“If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough”
-Robert Capa, documentary photographer
“Kamusta schedule mo these days?”
When I got this message from Neil Daza I knew something interesting was brewing. I had already worked as his camera operator for a few projects with Chito Roño, including one with a very memorable leg in Nepal. I always think that one of the best parts about being a cinematographer in this country is the fact that you can still be called on to do non-DP work for your fellow cinematographers.
Sir Neil said he needed a camera operator for his new project with Antoinette Jadaone. I’ve known Direk Tonet since film school days when she was kind enough to help out with shooting my thesis. It’s always a pleasure for me to be able to work with her and she’s one of the directors I hold in high regard. Schedules permitting, I was definitely on board.
“Kailangan babae ang cam op e. Sino pa ba mga babaeng cam op?”
“Naku, mabibilang sa dalawang kamay ang pwede dyan.”
I still maintain that female cinematographers in the Philippines are in an incredibly more favorable position than those in other countries. I attribute it to a strong matriarchal film industry, where women have headed studios since the black and white films of the 1930s, as well as to the fact that a number of the most successful Filipino directors in recent history are women. Women calling the shots behind the scenes don’t get a misogynistic uproar from the men in the industry. That being said, there are still only a few women in the camera department that you can call on today, and with the filming schedule being as erratic as it might be, Fan Girl will be needing a pool of female operators on call.
Call it an experiment on the female gaze. Direk Tonet wanted the film to come from the point of view of a girl. “Is there such a thing?”, we would ask ourselves. We were raised in a patriarchal society, in a patriarchal camera department. Our visual language has been shaped by the men who made images before us. So is there a female gaze? Does it matter when trying to tell a visual story? Let the shots come as they may. We just put the cameras on our shoulders and ran with it, literally.
Fan Girl was meant to be shot entirely in handheld. Much of the early prep Cesca Lee and I did for the camera department was on rigging the camera in the most efficient and lightweight way possible. We really understood how painfully lacking we are in having the proper gear for the female body available – specifically vests for camera rigs. There was going to be a lot of running, a lot of moving through hardwood floors and muddy dirt roads, a lot of squeezing into tight spaces – all evidenced in the final edit. Fitting ourselves for hours at a time into vests made for men did us much more harm than good, we just did away with the body support and did it all on good old shoulder mounts. It is still one of the most physically taxing jobs I ever took on.
As a camera operator, the job is to take the camera to what my cinematographer and my director want to see. Like our actress Charlie Dizon, however, we never got the full script ourselves. We found out what we were shooting when we arrived on set and even then, we didn’t have too many rehearsals. On my first day on set, after Direk Tonet had finished blocking the scene, I asked Sir Neil which part of the action he wanted me to follow.
That was basically the standing rule we were meant to follow. Apart from the occasional directive on necessary coverage that Direk Tonet needed, we shot whatever we felt instinctively needed to be seen, the way we thought it needed to be seen. It was a special responsibility that was given to us camera operators and one that could have only come from an environment of trust and confidence.
This entire setup, I feel, gave us a unique relationship with Charlie as well. One of my favorite parts about being a cinematographer/camera operator is that you are the first person to be immersed in the magic of the film unfolding. Everybody else would be watching from monitors elsewhere, away from the set. It was a special thing to see this new, young actress work so hard to bring all of herself to the table. When she ran, we ran. When she jumped into the pool, so did Cesca. When she climbed over locked gates, we…didn’t (we just got the coverage from either side of the gate). She had to do all that take after take after take. Charlie was such a professional and such a trooper we couldn’t for a second be any less dedicated in getting the shot than she was.
This was especially true when we shot the mall tour sequences when I did double duty as cinematographer and camera operator because of scheduling conflicts. Kara Moreno (the 2nd camera operator for that day), Charlie, and I had to fight through what had become a REAL crowd of onlookers and fans from the very busy Binondo area. How to get the shots in that scenario? With much pushing and bruising, and stretching in between. The chaos was real and a few people, despite being told otherwise, made it their life’s purpose to not let us get through. Kids, never take your physical fitness for granted. You never know when you might have to push a grown man purposely blocking your way while trying to balance a camera to get a usable shot.
Fan Girl is a film I’m truly proud to be a part of and I will always be grateful I got the call. The entire team’s dedication to the creation of this one thing was truly palpable on set and I’m glad the viewers’ reception of the film does justice to it. Salamat Direk Tonet and Sir Neil. Salamat Cesca and Kara, fellow camera operators I got to tag-team with. Apir Choice and Pia! This is one for the books (and for Sir Neil’s blog).
Sir Neil mentioned that he was doing a film with director Antoinette Jadaone that requires female camera operators when I met him around March 2019. I saw initial posts on facebook revealing the key staff that would work on from FanGirl and I figured that’s the Jadaone film Sir Neil mentioned before. Around April 2019 I sent him a message asking if I could work and learn from him on FanGirl, one thing he mentioned was “Madaming handheld shots if you’re up to it. ” So from the beginning I knew two things: the project wants female camera operators and the film will be shot handheld.
But the process is more complex than that. We were told that Charlie wasn’t given a full script so we cannot discuss the story with her. I remember earlier call sheets named her as a ‘talent’ and not an ‘actor’. There was no closed tent provided for her. We barely interact with her when we started. I remember her being timid on the first few shooting days.
I remember the first sequence we shot. We took time deciding which lens to use given our unconventional aspect ratio. We ended up with a focal length intimate enough to be close to the character with just a hint of her surroundings. I remember doing long handheld shots on Day 1, trying to follow Jane’s character as she moved unrehearsed in her own space. On day 1 I had a sense of what the film shoot would be.
The camera was always close to Jane. There was always a sense of intimacy. There are countless times it was just Charlie and the me at the back of the pick-up as it drove around NLEX area endlessly. There was even a point that my AC had to hands-off and I pull my own focus as the back part could only fit us two. I would only have direk Tonet at the end of a two-way radio giving me instructions.
Direk Tonet would ask Charlie, “what would you do if this is the scene?”. But we will never rehearse. At most we would just go through her motions in the space. Especially when we started filming the scenes in the house.
I remember Ate Anne and I trying to go over our choreography. My one eye on the eyepiece, then as I walk around, my other eye tries to search for the other camera so I won’t show on her frame.
I remember being invited to view rushes with the rest of the staff – which I did not expect since it’s usually the DP who only does viewing. I remember discussing with the rest of the team whether the carmount shots worked with the rest of the handheld shots. That’s when the team had to find a way to still ‘handheld’ the car tracking shots.
We always tried to do things on a single take. the longest I remember is a 10-min take I think. We would use up one card per take. There was an effort to capture the raw-ness of the scenes especially Jane’s reaction during the first encounter with her idol.
I remember being flattered that as a camera operator, I am part of certain decisions being made on set. What I need to help me operate long handheld shots. What color temperature would we shoot in. What lenses would cam A and B use. What to reveal on my frame. What not to show. When to move. When to stop. When to stay with the character and when to look away. I am grateful for the trust that both my director and cinematographer gave me. Because once the camera rolled, they trusted me and my instincts as a female operator to capture the essence of who and what Jane is, as a person, and as a woman.
No rehearsals. The operators had to be women and the film was to be shot mostly handheld. What sounded like an impossible feat grew easier because I drew confidence from my director – Antoinette Jadaone, cinematographer – Neil Daza, assistant director – Joi Bayan, co-operators, Anne Monzon and Cesca Lee, and assistant cameramen, – Jimmy Delostrico and Michael Viray, who all exuded such instinctive command of the craft.
As a B-camera operator, my camera coverage was less structured. I had to pay attention to details and nuances that the scene emanated, and kind of put myself in Anne or Cesca’s shoes so I don’t end up with a similar coverage. Many times, I remember asking for instructions from my director and cinematographer and they would often tell me one thing but would remind me to react to the actors. I would be told to ‘shoot what fan girl hears’ and at first not understand what it meant but eventually would once Charlie and Paulo acted out the scene. To me, it was this collaborative and reactive process that gave the film its own life.
Before the cameras rolled on my first day on the Fan Girl set, what I set my mind out to be a project that needed a lot of technical skill and physical strength turned out called for more important things: rhythm, intuition, empathy.
I served as a sub for Ms. Anne Monzon for Fan Girl’s first day of shooting.
During the filming we were asked to treat Charlie as one of us (crew) and not as a celebrity meaning she didn’t receive special treatment of any kind – she even retouched her own hair and makeup without any assistance. It’s something that I found very interesting and smart because it probably helped her get into the psyche of an ordinary fan girl detached from the world of celebrities and watching the film we can easily see fan girl’s persona translate on screen.
Filming Fan Girl was a very collaborative process – for each sequence Direk Tonet would explain how theaction for the scene would go and then she, together with Direk Joi (assistant director) and Direk Neil (cinematographer) would compose the blocking and Cesca (camera operator) and I were free to also pitchin ideas on how to frame the shots.
Coming on as a substitute camera operator on Fan Girl, I can only give reference to the few days I had on set, but what an experience! I had zero knowledge on the story and no time to prep, only given notes and shown previously shot footage after meeting the team my first day on set. One thing I also noticed was that it was a predominantly female team which is quite rare, so that was a big deal for me.
The whole on-set process involved a right balance of specificity and spontaneity—something that became even more apparent after watching the film.
Each sequence, direk Tonet and direk Neil would give specific notes on how the scene should feel and in which space actors and cameras could move. We would block scenes but rarely placed marks for actors and lighting was set in a way that would allow for everyone to move freely throughout the scene. Actors could adlib and cameras had to frame according to how they felt was appropriate, tracking and pushing in and out as needed, all which could change each take (massive props to the amazing focus pullers!). Handheld set-ups made more sense to get a documentary feel. Oftentimes the camerawork felt intrusive and uncomfortable but in a way it needed to be, as immediately seen in the opening frame of the film.
Each of the “quirks” in notes and directions looked at individually might seem trivial but after watching the film, each piece had proved to serve it’s purpose and it’s nice to see that the values the filmmakers wanted to express through the film were upheld on set.
Something I had taken away from this project was how much of a big deal it was for me—working mostly with women and all-female camera operators. It made me remember all the times the camera was passed on to a male colleague “because the scene is complicated” or hearing about female colleagues being let go from projects purely because of their gender. I want to commend the director for prioritizing equality, giving importance to how “the female gaze” reflects both in the story and on set. After the film premiered locally, it was also nice to see how much attention having five female camera operators onboard was, even being highlighted on the news. Later on I realised the reason why it did is because it is still not normalised, and this is something we are still continuing to fight for. Has it ever made the news when a predominantly male set completes a project? My hope is that it sparks the start of normalising equality in the work force and more women fighting back just like Jane eventually did. I would love to see more women as cinematographers, operators, camera assistants, grips, and gaffers!
You cannot talk about Fan Girl’s cinematography without talking about shooting documentaries. The genre is a perfect training ground for a cinematographer because it forces you to heighten your senses and be prepared for improvisations along the way. Fan Girl’s photography and camera work is rooted on this type of filmmaking — unpredictable and spontaneous that leads to a process of discovery — very much like documenting real lives.
My early conversations with director Antoinette Jadaone on what visual track the film would take geared towards simple, raw and functional. Thus, the decision to shoot the film without rehearsals, handheld and, with women cinematographers to operate the camera were decided early on. We were both coming from our first collaboration in Alone/Together (2019) which had paintings by old Filipino masters as inspiration so I didn’t know if it was also a conscious effort for her to move away from that and go for a less formal approach for Fan Girl.
Tonet is a very collaborative director throwing in a lot of ideas and questions in the course of making the movie most especially before the shooting starts. She comes in every project with an open mind, ready for new ideas allowing a bigger creative space for exploration. But I remember she was very clear about wanting to capture Charlie Dizon’s raw reactions so she decided not to do rehearsals and do long takes. Tonet wanted something organic and essential to come out of that process. Having my personal bias for the documentary and having a script that clearly put the camera subjectively from the point of view of the main character from start to end of the film, was pretty exciting and challenging.
To shoot a full length film sans rehearsals is easier said than done especially for the camera department. An unrehearsed take either for the actor or for the technical team increases pressure by ten times. It requires the camera operator and the assistant camera/focus puller to be more instinctive of what’s happening in front and outside of the frame. It also gives the focus pullers countless sleepless nights. A no rehearsal approach also dictates the camera work and lighting treatment of Fan Girl. Lights generally were either rigged on ceilings or on boom stands to give space for camera movement. I didn’t create a visual peg or visual inspiration for the film because I feel it didn’t need one. I took the cue from Tonet’s bias towards spontaneity and applied the same for the visual to go into an unplanned process of discovery.
I gave enough space for improvisation because when you do, you dig deep inside yourself and your creative memory bank making your work more personal. With Ferdi Abuel’s set design especially the transition to the dream sequences, the outcome I think created an atmospheric aesthetic that is both somber and psychological. I just had a feeling at that time that making Fan Girl was going to be a joyride. And it was – creatively and literally.
One thing great about handheld shots is you can adjust to what’s happening in front of you therefore never missing a detail like an actor’s body language or a quick glance. Working with a customized 1.55 aspect ratio, a slight pan or a small step to get the actor’s expression makes a difference. It is intimate and puts the audience directly in front of the action. But doing handheld shots demands some physical requirement and a very instinctive eye for the camera operator. We used the Alexa Mini with shoulder mount and an on-board LCD monitor for the ACs. Lens focus control is usually on remote giving the camera operator total freedom to move around and follow the actors. The camera, with all its accessories and peripherals, weighs around 5 kilogram which is not that bad. But put that camera on your shoulder for a five-minute shot while having to compose the shot, check the actor’s headroom, watch the actor’s nuances and cues, check the background, check if the subject is in focus, look out for the other camera, make sure you don’t overshoot beyond the set, keep your shot steady, walk quietly when you follow the actor because you’re doing live sound and control your breathing to minimize camera movement — that’s a lot to do within five minutes. And then you have to do it for 16 hours. I know the pressure and I have utmost admiration for Fan Girl’s five women camera operators.
We brought in women cinematographers Anne Monzon and Cesca Lee to do camera operation and also Kara Moreno, Choice Israel and Sofia Anwar who pitched in for some days with conflicting schedules. There were sensitive scenes to be shot and we felt it would greatly help Charlie to be more comfortable knowing that it is not a male-dominated set and women cinematographers/ camera operators were shooting her intimate scenes with Paulo Avelino. We were also curious how these women cinematographers would frame and see Fan Girl from their viewfinder. I think where and how you point your camera reveals one’s socio-political and gender biases whether you’re conscious about it or not. If you’re conscious about it the act can be a political act and can be a weapon of change. Images have influenced how we view global events from mass protests, wars, to election campaign and this goes beyond traditional media. The camera has become an essential player in the dynamics of visual politics.
We shot for 13 days in a span of four months battered by rain and flooding of our main set. It was an experience to work in a female-dominated set and a group of talented driven women because you get into serious conversations with them from feminist film theories like the female gaze, to the best vacuum cleaner in the market, and the advantage of gel nail polish when doing handheld shots.
Fan Girl also reinforces my mantras in filmmaking – be in the present, trust your team and trust the process.
Fan Girl sets :
4 thoughts on “Of The Female Gaze, Vacuum Cleaners and FAN GIRL”
Hi Sir Neil,
Congratulations! I loved reading this blog. I think maybe this explains why I felt Jane’s emotions and feelings throughout the film. It may be because the cameras are looking at Jane from a female’s perspective, and somehow it’s like they’re one. I was wondering why in that intimate scene with Jane & Paulo, Jane’s face was very dark, but then I realized, from a female’s perspective, you would just want to hide your face in the darkness at that moment. I really loved how the film conveyed its message through all aspects — the story, acting, cameras, and production. Congratulations to the whole team.
PS. Just an ordinary girl here and whenever I watch Filipino films, I’m very proud to see the names of my batchmates from elementary/high school as part of these wonderful films. Hi, Choice!
Thank you very much.
Thank you Elise. It’s always a pleasure to read viewer’s reaction to a film’s cinematography. 🙂
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