I. Si Maya, Ang Ulan at ang mga Tikbalang
Back in 2011, Irene Villamor sent me a script which she first wrote in 2008 about a young girl who loves watching the rain and talks to tikbalangs getting married. It was a charming concept for a movie, something I would like to see on the big screen.
Having worked with her in 2004 while she was still a script continuity, I promised to shoot her first film. We tried doing that on her first and second film but conflicting schedules didn’t allow that to happen.
Cut to 2018. I got a message from Irene asking me if I can shoot her new film with a working title, “Si Maya, ang Ulan at ang mga Tikbalang” and it’s the same material she sent me 7 years ago. I imagined her working on the material for 10 years, putting so much of herself into it and letting it evolve into a personal journey. When I finally read the script, it was easy to say yes. It was a personal film and it was cinematographically challenging.
II. A Children’s Storybook
Ulan’s visual treatment also took a long journey in itself. The story shuttles between real and magical.
You don’t see magic realism being used in local films everyday so Ulan’s visual treatment is tricky in the sense that you have to ground the audience narrative-wise so they can accept what’s in store for them visually.
We looked at photographs of Paris-based photographer, Jamie Beck of Ann Street Studio which are reminiscent of 15th century renaissance paintings in terms of perspective, composition and lighting. But essentially, Irene’s vision of Ulan is for it to have that “mood and feel of a children’s book”. With this in mind, I went back to my daughter’s library and looked at old children’s books I gave her when she was young. I got a lot of inspirations reading Roald Dahl’s classic James and the Giant Peach and Lane Smith’s wordless children’s book, Flying Jake. It was a joy reading these books again. It brought back good memories of Isabel at age six and my own childhood memories with my grandparents.
Jamie Beck’s photographs
Roald Dahl’s “James and the Giant Peach”
Lane Smith’s “Flying Jake”
I also watched Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s 2001 film, Amelie which is playfully quaint and a film filled with charm and magic.
We decided early on that the scenes with the child Maya shouldn’t really look different from the scenes of adult Maya because we actually didn’t want a “flashback” mode. Ferdi Abuel’s set design, his choice of locations and his attention to detail contributed a lot in creating an overall nostalgic feel. Although much of the initial inspiration of Ulan were French and European in origin, Ferdi wanted a Filipino-inspired design from a child’s point of view. Most of our props were antique or used items, creating an “old world” feel. Ulan demands a more cohesive vision from the director, the production designer and the cinematographer to make it work. Colorist Marilen Magsasay came on board early because I wanted to have a clear thematic color before and during shooting and also so I would know what’s going to happen with certain colors of the set when we start rendering our colors in post. I knew Ulan was taking a different creative path because half-way thru the shoot, I was still defining the mood of the film. There were a lot of experimentations along the way. I was taking a lot of photos for color study and I was also shooting with instax hoping to get that “dreamy” Ulan look.
Ulan’s first camera and look test. Jeff Cabral’s early tikbalang design with live rain fx and Elai Ilano as young Maya.
III. Ulan’s Technical Challenge
RAIN. When you have a film entitled Ulan, you know there’s going to be lots of rain and every cinematographer knows that shooting a scene with rain is a challenge, logistically and photography-wise. Seventy percent of Ulan scenes are with rain, making it a major character of the film besides Nadine Lustre. It requires rain in different variations – from a drizzle, to a quiet calm rain, to a heavy downpour, to a thunderstorm with strong winds. We did tests on how to light and enhance rain on screen, you basically need a separate backlight dedicated for the rain to separate it from the foreground and background, so I always had 2.5 HMIs on 20ft scaffolding or 1.2 HMIs rigged on maxiestands always ready depending on the shot size.
I also changed the shutter angle of the camera from the standard 180 degrees to 90 degrees for the scenes with rain to sharpen the droplets on screen and add more character but still retaining the rain’s slight motion blur. I initially thought of putting color dyes on the water to create colored rain depending on the mood of Maya but realized it’s going to be a tedious task so I just scrapped the idea. I also did rain tests on my own to study how rain reacts on different surfaces and different wind conditions.
VISUAL FX. The use of visual effects in Ulan is to enhance the narrative without catching attention to itself. Maya’s space dust and Aning’s magical room is a combination of live action and vfx. We also combined these two in scenes where live shoot is not possible like the river scene and flooding water which is a major setup and quite expensive to create.
The tikbalang’s VFX eyes are also critical points because those were the only way for the Tikbalang to show their emotions.
Additional VFX rain were put on scenes where heavy rain is needed.
THE ALEXA LF. A large component that contributed to the look of Ulan was the new Alexa LF camera of Arriflex. Setting a new aesthetics for large format cameras, the Alexa LF deliver images with more shallow depth of field (background is defocused) and more volume, more depth and a three-dimensional feel in an otherwise two dimensional surface of a theater, giving the audience a different viewing experience.
Ulan is the first Filipino film to shoot with the Alexa LF and one major consideration is its shallower depth of field. I usually shoot my films at F2.8, maintaining that for the whole film but with the Alexa LF, a 2.8 depth of field is roughly around 1.0-1.5 stops shallower putting it in between F1.4 and 2.0. I decided to peg my working F stop for the film at 4.0 giving allowance and leeway for my assistant camera/focus pullers for moving subjects.
The final sequence of the film however was shot with a Phantom High-Speed camera. We shot the whole scene at 2,000 frames per second practically freezing rain drops in midair and then manipulated the movement of the young and old Maya giving a visually poetic ending.
Top : Final sequence shot with a Phantom camera at 2,000 frames per second Bottom : My study drawing of the final sequence
IV. Shooting from the Heart
Although making Ulan involves major technical preparation, its cinematography is deeply rooted on the emotions of the script, emotions I felt while reading it for the first time and the same emotions that guided me during the 23 day shoot. It was a joy to see Ulan’s 10-year journey finally projected on the big screen and it was due to Irene Villamor’s uncompromising conviction to her material and her courage to give us a different take on romance and self-love.
Ulan sets and objects:
Peter’s photos of Maya :
Behind the scenes :
UP Diliman October 14, 2018
Nadine’s first look test with live rain fx. July 21, 2018
Shooting the VFX part of the river scene with Carlo Aquino. Nov.16, 2018
Shooting the live action part of the river scene in Tanay. January 10, 2019
Ulan photos :
Ulan is showing at the Cinema Centenario this April.
5 thoughts on “Shooting from the Heart : Creating the World of ULAN”
Thank you for making ULAN, amazing movie.
Great to see how much thought and creativity went into making ULAN a wonderful film to watch again and again.
Wow as in wow! 🙌👏
Thank you so much for this beautiful movie! It really touched my heart. Definitely one of the best movies of 2019 and one of my favorites now!! I hope one day, when I get to reach my dreams of becoming a filmmaker, I can work with an amazing human like you Sir Neil! Kudos!
I just want to say how great you made the film Ulan, I find charm in all angles and scenes and although it reminded me of some whimsical French/Italian movies I’ve watched before, I love how very Filipino the theme as well. Really loved the aesthetics and creativity on it. Really loved this film.