s like a great heavyweight fight, with neither one backing down. It’s like Inside Man with Denzel and Clive Owen.

It’s the first time you’ve worked with the Canadian DP Chayse Irvin, who mainly shot shorts before this. Can you talk about how you collaborated with him?
He’s young and innovative, and he shot a lot of Beyonce’s Lemonade long-form video. What we wanted to do was shoot on film, not digital. I talked about all the ‘70s films I grew up with, like French Connection and Dog Day Afternoon. So that was the look I was after. It had to match the period, but not be too nostalgic. While we wanted to make a period film, I also wanted it to feel and look contemporary, and really connect that era with the world we live in now. He really nailed it. Then my great editor, Barry Alexander Brown, came up with all the split-screen stuff, which is also very ‘70s and really captured that era.

How tough was the shoot?
Every shoot’s tough. It’s part of the job. But I love shooting, and we used a mix of practical locations and sets in Brooklyn and other places that doubled for Colorado Springs.

Where did you post?
Same as always, in Brooklyn, at my 40 Acres and a Mule office.

Do you like the post process?
I love it, because post is when you finally sit down and actually make your film. It’s a lot more relaxing than the shoot — and a lot of it is just me and the editor and the Avid. You’re shaping and molding it and finding your way, cutting and adding stuff, flopping scenes, and it never really follows the shooting script. It becomes its own thing in post.

Talk about editing with Barry Alexander Brown, the Brit who’s cut so many of your films. What were the big editing challenges?
The big one was finding the right balance between the humor and the very serious subject matter. They’re two very different tones, and then the humor comes from the premise, which is absurd in itself. It’s organic to the characters and the situations.

Talk about the importance of sound and music, and Terence Blanchard’s spare score that blends funk with classical.
He’s done a lot of my films, and has never been nominated for an Oscar — and he should have been. He’s a truly great composer, trumpeter and bandleader, and a big part of what I do in post. I try to give him some pointers that aren’t restrictive, and then let him do his thing. I always put as much as emphasis on sound and music as I do on the acting, editing and cinematography. It’s hugely important, and once we have the score, we have a film.

I had a great sound team. Phil Stockton, who began with me back on School Daze, was the sound designer. David Boulton, Mike Russo and Howard London did the ADR mix, and my longtime mixer Tommy Fleischman was on it. We did it all at C5 in New York. We spent a long time on the mix, building it all up.

Where did you do the DI and how important is it to you?
At Company 3 with colorist Tom Poole, who’s so good. It’s very important but I’m in and out, as I know Tom and the DP are going to get the look I want.

Spike Lee on set.

Did the film turn out the way you hoped?
Here’s the thing. You try to do the best you can, and I can’t predict what the reaction will be. I made the film I wanted to make, and then I put it out in the world. It’s all about timing. This was made at the right time and was made with a lot of urgency. It’s a crazy world and it’s getting crazier by the minute.

How important are industry awards and nomination to you? 
They’re very important in that they bring more attention, more awareness to a film like this. One of the blessings from the strong critical response to this has been a resurgence in looking at my earlier films again, some of which may have been overlooked, like Bamboozled and Summer of Sam.

Do you see progress in Hollywood in terms of diversity and inclusion?
There’s been movement, maybe not as fast as I’d like, but it’s slowly happening, so that’s good.

What’s next?
We just finished the second season of She’s Gotta Have It for Netflix, and I have some movie things cooking. I’m pretty busy.


Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.