The Wild Colours of Cuba was produced in collaboration with The International Film School in La Havana Cuba and the University of Salford MediaCity – Manchester UK, as part of the Master’s degree in Wildlife Documentary Production 2011 - 2012.
Cuba’s avifauna is richly diverse, but the most representative species are the Cuban trogon, it’s plumage displaying the same colours of the Cuban flag, and the Cuban tody. The birds are relatively common, but their bright patterns make them cryptic under the forest lighting conditions. During the filming, this proved to be a highly effective form of camouflage and getting close up shots of the birds among the dense vegetation of the forest was not easy, particularly whilst filming the tody, an extremely active and tiny bird, easily mistaken for a leaf!
Animals that eat plants, and indeed animals that eat animals, rely on plants in order to obtain their coloration. Fruiting palm trees are a reliable source of food for many birds and are found all over Cuba. However, it was the abundance of palms trees that actually made getting the shots a matter of luck and a test of patience. Each day involved a morning trek, positioning the camera and hoping that the trogon chose that specific palm as a tasty breakfast. Research and planning do increase the possibilities of getting the shots, but in wildlife filmmaking sometimes a bit of luck always helps.
The film was produced within a £1000 budget, provided by the University of Salford. Most of it was spent on the flight from the UK. My story involved several species and behaviours to be captured in different locations. So, perhaps the biggest challenge in the production of the film was keeping within the budget. Production logistics involved a lot of planning, and when filming wildlife everything is dependent on being in the right place at the right time in order to capture each of the shots. Therefore, each detail must be considered; from transportation and accommodation, including yourself and your crew, to equipment, weather conditions, health and safety issues etc..
For the production of this film I worked with Luis Díaz a renowned Cuban herpetologist. Luis’ local knowledge was key and without his and the help many local people the documentary would have not been achieved.
I had the pleasure of visiting Cuba for six weeks, however when filming most of the time was spent on recces (location recognition) planning logistics, and transportation. So, perhaps the real shooting time was reduced to 3 weeks. I filmed the documentary with a DSLR; most of the time using macro and long lenses.
Then it comes the next phase, once you know what you want, it is time to find out how you are going to make it happen.
Logistics are key to any filmmaking process, and it is all about making the right contacts. Working with the International Film School was invaluable in order to gain permits and access to the filming locations. Cuba may be famous as a tourist destination but it is also a communist country and run under strict regulations.
The iridescence of the emerald hummingbird is stunning, and made it a perfect character for the film. I found filming hummingbirds a great pleasure. Very charismatic birds, they are always protecting their territories and fighting with their neighbours. Despite how fast these birds can be, the fact that they always followed the same behavioural pattern was key in obtaining the shots that I was looking for. I could not say that it was easy as, in order to identify the behaviour of each bird, it required various days of waiting and observing.
Frogs and anolis lizards are found all over Cuba. But despite their abundance, Luis’ knowledge was key in approaching and appropriately handling each of these creatures. As one of the portraits of the film was bringing into focus the unique way these animals change their skin colorations, extreme close ups were needed.
During my time in Cuba I was also joined by Gemma Smith, a great friend and talented filmmaker. She was also producing a short documentary as part of our master’s degree, but her film was a bit less colourful: it was about bats. Gemma worked closely with another recognized Cuban scientist, Gilberto Silva. Dr. Silva is a man worthy of admiration and even at his 85 years, actively joined in for the shooting no matter how inaccessible the caves were! Most of this film was shot in infra-red and in pitch darkness. It was a great experience and incredibly fun joining Gemma, carrying car batteries and sharing all kind of frustrating moments during the production of this film.
Watch “The Cuban Underground” at Gemma’s website: www.gemmasmith.co.uk/#!films
The science of animal coloration is extensive and highly complex. The first challenge was incorporating all these fascinating facts into a story. In my case, the post-it method proved to be an effective technique and I would highly recommend it. When the amount of information is overwhelming, making a physical mind map helps to find the best structure for a timeline. Once the film characters and the story were achieved, it was time to bring it to life. This next phase is a creative challenge, and I would say my personal favourite in the pre-production process. Despite the narration, the story must be told visually and each of the shots has to be pre-planned. Everything has to be considered, from context shots to behaviours and linking shots.
The post-production of the film was made in Media City back in England. Perhaps, one of the most important features in the post process of a film is the workflow, and even that needs to be previously planned. Especially if you want to save time with all those technology problems, software, codec’s and format capabilities. I did the edit in Final Cut Pro, special effects in AfterEffects and the grading in DaVinci Resolve. The editing process could be time consuming but the creativity involved was highly enjoyable.
Once the final edit of the film is achieved, known as “picture lock,” it is time for sound, music and narration. Sound is extremely important in wildlife filmmaking and in this case bird calls and atmospheres were recorded in the field. It may be hard to believe, but getting a 5min long atmosphere track was almost impossible! Even in the middle of the forest, human noise pollution, planes and traffic can be heard constantly.
Special sound effects were later recreated in the studio where each movement needed to be synced with a special sound effect, known as foleys. Making the sound mix is another time demanding process and in this case I had the pleasure to work with two sound editors who help me through the mixing process. The music was composed specially for each of the sequences and characters of the documentary. I had the pleasure to work with a very talented composer Eduardo VC, also from Mexico.
As you may have noticed, wildlife documentary production is undoubtedly a demanding and long process, but still a great and enriching experience! Seeing an idea, which started with a simple sentence in a notebook, be brought to life is a great feeling.
I hope you enjoyed the film and I am extremely grateful to all those who helped me during the process.