My Experience Working in Cuba with Childish Gambino feat. 1st AC Justin Watson

Even though Cuba opened its doors to the U.S. several years ago, getting into the country is a whole other story. Imagine the difficulties a film crew has to go through to import the gear and film in areas that are unconventional and unlike anything they’ve ever seen. We’re talking narrow streets, busted roads, dilapidated buildings, and worst of all, no WiFi!

Those are the difficulties 1st AC Justin Watson and DP Christian Sprenger encountered on set for Guava Island, a passion project by Childish Gambino with Rihanna. Justin shares how crazy it was to get gear into the country and complete 3 weeks of filming without the usual comforts of a shoot in the States.

Donald Glover’s Project

“Christian Sprenger and I have been working together for almost 13 years. We went to film school at Columbia College Chicago. When he moved to LA, he landed a gig called Eagleheart that he invited me to work on. I came out to do that show, met so many amazing professionals, and just kind of ended up staying.”

“Christian shot the television show Atlanta, created by and starring Donald. It’s one of the projects we have all been the proudest of, and earned Christian an Emmy. So when the call came to collaborate with Childish Gambino on a new film, we were all eager to go. Guava Island premiered at Coachella this year, where Christian also shot Childish’s stage show. It looked incredible.”

“Originally, the scouted locations were Columbia and the Dominican Republic. Eventually, they decided on Cuba for its gritty island look and untouched, retro architecture. Cuba has a very deep history. Everywhere we shot looked worn and sea-weathered, the city itself is so cinematic. We just wanted to do the place justice.

The Challenges

“The first challenge was getting our usual production gear into Cuba. With most countries you submit a manifest of the gear and it gets approved for a carnet. For Cuba, that didn’t happen. Production was told that we couldn’t bring any wireless gear into the country, in case it could be seen as spy gear or for counter intelligence. I spent a couple days in Miami prepping all the gear to travel. We decided to take a risk and ship our wireless gear over anyways.”

“We were told anything with antennas on it would be flagged for inspection.  I placed some small plastic caps over antenna ports to cover them up, so they didn’t look like wireless gear. And funnily enough, our local crew in Cuba talked to airport security after we landed, and they didn’t even bother opening a single one of our 109 cases! We could’ve brought so much more gear if we had known.”

“One of the greatest challenges was communication. The lack of cell service and wifi was more debilitating to our productivity than expected. We had no internet access until we returned to the hotel each evening. Production bought a bunch of 1990’s burner phones and that’s all we used. It slowed things down a lot.”

“Before the shoot, they had engineers visit proposed shooting locations and some were in such bad shape, they determined we couldn’t film there because the floors would collapse. We kept our set ups as small as possible to facilitate easy company moves and be able to hop in and out of tiny locations. We had a 100 person crew, and all did our part to stay light and mobile.”

Monitoring in Cuba

“Donald and Rhianna had just under three weeks with us in Cuba. It was a tight shooting schedule. One piece of gear that really helped us was the Serv Pros. I always have my iPhone on me, and since the calling & texting functions were useless, I was able to use it for monitoring. Anytime there wasn’t a monitor nearby for the director, I could just pass him my phone to see the frame. If all the departments can see the frame and work towards one goal, it makes everyone's job that much easier. We had a plethora of iOS devices being used as monitors for art department, set decorators, the boom op, the AD, and even Christian himself. Christian both DP’d and operated B camera. In order to get him eyes on A camera simultaneously, I used an iPod touch mounted onto a Noga arm on his camera.

“With many technical obstacles in Cuba, having our phones as monitors made filming so much more efficient. Everyone could see the shot from their own devices. When we’re squeezing through narrow alleys and crowded old buildings, department heads had their own handheld monitors on their phones. The Serv Pros gave everyone one less thing to worry about, and helped us make an amazing film.”

Special thanks to:

Christian Sprenger - Director of Photography
Michael Fuchs - B Cam Operator
Jule Fontana - 2nd AC
Chris Hoyle - DIT


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