Cuba's Cinema Paradiso, Tasty Alligators, and a Vegas Desert Joust

April, May and June offered several challenging opportunities for me - aggressive travel schedules, light-weight effective lighting, and tight deadlines to meet for deliverables. On the one hand, I prepared to travel to Havana, Cuba, to DP a documentary and, on the other, I was a field producer / DP for three installments of the new Food Network show, "Craziest Restaurants in America." Then, in June, I played the role of co-DP shooting the new TravelChannel.com show "Travel Channel Star."

A late night football match in Old Havana photographed at night with the Sony Alpha A7S 

A late night football match in Old Havana photographed at night with the Sony Alpha A7S 

The Sony FS7, Canon C300 and Sony A7S served as the backbone of my camera packages while traveling. The bulk of my lighting package needed to be portable, AC/DC powered, possess a long battery life, be bi-color, and definitely be small and lightweight. Before my trip I had read several reviews of the Wescott Icelight. I know several shooters who swear by them and have had great success using this light. I like their slender design, but during my visit to visit to B&H I compared the Genaray Light Wand to the Wescott Ice Light. The Genaray is similar in size, dual color temp and has an extremely long battery life. Plus, it's pretty bright when putting out full power. I purchased four Genaray lights for the various applications ahead in order to ensure an on-the-go and versatile interview lighting setup.

As my crew and I packed for Cuba, we had to be mindful of the strict baggage restrictions and weight limits imposed by the airline. Each person traveling is allotted a total of 44 lbs. and every additional pound costs $2 more. Also, each checked bag costs $25. In the end, the size of the camera package and lighting were legitimate concerns for our producer on this documentary shoot. We were scheduled to work with a Cuban production unit, but wanted to be as prepared as possible before boarding the plane. Rental houses and Home Depots are a little hard to find on the island.

I really began to appreciate Havana once we arrived and I felt the tropical climate wash over me. The sounds and images you experience immediately after leaving the terminal reinforce the allure of this once secluded country. The daily churn of life is a testament to the resourcefulness of the Cuban people.

The focus of our documentary centered on the numerous, beautiful movie theaters built in Havana from the 1930s through the 1950s. Our storyline took us in and around the city's Art Deco and Modernist cinemas. These structures are temples to the cinematic experience, past and present.

Logistically, the interiors of the movie theaters were difficult to shoot. Some were equipped with  220 as well as 110 power voltage. Our Cuban gaffer was very resourceful at navigating the tricky electrical systems of these aging theaters.

Our lighting package consisted of (2) 1ks & (1) 2k (3) 650s (4) LED Genaray light sticks. I needed more light at times -- considering the size of the interiors we were filming -- but we soon adopted the no-nonsense attitude of our Cuban crew. ("Just make it work.") The native 2000 ISO of the Sony FS7 and 3200 ISO of the A7S aided us in our endeavor to light up these cavernous spaces.

Below are still images of the Art Deco and Modernist theaters we filmed. The 2k and 1k provided the bulk of the ambient light. Genaray light sticks hidden in the orchestra pits and along the walls provided up lighting, while our 650s accented the chairs and curtains.

Sony FS7 on a Zeiss ZE 21mm Prime Lens, F/2.8, Native 2000 ISO

Sony FS7 on a Zeiss ZE 21mm Prime Lens, F/2.8, Native 2000 ISO

Below is another interior shot, I opted for the A7s as the main camera (8000 ISO on the 16mm on a Canon 16-35mm Lens, F/2.8) because of the size and low light of the space.

For interviews, we used the light sticks for edge lighting, catch light and hair lights. Our key lighting source was either the 1k or 2k pumped through a medium chimera. However, when electricity was not available or we were shooting in rooms with no airflow, we used the light sticks.

Here are a couple of frame grabs from our interviews:

Cuba is a complicated place filled with uncomplicated people. Those whom I spoke with were kind, passionate, and engaging.  I can't wait to go back to finish the doc.

Back in the States, I switched gears and prepared for three restaurant shoots for an upcoming show on the Food Network called "Craziest Restaurants in America." We used a lot of available light when possible throughout each location. The shot list was challenging for a one-day production. I lit the food prep and food porn with a variety of sources, however my assistants enjoyed using the light sticks most.  Throughout the locations I found that they could be easily tucked in corners to create a natural looking bounce or as a directional source when creating specular highlights and edge lighting on the food. In some cases, the food props for the show were a bit to gamey for me to get close to:

Catching-up with one of the locals at Joanie's Crab Shack in Everglades City, Florida.

Catching-up with one of the locals at Joanie's Crab Shack in Everglades City, Florida.

My 1st ACs carried two or three lights easily, sometimes tucked into their belts like Jedi Knights. It didn't take much to ignite the Luke Skywalker in each of us when we had a couple of minutes of downtime.

I shot a variety of 60 FPS - 150 FPS at 24p to capture the visual delight of the syrups and sauces during the prep shots and presentation money signature dish shots. I was happy to see that I didn’t encounter flicker while shooting the slow-motion food porn.

Food prep using two Genaray light sticks, Canon C300, Canon 24-70mm Lens, 850 ISO

Food prep using two Genaray light sticks, Canon C300, Canon 24-70mm Lens, 850 ISO

Finally, I was really fortunate to work with a good friend and talented DP / Director, Francisco Aliwalas, on TravelChannel.com's hunt for their newest host called, "Travel Channel Star." The crew was a great ensemble of personalities and talent. Despite the large amount of coverage that was needed for each of the contestants, we managed to knock out five distinct pieces with some time to spare for a laugh:

A deadcat blowing in the Las Vegas desert winds and a tasty cigar pose for Fran's camera - good times.

A deadcat blowing in the Las Vegas desert winds and a tasty cigar pose for Fran's camera - good times.

We shot in five cities over six days and needed to pack for the lily pad airport hopping. It was a success. Fran and I even managed to test our skills with The Force in the Vegas desert in an epic battle of good versus evil:

Michael Jordan Bald Lord (Me) & Young Skywalker (Fran)

Michael Jordan Bald Lord (Me) & Young Skywalker (Fran)

May the force be with you.