November 10, 2013, by Mark Gallagher

Tom Walsh’s Letter From Cuba

About the author: Emmy Award-winning production designer and art director Thomas Walsh served as President of the Art Directors Guild (ADG) from 2003 to 2013.  He is a founding co-chair of the Art Directors Guild Archives and Research Library as well as its Production Apprenticeship Program and its Art Directors Film Society. Tom is also an Industry Fellow of the Institute for Screen Industries Research and Honorary Professor at the University of Nottingham.


The Journey: Take Me to Havana!

In October I was invited to lead a master class in Production Design in Havana, Cuba at the Escuela Internacional de Cine y Television in San Antonio de los Baños. It began with a long wait at LAX due to a meltdown of Copa Airlines’ worldwide air-traffic operations, turning what would have been a nine-hour flight from LA to Havana via Panama City into a 21-hour endurance ride.  During our change of planes in Panama City, I witnessed a mob of very tired and distraught passengers—think angry villagers in Frankenstein sans pitchforks and torches—storming our boarding gate.  Many had waited for more than 14 hours for their Cuba connection.  They just snapped when told this was to be the last flight out for possibly a day or more and that my little group of late arrivals had first rights to the remaining seats.  Well, it was ugly.  Untranslatable insults in a very rapid Cuban dialect of Spanish flew like arrows at the defenseless Copa Airlines agents.  They even threatened the armed guards who had been brought in to protect the gate and keep the peace—no one was happy!

Sunday morning, we finally lifted off at 2:00 am, landing in Havana two hours later.  Once disembarked, we learned that our luggage had been left on the rainy runway in Panama City, so we waited in another line for two more hours to file our missing-bag reports.  We were told that there was now an airline strike in Panama and that all future incoming flights were cancelled.  We might not see our bags till Monday, maybe Tuesday, and possibly never.  So we all waited and watched a one-fingered non-typist slowly type out and file each missing bag report.  Ultimately, the government withheld the bag of books for my class for three days, requiring me to explain each book to the customs officer who spoke no English, in order to secure their release.  I’ll never know what he made of all these books and periodicals about Hollywood and film design, but he seemed entertained.

I slept till noon on Sunday and then met with my hosts who kindly provided me with a toothbrush and a hired car for a drive around Havana and a much needed afternoon coffee in the Plaza Viega, an ancient square in the heart of the old colonial city.  Bottom line, when going to the third world always pack a change of clothing and some basic toiletries in your carry-on.  I didn’t, and by the end of my second day in the tropics, though washed I was not pretty.

The School: Verdant Green and Soviet Tractors


The school is located 45 minutes outside of Havana and situated in the middle of fields of corn, banana and citrus.  In the past it has hosted such illustrious filmmakers as George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, so I felt honoured to be included in such esteemed company.  By Cuban standards, the campus is a very privileged place; a weathered tropical version of the Barbizon school, filled with the sounds of exotic birds and Soviet vintage tractors chugging along in the early morning and twilight hours.  The sky was filled with shapely cumulus clouds, and the smell of salt, compost and trash fires wafted in on a very humid tropical breeze.  I felt a little like I had been transported into the great novel One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Cuba: Time Capsule

Cuba and Havana in particular are quite unique!  Havana is a 500 year-old UNESCO World Heritage site.  It was the staging point for the Spanish Conquistadors’ discovery and pillage of the Americas.  It has also been the target of all manner of assault and exploitation by pirates of every nationality and flag, including the US’s Stars and Stripes.  Fifty years of experimentation with its own unique form of utopian socialism has eradicated class distinctions, racism and hunger while providing free universal health care; I’d guess US media would call it ‘Fidel-Care’.  Free education and clean water are ubiquitous, and universal employment of a sort that ensures that no one is homeless or destitute is available to all.


Of course, nothing is perfect, and it seems to be time for Cuba to finally close its chapter about the Revolution and move on.  When combined, both that legacy and that of the United States’ senseless and vindictive embargo have proven to be a disaster to Cuba’s infrastructure and economy.  Its current and slightly more moderate economic policies still continue to stifle individual initiative and entrepreneurialism.  But through it all, the people remain resilient, proud, generous and kind.  They possess big hearts and a passion for family and life that puts us to shame by comparison.  And like many of us, the Cuban people continue to try and just survive from one day to the next.

Colombian Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Argentinean Fernando Birri and Cuban Julio Garcia Espinosa co-founded the international school in 1986 to nurture and teach the cinematic arts.  The students come from all over the Spanish-speaking world as well as Africa, Asia and Europe to participate in a series of five-week long workshops in their areas of interest.  The Production Design program was founded by Margarita Jusid, an Argentinean Production Designer who established the first and only formal Production Design program in the southern hemisphere at the National School of Cinematographic Experimentation and Direction in Buenos Aires.  We share a love for a good story, one with compelling characters, emotion and conviction.  Though very familiar with our films, none of the faculty or students are blind to the shortcomings of today’s Hollywood exports, respecting our traditions for craft more than our industry’s current preoccupation with commerce, technology, and gratuitous sex and violence.  Margarita and her teaching associate, Designer and Professor Luciana Fornasari, are true pioneers and superior teachers from whom I learned much during my brief time with them.


My Master Class: Talent and Potential

My week-long class had 17 students, four men and thirteen women, mostly in their mid- to late twenties, all with different levels of technical training and life experiences.  Many are already working as Production Designers, Art Directors, Illustrators, Set Designers and Decorators in their home countries, either in film, theatre, TV, commercials, exhibition, fashion, graphics, fine art or all of the above.  They came from Chile, Uruguay, Colombia, Peru, Mexico, Venezuela, French Nicaragua, Cuba and Spain to participate in a series of mini-courses dealing with the art and science of Production Design.  Each week featured different combinations of guest professors, who focused on a particular facet of our profession and its workflow.

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My classes focused on improving their quick concept and visualization skills.  It remains a great irony that so many engaged in this most visual of media have difficulties visualising or succinctly communicating what the story and its characters’ journey is about or how to identify and visualise its emotional potential.  I had my students observe and then deconstruct Citizen Kane.  Using Kane’s story devices, they then created their own stories based on events and characters from their home countries.  Because I had to work through an interpreter, we focused on nurturing their visual literacy skills and ability to communicate the story’s potential with an emphasis on conceiving and presenting their pitch and concepts with speed and flexibility for a public forum.

We got off to an excellent start, and they each selected and developed very original story concepts.  We then hit a big technological pothole.  In Cuba there remains a huge deficit in the resources and technologies that we in the US shamelessly take for granted.  Wi-Fi and wireless infrastructure are spotty and very slow.  Paper products of every kind are in short supply.  Expendable supplies whether tape, paint or scissors are not easy to find.  The school’s library lacked any useful reference books about art, architecture, history or photography, or any periodical publications. Remember too that we were located in the centre of a cornfield.  Yet despite these many challenges the students persevered, overcoming their limitations with a great esprit de corps, ingenuity and humour.


Though technology is now central to how we develop and communicate our concepts and workflow, it can never be a substitute for resourcefulness.  Technology remains subservient to our human ability to be creative, discerning and flexible when faced with diversity.  Laptops along with cell phones are now ubiquitous tools even in the third world. Despite excruciatingly slow and overextended Wi-Fi, regular brownouts and a media library full of films but few reference books or magazines, the students somehow succeeded far beyond all expectations.  Using film clips, image captures, images from their personal resources, shards of web imagery downloaded in the middle of the night and original artwork from which to create their presentations, they reminded me that infinite resources and time are never a match for being committed, smart and scrappy.

In the evenings, we screened films as case-study examples for their projects, always with Spanish subtitles as they hate the dubbed stuff.  All of my offerings reinforced the legacy of excellent design solutions that supported the character’s journey and story. In addition I shared content from the ADG’s Archives, which is one of our community’s gold mines and legacies, collected from over 15 years of Film Society programs.

On our final day, each student made a ten-minute pitch presentation of their stories and concepts using the materials that they had collected and organized on their laptops.  Some were brilliant, others were exceptional, and all excelled.  And as is often the case, my passion and love for what we do as designers was renewed by the infectious enthusiasm of those who came from all over the globe to learn more about what we do.  Designer Harold Michelson would be pleased to know that there are many other young and aspiring artist-designers in the world who innately share in our ability to look at nothing and see everything, all the possibilities and potential for the future of the work and our profession.

Final Thoughts: Don’t Delay!

As to traveling to Cuba, like India it is impossible to shoot a bad photo there.  The magic of this timeless place and the infectious spirit of its people were sources of endless fascination and renewal for me.  To those with the capacity and interest to journey to this isle of mojitos, music, rich colours and that ‘noble rot’ we all love, do so, and may it be soon!


Adios Amigos, TW

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