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REINVENTING CUBA, LOOKING AT IT FROM WITHIN


By Armando Guerra

Creating ‘Reinventing Cuba’ was an exciting period in 2015 both professionally and personally. As a filmmaker, Cuba is very tantalizing: a place with unique stories where permission to film is required, it is visually rich, people have an intelligence and charm that I cannot describe. The last time I was able to work there as a journalist was 11 years ago when my CNN press credential “mysteriously” expired, never to be renewed again. With that I kissed good-bye to my journalist career on the island and decided to put my life in a suitcase and move to Spain.

Personally, as a Cuban, I just love my birth country. It is where I grew up, many of my friends are still there, my entire family live there. Visiting is always a creativity and inspiration boost. My friends are designers, artists, musicians, writers who despite the odds are successful and determined to move forward, past ideologies and toward prosperity and a new beginning. Or simply determined to make their art or craft.

What follows are notes and a semi diary of technical aspects of ‘Reinventing Cuba’. I wrote them a year ago while editing. Taking them helped me navigate through the creative process and deal with the challenges I faced during the shoot and edit.

Before Taking the Plane.

When one day Gerry and I got a call from Humberto Duran, our then executive producer in DC, asking if we were interested in doing a one-hour show in Cuba. We both said yes. Finding our storyline was not too hard.

With the US-Cuba thaw everyone is talking about how the island will be flooded with MacDonalds and Pizza Hut. Let’s talk about a reversed process, what does Cuba have to offer the US?” Gerry and I discussed on FaceTime -we live in two different cities.
Gerry and I on FaceTime. Gerry’s three-year-old son Emile takes part in the brainstorming suggesting we do a documentary on dinosaurs.
We quickly put together a pitch and checked how feasible it would be to produce given that we would only have ten days to shoot in Cuba. With no time to travel around, we decided to stay in Havana for the three stories we wanted to do: art and design as an example of a pool of talent that the US could immediately benefit when US businesses move in after the embargo is lifted. Baseball as a example of a future cooperation between the Major Leagues and the Cuban Baseball Institute. And Cuban pharma as a source of unique and less expensive drugs that the American people could have access to once trade between the two nations resumes. The three elements would serve as a medium to simply show the vibe on the island and show my fellow countrymen and women’s expectations and anxieties in a new phase of relations between the US and Cuba.

The Tools of the Trade.

We used two Canon C100s to shoot the documentary plus other specialty cameras like GoPros, 5Ds, iPhone 6’s and a Xiaomi phone. Why not a C300 given how much better a codec it features? In general, I have chosen the C100 on our trips across Latin America for two reasons, image quality and price. We go to very problematic places where we have been about to get robbed, mobbed or much worse –the favelas in Rio de Janeiro or Cité Soleil in Haiti, for example –
so losing a C100 is not such a big deal to replace while details are ironed out with my insurance company and our next trip is knocking on our door. The C100 has an impressive track record in the field. It is robust, records onto two SD cards at the same time, which is a relief for the paranoid shooter I am; its Canon color profiles retain beautiful skin tones and for some reason Canon’s “weak” codec is able to preserve a lot of dynamic range. I usually use a modified Wide DR color profile when I can test it beforehand, but for Cuba I decided to go with Canon’s default Wide DR. There was simply no time for testing color profiles in the ground. We could not even spare two hours to have a drink and smoke a cigar!
Right, Josep, second-cam operator, and Armando, on the left, having a cigar after a long day in Havana. Or Armando caught lying in the previous paragraph.
The image in the C100 is gorgeous, but given its limited codec, you need to be careful how to expose the sensor. The ND filters work fine, but no matter how much I try I can’t nail which way is +6 or +4. It is very easy not miss that on the C300, but it is not the case on the C100, at least for me. (Although I’ve improved since writing this) With good glass the camera is a powerful tool. I have a good stock of Canon EF lenses, both primes and zooms. I prefer the Canon 16-35mm 2.8 L series, the Canon 24-70mm 2.8 L series, the 70-200mm 2.8 L series, but also carry a 24mm 1.4 and a 85mm 1.4. I don’t like the 35mm. I don’t know why, but maybe I feel it is a focal length for photography and not for Super35 sensors. Or maybe I am just getting old and finicky. Sometimes I also dislike shooting at 16mm. I find the look a bit cheap TV, but some other times I like it. Go figure. I want to move to Canon Cine primes in the future, but I am currently testing in Europe how efficient that would be for documentary work as I do not have the time to change lenses in the middle of an unfolding situation.

I love discussing lens choices with Gerry before a scene. As a character that drives the story he needs to be aware of the visual choices/limitations so that we both know how to move and what to do. I want him to feel free to wander about, improvise, be himself. In Cuba, Josep came as a second camera operator and also was an essential part of the discussion, along with producer Talía Bustamante. Where is the location, what does it look like? What time of the day? What is going to happen? Action is unpredictable in a documentary, but being prepared gear-wise reduces the chances of missing it or shooting it properly.
Gerry being excited about using a 16-35mm on a location.
A short note on maximizing your budget. Another element I considered in my decision to go with a C100 is the price per frame. That is, making the best film within the available budget. This does not always directly involve money, but rather workflow or process simplification. Time is money. Lowering the time we use to complete tasks is key in a production. A production has many stages, from shooting, to backing up, media ingest, tagging and meta data processing to full post production: editing, color correction, color grading, sound design and delivery. If we can simplify one of these processes we have more time to dedicate to what we love the most: being creative. I try to mazimize time by combining personal education, workflow analysis and staying open to new ideas. I have
created a workflow from camera to NLE to delivery that is robust and relatively fast.

However, I am tweaking it constantly and will probably change it next year with new gear. I am aware that we run a business and therefore we need to recoup our past investments, but testing new workflows is also an investment in your future. For Reinventing Cuba I mixed footage from GoPros and iPhones and even a Xiaomi for some shots I did not end up using. We also used 5Ds. I carry one with a cheap 50mm glass to pose as a tourist when I don’t want to attract attention. Sometimes I even use a 5D as a B cam when shooting solo. Not the most current camera in the market, but an old friend who can come to our rescue anytime.
iPhone 6 footage with integrated animation from the documentary.
Audio-wise we went with Sennheiser G3 lavs and RØDE NTG4 shotguns. Nothing failed, except for the belt clips on the G3s. Baseball players just destroyed them. I still don’t know how.
What caught me by surprise in Cuba was how fast our AA batteries would die. Maybe it was the heat or I bought a defective batch, but we actually came very close to running out of AA batteries. Now you may think this is a minor thing, but all our lavs ran on these batteries. I realized we were low when we had still four shoot days ahead. As expected, stores in Havana had no stock. There were triple-A batteries, but no double-A. One night shooting at Vistar, one of the magazine photographers asked us for some batteries. They were even worse than us. They didn’t have double-A batteries for the flash and they had a shoot that night. I was torn. If I gave them the few batteries we had left, we may have not been able to shoot an interview or seriously be limiting the movements of a character. I was really torn. Suddenly my left eye caught a chicken running around the apartment. I grabbed it, bit its head and drank its blood. I then turned to Gerry and spat blood on his face. Everyone was horrified and forgot about the batteries. Phew.

Well, what really went down was that I coughed up the double-As for the Vistar guys and the next day Gerry and Josep turned on ground hound mode and tracked down the needed batteries. Perfect team work.

The Tools of the Trade. Backup Edition.

After every shoot day there comes backup time. It is unavoidable and extremely necessary. It is the moment to check your footage and react if something went wrong. In Cuba we stuck to the following workflow. As we were two shooters, each of us had to back up the day’s work at the end of the day. I use Red Giant’s Offload to copy from SD cards to hard drives and then Carbon Copy Cloner to copy anything including libraries and optimized media.
I had previously tried Red Giant’s BulletProof, but it was too complicated and understandably Red Giant dropped it in mid 2015. It was probably an amazing product for a DIT, but not for a shooter on the go. I feel at home when my tools are simple and effective. Offload fulfils that. Insert a card and make an identical copy onto two different hard drives each time performing checksums with the original card. We did exactly that plus made a third copy for Gerry to take home. Gerry’s home is in Barcelona and I live in Valencia so most of our contact is on
FaceTime, email and when I can go to there for work or a visit, which is often. When we wrap up a trip Gerry goes home with an exact copy of all the footage properly logged and tagged within a FCP X library.

In addition, we also keep a card of each day. At the end of our Cuba trip, there were four copies of all the footage (three hard drives plus the cards) and three copies of the FCP X library (in said hard drives). All this work means less sleep and is very exhausting, but the benefits are enormous: we have more data safety, we check the day’s work and Gerry can get to logging on the plane back if he wants.
Gerry writing notes in our apartment in Havana.
I used to favor G-Tech hard drives and I still love their design, but I had a really poor experience with technical support in Europe and now have mixed feelings about them. In addition, my main problem with G-Tech drives is that the bus-powered Evolution Series were only 1Tb until recently. I need the hard drives to be bus-powered, very portable and at least 2 to 4Tb. I can’t depend on connectors, transformers or electricity. We are usually in places where power is scare or non-existent, like in the Amazon.

For example, in the Ecuadoran jungle, the Cofan people there did not have electricity at so I had to back up once a day quickly and save the Macbook Air’s battery for the next day.
Backing up in a Cofan village in the Amazon.
Meanwhile, I am transitioning to LaCie’s 4Tb Rugged Thunderbolt drives. And I am eyeing the new 4-Tb LaCie Rugged RAID. Two of those would more than enough satisfy a 10-12 day trip shooting HD content only. (NOTE: In 2016 all our field hard drives are now 4Tb LaCie Rugged RAIDs).

Finally, we carry at least three hard drives on assignment. Gerry carries one, I carry a second and a third is left with the original used cards in the hotel’s safe.
Backing up and then logging and tagging is a tediously long process. If I am not too tired, I spend time trying looks and quick grades while backing up. Some of these may look terrible at first, but they are a starting point. Fresh in my mind are the colors of the country and the mood of a scene. Sometimes I end up with an early grade version that looks terrible and shows how tired I was that night. Those are understandably discarded. But sometimes I may end up with a starting point. In Cuba I tried three grades, interior day/afternoon, exterior day/afternoon and night scenes (even though I tried to avoid them as I dislike the use of artificial lights).

At the end of the time in Cuba, Gerry had his hard drive ready to take home. The FCP X library he carried had almost everything tagged. However, I did further tagging during the days I stayed behind, better classifying the footage and the camera angles.

In FCP X a library can be contained or you can store all the assets/footage in an external folder location. I choose the latter method because it helps keep my libraries very light and I need them so to be able to quickly share them with Gerry. All proxies and ProRes files can be later recreated within the NLE. As the Cuba library was actually very light, I compressed it and sent it to him who then updated it on an iMac at his place. Fast, simple, reliable. Occasionally, Gerry will need to relink assets, but the whole process is very snappy.

The Edit.

Back In Spain I archived the material to a couple of internal hard drives and stored them on a shelf in two separate locations. Then I dumped everything on to a 10-Tb LaCie 5big Thunderbolt™ 2  and a 6-Tb LaCie 2big Thunderbolt™ 2 for editing. The 10-Tb LaCie 5Big is a workhorse with very fast data transfers. I have it on RAID 0 connected to the 6-Tb LaCie 2big. Each hour Carbon Copy Cloner
(CCC) backs up the changes/progress from one drive to the other. Previously I tried also having CCC make copies of the library to a folder on Dropbox, but Dropbox does not handle well FCPX libraries. You need to compress it and then upload it, which defeats the purpose of an automated action. I would still love to find an online solution for FCP X libraries.
You may wonder why I use FCP X over other NELs. Long story short: I felt at home from day one. I was not an early adopter when it came out, but I was watching very closely. It had some deep shortcomings like lack of multicam, that affected my workflow then, but the moment I saw it announced and played with it, my first thought was, gosh, I wish I had this when I worked at CNN. This is the perfect tool for journalist crews. It was fast, background rendering was a godsend, the magnetic timeline made total sense and the old habit of splitting audio channels to send VO and NAT sound was finally done away. So one day I decided to take a edit a biggish documentary project on FCPX. Organizationally, it was so good, but learning the philosophy almost drove me crazy and there were nights I even cried out of desperation. Two months later I came out with the feeling that FCP 7 would live in my mac for legacy purposes only. I have never used it since except for, believe it or not, subtitling.

More about the NLE world, Apple and Adobe are the popular kids on the block, with AVID remaining the serious, safe NLE for big productions. Apple and Adobe continue to innovate and are both very active at it. However, there is a new player: DaVinci Resolve 12. I used to go into Resolve for color grading and LUT creation, although lately much less. The guys at BlackMagic are moving fast making it an all-round tool with multicam, a powerful timeline, a traditional organizational structure and of course, with industry-leading color grading tools. I will keep an eye out for this, but FCP X totally fulfils my needs so far. And now it is further complemented with Denver Riddle’s awesome Color Finale. Advanced color grading options from within the app to make up for Apple’s whimsical color board. Red Giant’s Magic Bullet Suite is another fantastic color plugin I have used in the past, but for Reinventing Cuba all color grading was done with Color Finale and textures with Film Convert.
Fixing the color grade without leaving FCPX.
Honestly, it doesn’t matter what NEL we use. After all, AVID, PP, FCPX or Resolve are simply tools that help us tell stories in an efficient way. I stay away from the NLE wars, but I promise will get involved when I own 35% of one of them!

The Script.

Usually, the first script draft arrives in an email from Gerry. It is an attachment to words more or less like this:

“Dear Armando. Please read script for content, flow, style and greatness. Not even the smallest suggestion of change will be admitted. When you are done praising it wholly and unconditionally without the slightest hint that
you’d alter one letter of the masterful prose, I will forward to Humberto. Also, I will rename the document to reflect what it is. Much love to you, Tina, and the kids.

P.S. I am bracing already for your traditional scalding reception followed by the endless list of editorial changes.”
I fear these emails as they mean long reads!
‘Reinventing Cuba’ received no different treatment. Gerry and I work very closely together. I am always looking forward to his scripts. He has a way with words as the natural story teller he is. He comes up with beautiful story breaks, parallel constructions, smart connections. And from day one, he has been very open to my comments. In fact, I am given a day or two to read the script and write down my notes. Then we FaceTime together and discuss the script page by page. Gerry makes adjustments for story clarity or to highlight a character’s action or any other detail, and then we both repeat the process before we send it out to Humberto Duran, our executive producer in DC, who in turn sends in his comments. Before I receive a final version, I know where the story is going, where the challenges are and have an idea of how much work there will be in general.

Once the script is locked cutting begins. When editing it is very important for me to have a good, comfortable space where I can create. At home, at the studio or in a hotel room, I arrange the desk to my liking and it usually involves having nothing on it, except the script and a pencil. Nothing distracts more than seeing cards, cables, books, letters laying around. I am maniac. I need help, I know.

And I also need plenty of breaks. I take a lot of mini breaks when completing a sequence and moving to another. To keep me on track, I use an app called Simple Countdown. I set alarms for every hour per script page. This way I quickly have first versions of sequences before I begin the real work. Refining, trying new versions, testing music come immediately after. I do not make rough cuts. I don’t believe in them. I make edits as tight and as close to the final product as I can. For this, I use a two-timeline method. One timeline/project where the actual work happens and a second timeline/project where I copy said sequence when I am happy with it. In the first timeline/project I work on individual scenes. In the second I see how they dance together. I don’t keep versions of sequences around. I know we put so much effort into them, but I am merciless with my own work.

For example, I remember having spent around one hour or more fixing a shot of the Capitolio building in Havana. I needed to bring back an overexposed area in the sky using the multiple-point mask in FCP X and color grade it to match the sequence. I was happy with the result, but the shot didn’t work with the others so I deleted it without blinking. It doesn’t mean that I don’t end up with leftover footage at the end of a sequence.
I do, but it will last there for as long as I move to the next sequence. This method has allowed me to keep my events very clean, organized and minimalistic. No more looking for that timeline/project where “the dog ran in the opposite direction”. For BRoll versions, I use Auditions within FCPX.
For ‘Reinventing Cuba’ I went through literally hours and hours of music. I had early ideas of where I wanted the music to go and one of them is that I did not want it to sound too Cuban. The main reason for this was because our budget was tight and we could only tap into a music library service. I spent days listening to tracks looking for that Cuban sound and found nothing that resembled truly the modern, contemporary vibe from the island. Sadly, we also had time constraints so we could not create the ideal setting: partnering with a Cuban composer. This idea was discarded before we even went to Cuba –and alas, there is so much young talent there! Working with a Cuban composer either remotely or on the ground would have been too complicated logistically and we had a quick delivery deadline ahead. With this in mind, I decided to go electronic and minimalistic. Once I settled on this choice finding the right music was a much easier process. Still I ended up with a 3.6 Gb folder and spending days listening to tracks.

Bumps on the Road.

No edit is without a challenge or two or three or twenty. This was no exception. During the editing, FPC X enormously slowed down. The culprit was an old audio plugin that I had carried over from other OS installations and updates. This almost rendered my projects or “timelines” unusable. At first I thought FCP X could not handle Color Finale, Film Convert and a LUT manager beyond 30 min projects, but quickly I discarded that thought because I had edited longer projects without a hiccup. I blame deadline pressure or being too concentrated on building the story, but it didn’t dawn upon me until almost the wrap that the source of my problems was a third party audio plugin. I confirmed it later after the edit was finished and I could spend time troubleshooting the problem. I removed it and performance really improved. Magical.

Looking Back.

I wrote most of this post in 2015. Looking back at workflow, the film’s language and visual resources, there is so much I could have changed and done differently. We, however, make films, finish them and they have a life of their own. ‘Reinventing Cuba’ premiered and was picked up by some 30 TV stations across the US over an 8- month period. I am happy to have had this story out there for so long.

Making a film is always both a painful and fun experience for me. Time and time again the challenges and frustrations of a production push me against the wall, give me anxiety and even make me doubt myself. There is no way around that. I try to minimize problems by preparing as much as possible, but there is so much we can predict and be ready for in the type of documentaries we make. Overcoming such challenges and finding creative solutions is fun. Also, I admit I thoroughly enjoy the manipulative side of editing: associating ideas with images, making the story move faster or slower, shuffling sequences here and there for more emotional impact, and the entire selective process.

Sharing the notes above is like a mini act of exorcizing creative demons and also of preparing myself mentally for the next project. Next week I will start to edit our next documentary. I fear the new challenges, but fear comes mixed with excitement as the challenges ahead will be new and will force me to find new creative paths/solutions. This I find addictive and very rewarding so for now I welcome the pain.

P.S. I have to thank the kind folks of Camaralia in Seville, Spain. Led by Boza, they have provided and still provide a large part of our gear. I value their professionalism, knowledgable suggestions and fast delivery.

P.P.S. ‘Reinventing Cuba’ won a Silver World Medal in the Human Concerns category and a Bronze World Medal in the Heroes category at the 2016 New York Festivals Competition.