Reel Black List: Phil Lee, editor, director, Spin Artist

Phil Lee, director and editor at Spin Artist, joins the 2020 edition of Reel Chicago Black List, an annual celebration of African-American creativity published during Black History Month.

The Reel Chicago Black List includes ‘The Chi’ cast member LaDonna Tittle, house music pioneer Vince Lawrence, and filmmaker Rhyan LaMarr. To view the archives, click here.

Spin Artist director and editor Phil Lee discovered his love for filmmaking by way of Big Ten football. While playing receiver for the University of Iowa Hawkeyes, where he would eventually earn a degree in communications, the Markham, IL native remembers seeing the ABC and ESPN mobile production units roll up to the stadium and thinking to himself, “that was kind of cool.”

“So I took an internship with the football program during the summer,” he recalls. “We would create these recruiting videos and we would show potential players highlight videos for every position —wide receiver, QB, whatever. We worked on, like, an Amiga, and I edited every position.”

Lee quickly learned that he liked “this editing production thing” and, after discussing it with his guidance counselor, decided to take an introductory radio and film class in radio and film. He changed his major from engineering to film a short time later.

After graduation, he worked for a year as a tape editor for a year at Media Tech and then took a job with Avenue Edit, where he remained for eleven years and started editing and producing. Then came Foundation Post, where he spent three years and started thinking about his own shop.

“I figured if I’m billing this much, I should try to do it on my own,” he recalls.

So he founded Spin Artist, a full service production and post-production that has produced a variety of content brands like McDonalds, State Farm and Coors Light. Located in River North, the company celebrates its tenth anniversary this year.

When he’s not editing film, Lee spends time with family and often gets beat playing Titans Falls and Call of Duty by his 14-year-old son. He says his daughter is more of “a Tik Tok girl.”


Meet Phil Lee

What are you working on now? Directing-wise, I’m getting ready to shoot a video for the village of Flossmore. It’s for the US Census, and I’m shooting it on Saturday. A lot of my camera operators own RED and Blackmagic cameras. I think we’ll use the Blackmagic. I’m also editing a video for one of FCB’s accounts.

What did you originally want to be when you grow up? I wanted to be an electrical engineer. Yes, I am a creative editor, but one of the things I like the most about creative editing is the data management. Electric engineering and the wiring and the voltage and the signal flow… I was always intrigued by that. Now I geek out on camera formats and HD formats.

Phil Lee, Iowa Hawkeye
Phil Lee, Iowa Hawkeye

How did you get into the post-production industry? It’s so funny because I didn’t know what I would become after college. In school, we talked about the theory of editing, but we didn’t have non-linear editing. When I graduated, I didn’t know there were places that just did editing. Nobody had Avids. My experience during school came from working at a TV station. Of course, when I started doing my interviews, I thought that would be heaven to work in a place like that because I did not consider editing to be work. To me, it was like playing video games.

After graduation, I got my first job as a tape editor for Media Tech (later bought by DC Fast Channel, which got bought by Extreme Reach). It was the place where all the post houses would send their masters. After a year I got hired as a tape editor by Avenue Edit, which employed many of the people who would go on to form The Colonie and Hootenanny. I left Avenue after eleven years and went to Foundation. It was kind of like the moment of truth: were people working with Avenue because of me or because of Avenue? I also wanted to direct more, and I got that opportunity at Foundation. Clients followed me to both places, so at one point I figured, if I’m billing this much, I should try to do it on my own. That was 2010.

Who were your mentors? The most memorable is probably be Rick Ledyard, owner of Avenue Edit. You know, he was the one who really kind of taught me my self worth. When you’re an assistant and you’re kind of doing things but you’re not really sure about it, he taught me to just believe in my decisions and the order of the cuts I created to get the most action to enhances a brand. He was kind of retiring from editing and I would go in and kind of pick his brain. Just to hear him talk about how things were and how things are. You can be good at editing, but that’s a small part of editing. You have to be able to command the room and convince everyone that what you’re doing is best for the brand. From him, I learned that you find out what works best by going down different alleys and figuring out what doesn’t work.

What is your greatest achievement? My greatest achievement is — and I just recently came to this conclusion not too long ago — I can give a voice to the Black brand. I get to cut and work on a lot of cool spots, but the thing I’m most proud of is, when I find myself in editing rooms and things can be misinterpreted, I get to accurately represent basically the Black brand.

What is your greatest disappointment? You know, right now, my greatest disappointment is, I spent most of my career facilitating other peoples’ visions. I’ve been lucky to work with people who bring me great visions, and I help them see it to reality. But I haven’t created anything that is Phil Lee’s work. I’m going to start facilitating my vision from a director and editor standpoint. I’ve been doing a lot of 360 work that has led us to some great concepts that I hope to tell Reel Chicago about real soon.

Name your biggest pet peeves? I don’t really… Do I have any pet peeves? That’s just a part of life now. I don’t expect a project to go smoothly. I don’t expect the first version to be perfect. The budgets aren’t huge. It just it is what it is. It’s like, do you want to be the taxi cab association or do you want to be Uber?

What are your predictions for the marketing industry over the next decade? Like it’s been in the past, this business relies heavily on technology, and that technology is usually something that the consumer cannot afford. But in the short future, there are going to be kids doing exactly what we do with the phones in their pockets. I’m not sure what the state of the industry is going to be, but technology will allow everyone to edit. My kids can edit. They’re not saying, I want to be an editor. They’re just shooting stuff with the phone and putting it out there, and they’re not going to worry about affording a certain piece of equipment.

Name a job you had that would surprise people. I was a busy boy at Denny’s in Harvey. That was kind of my first job.

What Marvel or DC superhero do you get to play? Back in the day, my favorite superhero was Green Lantern. I wasn’t crazy about the film, but, you know. When I was a kid, he was my guy. Ultimately, it would probably be like Ultra Man or some Japanese super hero.

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What do you wish you had more time to do? I wish I had more time to write.

What inspires you to be extraordinary at what you do? I like to be challenged. So, to me, the goal to achieve, that’s the motivating factor in my life. If I get up, I’m getting up because there’s something that I have to figure out or excel in. The goal is to never half-bake it. And that’s why I love editing. Certain people expect an editor to give you something that they weren’t expecting from the footage.

Congratulations, you built a time machine! What do you go back and tell your 15-year-old self? Live in the moment. You know, we’re always worrying about shit and we’re never happy where we are in the current state. If you’re on first base, you want to get to second base. If you’re on second base, you want to be on third base. And if you’re on third, you want to hit a home run. I would say be happy with where you are.

You know, working downtown is a huge thing for people. When I was a kid I always thought how cool it would be to work in a high-rise. Now, friends visit my office and say, ‘holy shit, this is where you work!’ I’m really happy about that. When I was a receiver at Iowa, I was not playing a lot but I would still get to go out in a stadium filled with 76,00 people. That was cool.