I remember, when I used to shoot on film, I always had that feeling of uncertainty whether I was getting the right exposure or not. I think that is the magic of film, you do not have an idea how the image is going to look like until you have processed the negative and have viewed the rushes in that small cold dark projection room.
That is exactly how I felt while shooting SIGNAL ROCK. There’s uncertainty, that familiar feeling of walking on unfamiliar ground. Signal Rock, just like Badil (2013), is a passion project of director Chito Rono, but more ambitious than the first one. We were, however, working on a modest budget and after reading the script, I already knew the film was going to be logistically and technically more challenging given its requirements and location.
The story is set in Biri Island, a 5th class municipality in Northern Samar facing the Pacific Ocean in the east and San Bernardino Strait to the west, accessible by boat from the mainland. By plane, you can take the Manila-Calbayog flight, then take another 2-hour land travel to the town of Lavezares where the jump off point for the one-hour boat ride to Biri is stationed. If you travel by bus, you take the back- breaking 14-hour ride from Cubao to Matnog, Sorsogon and then cross the sea via ferry boat that carries your bus, to Allen, Samar for two hours. From Allen to Lavezares is another 30 minutes by land. Going to Biri is definitely not easy, more so shooting a movie.
Early on, it was very clear that the location would dictate my technical need. I had done two films there before and there’s no way I was going to bring a 25-lb camera at Biri rock formation what with 10 sequences to finish in a day and wake up again the next morning at 5. We had set a 15-day straight shoot so I needed to work fast with minimal lighting setup especially for night scenes. I chose to shoot with a Sony a7sii with Carl Zeiss prime lenses for mobility and for budget reason, combining it with an Osmo camera for the long moving takes.
Signal Rock’s cinematography was functional. I was always adjusting to what was available in front of me and how nature would present itself that day. We adjusted our shoots based on the schedule of water sea level since we needed to walk for two kilometers on knee deep water to get to the rock formation. My gaffer and I were continuously tracking the sun to get the right sunlight direction for the scenes. It was instinctive filmmaking. It felt like being back in film school where I used to shoot short films with just one light. My lighting package was three 60s ARRI Skypanel which I used for the background during night and also as a strong soft key light for day interiors. I also had four battery-operated LiteMat LEDs to enhance close-up shots. The rest were augmented by around 10 pieces of ordinary 100 watts bulb lights mounted on white Japanese lanterns from Divisoria and then rigged on long 15-ft bamboo poles. These poles were then placed strategically depending on the shot which created an overall soft ambience light during night scenes. I had two 5 KVA portable generators moving around the set. I was also pushing the camera’s ISO to its limit.
Intentionally putting characters in shadows, avoiding fill lights and sometimes letting background go really dark, I used darkness to feel isolation and remoteness. Biri is underlit at night just like any remote municipality in the country. I wanted to recreate that feeling of talking to a person lighted by a low wattage bulb. There’s faint illumination but quite enough.
In situations like these, you basically trust your instinct and experience and hope that something good will come out of it. Looking back, shooting in Biri the first time turned out to be my own dry run for making Signal Rock, only this time on a larger scale.
Signal Rock is the Philippines’ entry for the Oscar’s best foreign language film next year.