Documenting Despair : A Pandemic Lockdown Journal

It is a 50mm lens so I’m constantly checking my manual focus since I am always moving and shifting composition.  My watch says it’s 8:30 am and I’m beginning to feel the sun’s heat on my nape. The morning sun is also blinding the lens while I am framing this frail man in front of me who seems to be dazed with what’s happening around him. On my far left is an old man who walked for two hours from his home to see his doctor and is convincing the police to let him pass.  To my right is a  service driver tasked to deliver gallons of blood to a blood bank arguing with another policeman.  Another on the frontline is an office messenger who is in a rush for work, showing his identification card.  I overhear a mother with her daughter pleading so she can visit her sick father and everywhere, there are around 60 motor riders who have been waiting for three hours to cross the checkpoint.

I shifted my frame again trying to capture this man staring at the empty road right in front of him. I took three frames and walked away.

Photography allows you to isolate the world visually within that viewfinder but outside of that rectangular frame is reality – people who are displaced, disoriented and helpless. At that moment, I felt more of a human being who wanted to help these people more than a photographer documenting history. But can you actually separate the two?

I drank some water, dried my eyes and  then went back to shoot. The frail man is gone. I thought maybe he just went home out of frustration but the chaos is still there and will continue until sundown.

It is March 17, 2020. I am at the Rizal-Marikina checkpoint and it’s the second day of the Enhanced Community Quarantine.

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I started shooting instinctively the night of March 13, a day after the community quarantine on Metro Manila was announced. If you’re locking down the National Capital Region with 12.8 million people and limiting their movement, for sure, some would want to escape from that situation fast enough. People were starting to mass up in bus stations, making the place look like the typical scene before Holy Week.  They seemed completely occupied with getting a ride and leaving the city the soonest they could. In a way, it’s expected. It is the first time in our lives that we’re experiencing something like this. But what’s more apparent was the uncertainty in people’s eyes. There’s a disconnect to what’s happening, to the point of being surreal.  

On March 16, the government declared a Luzon-wide enhanced community quarantine or ECQ.

*****

*****

Hunger is something a lot of Filipinos are so familiar with even before, but has been heightened by the pandemic and lockdown. While some would think about their lost work and lost income, there are people who worry where to get their next meal. I met some of the homeless, the daily wage earners, the stranded OFWs during the course of my shoot and there is uncertainty and misgiving in their words. Their stories are stories of survival.

Maria, 65 years old,  homeless and lives with her dog Marimar. She is used to getting her daily food from city government feeding stations, but with the pandemic, she’s not sure if a homeless like her is going to be prioritized by the government.

Flordeliza, 42 years old, who gathers trash and earns 90 pesos daily,  now only earns 20 pesos a day since the lockdown. She needs to feed her four children —  Bugoy 15, Michelle 7, Mavic 6,and 2 year old Xander. Her two other children Akoy 6 and Rolly 5 have been missing for  two months after wandering in Cubao. 

Manila vendor Merle Abad, 70 years old sells industrial gloves along the sidewalk of Rizal Avenue.  Despite the enhanced community quarantine,  she is still forced to go to the streets and sell her products in order to survive. She has sold one pair of gloves so far when I took her picture and it’s almost 5 pm.

Tony de Vera, 54 years old. His home is his side-car. His survival depends on gathering trash and selling them to recycling shops. He has been roaming around the old Manila district the whole day.

Stranded in boarding houses in Manila, the OFWs who had to leave their work abroad, have no source of income and cannot go back to their provinces because of the ECQ. Majority of them just wants to go home but a few would like to take their chance in staying, hoping they can fly back to the country where they’re supposed to work once the airport reopens.

Roger Usman, a Badjao, together with his wife Maria and two friends were caught by the lockdown in Cavite where they sell pieces of jewelry on the streets. After two months of staying in their friend’s house and with no source of income, they courageously decided to walk back to their families in Angeles, Pampanga.

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The camera is a powerful tool and can create a cathartic experience. To see the world from that rectangular box is its strength and weakness. In taking these photos, it automatically puts me through a wide range of emotions – nervousness, sadness, disgust, anger.  I think this is a given when you take pictures of the human condition, especially in a situation which you yourself is a stranger to, and there’s little that you can do at that point. That is why there was this overriding feeling of wanting to document these events for the present and future generation to see.  These pictures will definitely not change the world.  They are not even showing you the whole story as emotions are lost amidst the covered faces, but I hope these images would awaken the empathy and compassion in all of us.

CULION : The Politics of Color

CULION AND FALCON

July 15
Day 1
Heavy rains welcoming us at Culion pier.
Low pressure area in the Visayas
and has potential to become a tropical storm.

July 16
Day 2
Bad weather. Tropical storm Falcon will hit
landfall in the Babuyan Islands within 24 hrs.
Even as rain continue we checked the cave
location which is 1 hr away from the town and
a 20 minute hike and need to cross knee deep
water stream. We were all dripping wet by the
time we got back at the hotel. News of Skyjet flights
being rerouted back to Manila because of zero
visibility in Busuanga airport reached us in the
afternoon. With most of the supporting cast
and my lighting crew in that flight we need to
reshuffle scheduled sequences for Day 1.

July 17
Day 3
First shooting day still bad weather. I don’t have a
crew except my gaffer, key grip and my camera
department. After shooting our first shot heavy rains
forced us to abandon all our day exteriors scenes
and moved to interior scenes.

My journal entries on the first three days in Culion more or less defined what we had to endure during the next two weeks of our shoot. The weather fucked up the game plan and production needed to adjust on a daily basis based on weather condition. I give credit to the whole production team, never did I feel a sign of defeat, everybody was not backing down under any condition. With a storm coming and shooting a period film in an island in Palawan on a 15 day shoot with set constructions and prosthetics requirements, I just knew this is not my usual film shoot.

CULION MINUS THE POLITICS OF COLOR

I have never watched an Alvin Yapan film although I know his filmography is quite impressive. The first thing that I would usually do in this case is to watch the director’s films before we shoot and try to study his story-telling style. But when I learned that this is the first time that Alvin will be making a film he didn’t write, I decided not to. Confronted with all the givens – my first time to work with Alvin Yapan, my first time to shoot a Ricky Lee script, my first time to work with Shandii Bacolod’s Team MSB with Peter and Gilie Sing of IOPtions and my first time to shoot in the island of Culion for two weeks, I decided to make Culion an adventure both creatively and literally and let the universe take its natural course. I wanted to create something that’s raw and organic in the process with Alvin and the rest of the team.

Making a period movie is never easy. Besides the obvious huge task of the art department, there’s always a danger of falling to the usual cinematography cliche – let’s make it sepia slash desaturated approach. A conscious effort not to fall into this trap led me to some atmospheric inspirations and impressions when I first came to the island to do location check. Although my early idea was to make Culion with saturated colors reminiscent of 1940’s colorized photos and postcards, colorist Marilen Magsaysay did some tests and looked for some middle ground. It slowly evolved into more toned down colors for prosthetics to blend with the actors’ skin tone and the CGI with the live action.

Culion’s story evolves around three women isolated from the world because of Hansen’s disease just before World War II. Except for some urban development in the town center, I imagined the place looking pretty much the same in the late 1930’s – the landscape, the sea, the trees, the mangroves, the church overlooking the sea, the old school facing the pier, the white bench in the plaza. It is a place possibly frozen in time and devoid of the politics of color. But there is color in 1939 Culion – I see it as drab and gray, boring and dreary to the point of being colorless. During nighttime, there are patches of warm color coming from gas lamps. Production designer Erwin Sanchez’s sets and wardrobe also followed the same color path and complimented our overall visual treatment. Early in pre-production, Alvin and I discussed on how we intend to shoot Culion and its characters. We felt the need to humanize the characters, shoot them like any other human being without over emphasizing their condition. Cinematography is a very subjective art. It can either inform, disinform and sensationalize, however you choose it to be. How you position your camera, how you use the lens, how you light, reveals one’s biases and politics.

CULION IN COOKE PANCHRO

Camera : Panasonic Varicam LT

-This was my preferred camera because of the LT’s feature of having dual ISO rating of 800 and 5000. With mostly gas lamps as our light source in the film the ISO 5000 setting was very useful during night scenes with low light condition. I used small LED finger lights to fill in the shadows on faces whenever there is a need which comes with a flicker control to simulate the flicker of a lamp.

Lenses : Cooke Panchro/i Classic

-With the continuous rise of super clinical digital cinema lenses there has been a steady demand for a more ‘film’ or vintage look. I intentionally used old lenses or degraded the images of my last four films and Culion is not an exemption. Cooke deliberately altered the quality of the Panchro lenses giving a distinct bokeh and created a fall off focus on the edge creating an old feel. It basically makes the image imperfect which enhanced the film’s visual narrative.

 

 

Dream Sequence :  Inspired by 16mm old footage, the dream sequences of Doris (Jasmine Curtis-Smith) were shot also with Varicam LT camera and the Panchro lenses created a nice flare coming from a 1.2 HMI light. The 1.33 aspect ratio and the film grain was done in post.

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Generally, I approached Culion’s cinematography with restraint. Ricky Lee’s story is about humanity and the human condition and there’s so much happening dramatically I think its photography should not create attention to itself. Cinematography should not supersede or obscure an otherwise good story, cinematography is never about pretty pictures.

 

Behind the scenes :

 

A Visual Renga : WRITE ABOUT LOVE

There are quite a few reasons why I wanted to shoot Crisanto Aquino’s Write About Love. First, it essentially takes me out of my comfort zone having shot a lot of drama and horrors. The romcom genre is not necessarily my territory. There is excitement when panic and confidence mix. You learn something new when you are confronted by something unfamiliar. Second, it is Crisanto’s first feature film. I have known Crisanto way back in 2009 when he was our script continuity in Chito Rono’s musical Emir. He later moved on to become assistant director to a lot of Chito Rono films and eventually to other directors – Chris Martinez, Joel Ruiz, Mae Cruz-Alviar and Jerrold Tarog among others. That’s a very solid foundation for a director. Third, it’s my first time to work with TBA Studios which has produced some groundbreaking Filipino films. From the very start, Crisanto knew exactly what he wanted to see on the screen from the film’s design to colors and photography. I have my own idea on what I thought the film should look like and I tried to marry that with the director’s idea. It is at this point of pre-production where as a cinematographer you will know if you are on the same creative plane with the director and if you can help him create his vision. It is also at this point that you can decide whether you’re going to do the movie or not. It is pointless to start a movie then resign in the middle of the shoot due to “creative differences”.

Write About Love’s multi-world and multi-track story – the “writers” world, the “movie” world and the “reality” world created a complex approach visually. Although Crisanto was very definite about the overall feel of the film we had long discussions how to pin down the visual look of each part. How do we create contrast for the three worlds? How do we guide the audience visually in the film’s crisscrossing narrative? We struggled I think not only because we wanted to try something different but also because the technology today offers us a vast playground giving us multiple options to play around. Compared to shooting on film negative cameras, today’s digital landscape in cinematography is a lot different. Today you can alter aspect ratios randomly, you have a wider range of digital cameras and lenses each giving you a different texture and the possibilities of color grading in post production is endless. As a director, Crisanto Aquino used that present technology as part of his narrative tools.

For the “writers” part Jerrold Tarog’s Sana Dati (2013) was a major reference point. The film has an “indie” look and we all know indie means less budget so whenever I’m shooting the writers world I lessened my lights, used more practical lights of the set and tried to avoid making it look glossy. I “imagined” I’m shooting an indie film whenever I’m shooting Miles Ocampo and Rocco Nacino’s scenes. To complete the indie look we used the Canon C-300 camera recorded at HD resolution, partnered it with the old Zeiss super speed lenses and shot the scenes on 4:5 aspect ratio. Sana Dati’s DP Mackie Galvez, LPS was on board as first camera operator so I sometimes asked him if I’m doing it right. I was close to asking him to light some scenes but he did sub for me for two days so Mackie was a blessing.

                               Clockwise from left : 4:3 aspect ratio, 1.85 and 2.39

 

 

The decision to make the “movie” part look like a Star Cinema romcom movie was a much easier process but was more challenging for me as a cinematographer. My last Star Cinema romcom was 2004 which I didn’t even finish for some non-creative reason. For this I watched Star Cinema movies photographed by Dan Villegas, LPS and Noel Teehankee, LPS which I think did great works. I honestly struggled trying to duplicate their works. For the movie world, we used the Alexa-Mini with Leica Summicron lenses recorded in 4K to highlight the difference with the Canon C300 in terms of quality, resolution and color rendition. We decided to shoot this part in an aspect ratio where most of the earlier romcoms films were shot – in 1.85 aspect ratio.

In Crisanto Aquino’s vision, the convergence of these two worlds must be emphasized technically on screen with one continuous shot which required some amount of preparation. The shot happened in a park with the four major characters and extras choreographed together for a precise camera movement. As the camera moved, the aspect ratios changed from 4:5 to 1.85 to the final 2.39. With this technical requirement, we did tests before the actual shoot. First thing to consider was with the changing aspect ratios – will there be some projection issues in the theaters? Second was the camera we used. Since we’re using two different sets of cameras and lenses, at what point do we “converge” the cameras. Although this is pretty much a creative decision it has some budget concerns because there are shooting days when we have four cameras on the set because we’re shooting scenes of the two worlds? The projection issue was solved by making the 1.85 as the master aspect ratio with the 4:5 and 2.39 fitting in to that frame space. The changes in aspect ratios during the shot was done in post. We decided to use the Alexa camera for the final world with the 2.39 aspect ratio. With three different color treatments, colorist Marilen Magsaysay did a great job in blending the colors and texture at specific points of the shot creating a seamless transition from the writers world to movie world to the final reality world.

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On the surface, creating the visuals of Write About Love was simple until you got into the detail. There was a need to have a close coordination with the director, PD, DP and post-production to actually make it work. Although most of what the audience saw on screen were pre-visualzed and pre-arranged and were done in clockwork precision, during shoot there’s always some creative space to improvise and experiment. Crisanto created this kind of environment on and off the set. It is always a joy to work with creative people with a high level of teamwork from director Crisanto to production designer Monica Sebial to colorist Marilen Magsaysay. There’s always a play of ideas creating a visual renga for Write About Love.

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Filmmaking, Revolution and Rock n’ Roll

14th February 2017.

The wind was going wild as the moon was rising over the Magasang rock formation in the South of East. I could see the movement of the waves lighted by the moonlight coming from the open sea, rampaging below the rocks as high tide started to descend. From a distance the gigantic waves moved in slow motion and then created a loud “clap” sound as they hit the rocks. It was a beautiful and scary sight. I took a photo of it. My gaffer called me to tell that the next shot was ready. It was 9:45 pm on my watch and I was on the set of Signal Rock in Biri Island, Northern Samar. We had been stranded on this rock formation since five in the afternoon because of the rising water. The rain effects guy had been cursing the weather and dinner from the catering couldn’t cross from the mainland, so the actors, staff and crew of around 25 had been surviving with bread and biscuits. I was working with just two battery-operated lights, one for the background and the other for the foreground but still the actor’s face was too dark once he moved closer to the camera. It started to rain and wished that all I needed was one more light.

                    The moon rising at the Magasang rock formation.

Summer 1991.

I was lighting an experimental video, a dance routine scene inside a room at the Mowelfund grounds. Using an old 800 watt Lowell lamp, I was not really sure if I was getting it right. The first thing I learned at the Mowelfund Film Institute (MFI) workshop was how to light a subject with one or two lights and to make it interesting because basically that’s all you had in your lighting package. With around 25 workshop participants and all determined to make their dream short films, you sort of struggled with the limited resources provided by the workshop. It was indie filmmaking 13 years before Cinemalaya. I had heard of the MFI workshops and its Super 8 short film festivals three years earlier and every year I would plan to join the workshop but work would always get in the way. An injury while in the Cordilleras forced me to rest for a few months. Ironically that injury gave me window to join the workshop. The workshop itself was pretty basic and general – directing, creating the mise-en-scene, writing, editing, creating mood thru cinematography. But what was different about the MFI workshop was its anti-establishment and anti-mainstream stand. It offered an alternative to do films other than the big studio capitalists. It encouraged participants to do personal films and it showed us forms of cinema other than the usual long narrative form. This rebellious act against traditional cinema’s mode of production and the idea of being part of a revolution in Philippine cinema set the tone for the workshop conducted by indie filmmakers headed by MFI director Nick Deocampo with Raymond Red, Yam Laranas, Ricky Orellana, Louie Quirino among others. Although I grew up watching movies, my adult film education was confined to the films of Mike de Leon, Lino Brocka, Celso Ad Castillo, Martin Scorsese, Francis Coppola, Roman Polanski. At the MFI I saw Maya Deren’s ‘Meshes of the Afternoon’, Luis Bunuel’s surrealist short film ‘Un Chien Andalou’, Sergei Eisenstein’s ‘Battleship Potemkin’, Stan Brakhage’s ‘Mothlight’ , Nick Deocampo’s ‘Oliver’, Raymond Red’s ‘Ang Magpakailanman’, Roxlee’s ‘Juan Gapang’, Cesar Hernando’s ‘Botika Bituka”. These films blew my mind and offered endless possibilities. Suddenly making films was not bound by typecasting and became liberating. Armed with this dogma and later mentored by German filmmakers Christoph Janetzko and Monika Funke Stern, I went out and shot my first 16mm short film with the customary MFI gung-ho style, shooting with pure instinct attitude. I remember holding an Arriflex S 16mm camera on the first shooting day and not knowing exactly what to do but you didn’t have much choice so you stood up to the occasion. It’s what Lav Diaz, an MFI alumni would call, rock n’ roll filmmaking.

                     “Meshes of the Afternoon” and “Un Chien Andalou”

The yearly summer workshop class was not your typical college film class where half of the students wouldn’t know why they were even taking a film course. The participants came from different background all driven by passion to make films. It’s an eccentric community and a highly competitive one to which I think is inherent to filmmakers. But these created such a dynamic and lively community – writers, painters, dancers, musicians, architects and even non-artists — co-existing in one plane of creativity. The MFI created that space and provided that environment. Collaborations with fellow filmmakers went beyond the walls of Mowelfund.

But my fondest memory of MFI was on my second day of the workshop in Nick Deocampo’s class about alternative cinema. By the end of Nick’s lecture, I was so fired up I wanted to hold a camera and shoot films. Well I did shoot an experimental film a few months after and have not stopped ever since.

              Shooting my first 16mm film (1992) and shooting “Signal Rock” (2017)

The rain has ceased at the Magasang rock formation. My watch says it’s exactly 10:00 pm. I took my gaffer’s headlamp and bounced it on a white board creating a slight illumination on Christian Bables’ face. The light made a difference in saving the scene and in an ethereal way reminded me of the old Lowell light I used back in 1991 at the Mowelfund Film Institute. I think that same light guided me for the past 28 years as a cinematographer.

 

*This article was written for Mowelfund’s Movement magazine in commemoration of Mowelfund Film Institute’s 40th anniversary this November 2019.

Alternate Cinemalaya Portraits 2019

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Filmmakers :

Arden Rod Condez, Thop Nazareno, Kim Zuniga & Sandro del Rosario, Joji Alonzo, Eduardo Roy J r., Theodore Boborol, Maricel Cariaga, Sheryl Rose Andes, Leilani  Chavez & Danica Sta.Lucia, Xian Lim, Francis Guillermo, Don Senoc, Gilb Baldoza, Norvin De Los Santos, Julius Renomeron Jr., Josef Gacutan, Glen Averia, Harold Pialda, Shai Advincula, Sheron Dayoc.

Oda Sa Wala : Finding Humanity in the Macabre

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There is never a dull moment when you’re shooting a Dwein Baltazar film, on set or behind the camera. We share the same attitude in making films – experiment, improvise, and learn something new along the way. Oda Sa Wala is my third collaboration with Dwein; the first one was Mamay Umeng (2012) which was Dwein’s first feature film and then Gusto Kita With All My Hypothalamus (2018), her second film. Coming from Hypothalamus, Dwein and I were still in the mode of making gritty, textured, non-glossy films by degrading the image – using old lenses, shooting at low light condition, trashing out basic rules in lighting and we felt Oda shouldn’t be different. There’s always a conscious effort not to repeat ourselves.

When I first read Oda’s script, I was laughing and thought that it was something very original. It was a visual script with a lot of character details which I could use to graph and track my lighting approach. Dwein initially showed me David Lowery’s 2017 film, A Ghost Story, suggesting that we shoot Oda with a square frame to simulate a coffin’s glass window. I didn’t say yes immediately because I needed to have a more organic reason why I should be shooting with a different aspect ratio. I am always wary of randomly using some cinematic elements that could come out feeling like a novelty with no relation to the film’s story. Too much visual treatment can sometimes come off as creative masturbation. We also wanted to shoot Oda in black and white but we struggled to come up with a good reason because although images are more graphic and stark in a classic monochrome, I think you also lose an emotional component and instrument in your storytelling – COLOR. If we were to shoot in black and white, I suggested that we study how the colors of the set and costumes translated into gray tones and created those broad range of tones in between the shadows and highlights. Shooting Oda in black and white shouldn’t look like an Instagram filter.

From these initial ideas and reservations, Oda’s visual journey was quite interesting. How it started out from an artist’s pure vision, how this vision changed because of commercial consideration and how these changes and limitations forced you to find ways to work around the system and come up with something that actually worked better for the film.

While doing location check in San Miguel, Bulacan, I saw in one of the houses, (which later became our main location) statues of saints stocked up in a room. I saw an antique cabinet with a glass window like an upright coffin and there was a Virgin Mary statue inside staring at me. It was such an eerie image that it finally convinced me to shoot in a 4:3 aspect ratio. Short of saying, there were angels singing in the background. Looking like a 16mm open gate film with round edges in the corner, the squarish frame image when projected in a standard cinema screen creates a “window” effect because of the black edges during projection.

 

After abandoning the idea of shooting in black and white, we decided to make Oda colored monochromatic but in a more tedious process – by doing it on set. The set was an old “bahay na bato” Spanish-era house with capiz windows, dilapidated picture frames and wooden floors. Production designer Mao Fadul’s color palette became the jump-off point of Oda’s cinematography. The color of Oda bordered between old wood and a decomposing corpse while lighting and composition was bare, soft and simple, complementing the rhythm of Oda’s narrative.

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Mao Fadul’s color palette (top) and color test on actual location (bottom)

Composing on a 4:3 aspect ratio requires reorientation on how you shoot and block actors. Its harder to do over the shoulder shots and you need to pull back a lot from your main subject to get a well composed shot. Except for two to three shots because I needed a closer shot and a zoom lens, Oda was shot 99% with 1 lens – a wide angle 25mm Carl Zeiss super speed lens. I decided to shoot with one lens for 2 reasons:

1. With a squarish 4:3 aspect ratio I was going to lose 1/3 of the information on the edges, I felt using a wide lens would compensate for that. Dwein usually does long takes on a wide shot with minimal close-ups or none at all so I need to get all the action in one shot.

2. I wanted a consistent depth of field and one angle of view throughout the film, creating a single point of view.

 

 

 

 

Aspect ratio comparison:  16×9 left vs 4:3 right. 

When I finally sat down with colorist Dia Magsaysay, my only instructions were Oda’s quality of light and color should feel like it’s always sundown and the audience should smell the corpses.

Making films needs a large amount of pre-production and a high level of precision when you’re finally on the set but shooting Oda Sa Wala involved a lot of improvisation. It felt like we were shooting an experimental film, we would try something new and if that didn’t work, we abandoned that and moved on. I deviated a lot from my lighting plan and adjusted due to technical limitations, time constraint and Dwein’s shooting style. There were a lot of uncertainties whether what I did in Oda would work or not, but I just followed that inner voice, tried to find humanity in the macabre and hoped we create a distinct world for Oda Sa Wala.

 

Oda’s mood/color and reference for color grading.

 

 

Behind the scenes

Shooting from the Heart : Creating the World of ULAN

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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.

Instax photos

DSC05229Ulan’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.

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IMG_6669 (1)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 :

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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 :

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Ulan is showing at the Cinema Centenario this April.

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Muses from the Masters : Realism and Alone/Together

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As a young cinematographer I had learned early on that I need to hear words and ideas from my director, process and translate them to an image/s which I would use as my visual anchor while making the film. That image becomes my guiding light so I won’t get lost in the midst of chaos in making a movie.

“Let’s make Liza Soberano and Enrique Gil more real, not movie stars.”

This is Antoinette Jadaone’s words from our first meeting which also became the reason why I wanted to shoot the movie more. Making such beautiful actors look ordinary was a challenge. Realism became the operating word that will continue to resonate in my brain for two months and would eventually become the motivation in Alone/Together’s cinematography approach. While in the process of looking for inspiration I realized that Liza Soberano’s character were my former film students when I taught in UP film and Enrique Gil were the young doctors from the Medical Action Group (MAG) I met many years ago while shooting a documentary in Southern Tagalog. Making our two main actors real and breathing characters on screen became the primary objective. Characters that the audience can identify with – chasing their dreams, making mistakes and asking for second chances, just like all of us.

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Enrique Gil and Liza Soberano look test. Making them look ordinary was a challenge.

The story track of Alone/Together travels from past to present which is 15 years apart. We wanted a different feel from each timeline but not an “in your face” difference, more of subtle, soft and at some point making the past merge into the present in a very subliminal way without the audience realizing it. To get inspiration in terms of the film’s color palette from Filipino master visual artists was an easy decision. The difficult part was choosing the artist and his work. Juan Luna’s Spoliarium is an obvious choice since it played a cameo role in the film. With its subdued color tones and rich blacks Spoliarium sets the mood for the present time of the film. In contrast to the mood of the UP days of the story it reminds me of Robert Doisneau’s “Le Baiser de le Hotel de Ville”. Doisneau’s photographs captured Parisian street life in the 1950’s in a very intimate way with full optimism and a fascination with the French notion of joie de vivre – or the joy of life. This led me to the countryside paintings of the “Grand Old Man of Philippine Art” Fernando Amorsolo. With its warm tone and his mastery in the use of light, Amorsolo’s paintings creates a certain glow and are always “overflowing with sweetness and optimism”.

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Juan Luna’s “Spoliarium”. 1884

NYR_11783_0074Robert Doisneau’s “Le Baiser de la Hotel de Ville” (The Kiss by the Hotel de Ville), 1950

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Fernando Amorsolo’s “Under The Mango Tree”, 1949

With these two inspirations from two masters the hard part is not to be literal about it when you translate this into a film work. Every morning before going to the set, I would look at these two paintings as guide. But, I would look at them more of as abstract paintings rather than realistic ones. These paintings are powerful enough to draw your attention to their detail and message and that could make you lose the whole intention for the film. I looked at them for their color palette, contrast, highlights, texture and darkness. With Tonet always reminding us the film’s “look” we were constantly guarding the wrong colors on the set.

Contrast:

 

 

Initial color studies :

 

 

 

For the New York scenes I decided to let New York be New York in winter – cold, dreary, monochromatic which is a complete contrast to what’s happening to the characters on screen. A lot  of emotions were in the New York scenes and I think any color manipulation will be distracting.

DSC08801 (1)Central Park, New York – Dusk, winter

The decision to shoot with a 1.85 aspect ratio was dictated by some of our subjects and locations. Spoliarium’s dimension is closer to 1.85 aspect ratio. Architectural shots like the National Museum, Vargas Museum, Palma in UP, PICC and the MET Museum in New York. Shooting with a 2.39 aspect ratio with its cropped top and bottom framing would have a degree of difficulty even with an 18mm lens.

With a nightmarish schedule – 18 shooting days cramped in just two months during Christmas time in the Philippines and during winter in New York, it’s amazing how we actually beat the deadline. A large part of it is the film’s young dynamic team who all rose up to the challenge and had fun along the way.

Final look : Screengrab from the film

 

 

Behind the scene at the National Musem.

 

 

January 25, 2019 New York

 

December 9, 2018

 

December 3, 2018 UP Sunken Garden

 

January 30, 2019 National Museum (deleted scene)

Childhood Memories Inspire – KUNG PAANO HINIHINTAY ANG DAPITHAPON

As part of the Cinemalaya Film Festival 2018, nine cinematographers gathered
to discuss their work on the nine competing films. The forum was created as another approach to educating the audience in the role of the cinematographer in creating what the audience see and feel on screen and to also better understand the film medium.

I was there to discuss Carlo Catu’s Kung Paano Hinihintay Ang Dapithapon.

Kung Paano Hinihintay ang Dapithapon (Waiting for Sunset) will be screening at the 39th Fantasporto in Portugal for the Porto International Film Festival as part of the Director’s Week and Orient Express Official Section.

 

I. Beginnings and Inspirations

I was a photographer before I became a cinematographer and I continue to be one.
Photographs will always have a role in how I make films. Cinematography is interpretive and there’s a huge amount of personal experiences that goes into the final work. If I’m confronted with a morgue scene I will look back at my memory of seeing my 20-year old brother inside a morgue when he died of a car accident when I was 7 years old.
Memories become inspirations and a trigger to create engaging images.

I take lots of photographs.


I take photos randomly and anything that interests me, making it like an extension of my brain and eyes.

I use different cameras : dslr, rangefinder, instax and of course cellphone.


I sometimes get commissioned to shoot for a magazine.

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I shoot old people.

 

II. Creating Dapithapon

Carlo and I were coming from our last film Aria which was a period Kapampangan piece set during World War II, so we were pretty excited to do JC Pacala’s script which was simple, small and quiet. Dapithapon was one of those films I didn’t do an extensive technical preparation due to our busy schedule but when I had my first meeting with Carlo he was very clear in his idea – that the film should feel like we are just observing the characters’ lives, three old people in their twilight years trying to resolve broken relationships with so much emotion happening behind the film’s calmness. The idea on the images evolved into creating an audience point of view that initially looked like a painting or a photograph until something or someone moved in the frame, like a curtain being softly blown by the wind or an actor moving to peek through the window. Long takes and no camera movements except for the first and last shot which served as a punctuation mark of the film.

From that initial meeting a cinematographer would process those ideas, recreate personal experiences based on the story and put things into the right direction.

For me, still images became an inspiration. I went back to my old photographs of old people which were a lot because I have always been engaged by their narrative just by looking at them. I was also raised by my lola and old titas and I watched them grow old and die. My first image of a nude woman was my lola taking a bath in the backyard.
Old people were always present in my childhood years.

I was also reading about American photographer Edward Steichen when Dapithapon script came to me and Steichen has a moonlight series which also became a visual peg in terms of color and texture. Steichen’s photographs were taken in the 1920s and were taken in slow shutter creating a grainy dreamlike effect. Color photography had not been invented then so the photos were hand tinted creating a distinct faded color pigment.

Edward Steichen’s Moonlight series

French cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd’s work in The Beguiled (2017) is also an inspiration in terms of creating mood and painting-like images. I remember the images lingering in my mind months after watching the film.

The operative words for Dapithapon were MINIMAL and REAL.

 

III. Color and Contrast Studies for Dapithapon

Contrast studies. Turning images to monochrome highlights the play of light and shadow.

dapithapon (2 of 2)Study#1 A low contrast black and white

dapithapon (1 of 2)Study#2 High contrast crashing the blacks.

Color and tone. Working with Production Designer Marielle Hizon’s minimalist set we looked for the right warm tone without making the film look like a flashback but just the right nostalgic feel.

dapithapon (3 of 5)Study#1 Night for day scene. A 4K HMI on white silk punching thru the room creating a natural brown tone because of the color of the set.

 

dapithapon (5 of 5)Study#2 A lamp creates a natural warm tone on the left arm of Perla Bautista. The red orange tone was enhanced in post.

Studies for grain/noise level.

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dapithapon (2 of 5)Study#2

dapithapon (4 of 5)Study#3

Study#1 became the reference point for Dapithapon. All images were taken from my dslr and were used as basis for final color grading with colorist Lara Bautista.

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Conversation #2 : Pinoy Movieland In the Eyes of Neil Daza

This article was originally published in the July 2017 issue of Rogue Magazine.

Chito Roño’s go-to cinematographer is staging his first exhibit of photographs from the movie set at the CCP. As he sheds light on the making of the images, Rogue reflects on the impact of his work.

BY PHILBERT DY

For over 25 years, Neil Daza has been shooting some of the most memorable sequences in Filipino cinema. And he’s been doing it at all levels of the industry. He is Chito Roño’s preferred cinematographer, working with him in 2000’s Laro sa Baga, and then joining him on Spirit Warriors. On mainstream TV, he had a key role on the smash hit Be Careful with My Heart, shooting the popular television series in high definition format. He’s also a mainstay in the independent movie scene, his veteran eye bringing a sense of polish to several low-budget features that made a splash in the early days of digital filmmaking.

An exhibit of his behind-the-scenes photos runs in the Cultural Center of the Philippines from the entire month of August to the second week of September, and the images tell a story of an artist who explores all corners of his craft, never getting comfortable with just doing one thing.

DEKADA ’70 (2002, CHITO ROÑO)

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Dekada ’70 (2002)

Dekada ’70 was the fifth straight film that Daza had worked on with director Chito Roño. It’s striking when you list them all down and see just how different they were from each other. Laro sa Baga was a sexy coming-of-age film. Spirit Warriors was a fantasy adventure. La Vida Rosa was a romantic crime film. Yamashita: The Tiger’s Treasure was a huge adventure production, best remembered for its heavy use of visual effects. At this point, Daza hadn’t really shot that many films yet, but he was already proving to be one of the most versatile cinematographers of the industry. In Dekada ’70, Daza muted the colors of this prestige drama, the interiors capturing the spirit of the times—political turmoil invading this typical Filipino home.

NEIL DAZA: Dekada ‘70‘s story connects on a very personal level. I grew up during martial law and it was my own experiences which became the motivation in lighting the film. It was also a minimalist approach. I didn’t want any fancy lighting or camera work that would distract the audience from the political drama happening on screen.

SEROKS (2006, ED LEJANO)

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Seroks (2006)

In 2006, digitial filmmaking was just on the rise. Both Cinemalaya and Cinema One Originals had just started, and no one was really sure if this whole independent film thing was going to work out. It’s really amazing to think how much cameras have improved in the last 10 years. The digital movies back then were generally grainy, low-contrast pieces of work, few able to transcend the limitations of the technology. But Daza took on the challenge of shooting film noir with the cameras of the time, and the results are nothing short of miraculous. The movie looks good, even by today’s standards, Daza’s neon-soaked compositions really bringing the film’s world to life.

ND: While doing research for Bayaning 3rd World in 1998 (I shot for 11 days with Mike de Leon for this movie), we watched a lot of 1940s and 50s black-and-white noir films. So when Ed Lejano told me he wanted a noir-ish look for Seroks, I just went back to that noir-feel research and made it more modern by using color and camera movement in the narrative.

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Bayaning Third World (1998)

LAST FULL SHOW AND GOD ONLY KNOWS (2005 and 2008, respectively; MARK V. REYES)

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God Only Knows (2008)

Daza worked on these short films with Mark V. Reyes, a Filipino filmmaker based in the US. Both these shorts explore the underbelly of Filipino life, so the visuals are a striking contrast to Daza’s mainstream work. By this time, he had already shot Feng Shui, and he had just come off a Diether Ocampo romcom, both films created with a certain level of gloss. But Daza seemed to have no problem finding the odd beauty in a rundown theater where illicit things happen, or a motel where a mother makes a very terrible choice.

ND: These two films were shot during the transition from film to digital. Last Full Show was shot on 35mm film and went to the bleached bypass process in the lab, giving the film the desaturated colors and really rich glossy blacks. God Only Knows’s visual treatment dictated that we shoot the film on digital format so we could just “linger” and “observe” Angel Aquino’s character.

SAMPAGUITA, NATIONAL FLOWER (2010, FRANCIS XAVIER PASION)

sampaguita (2 of 3)Sampaguita, National Flower (2010)

At the time, Sampaguita, National Flower was touted as one of the first Filipino films to be shot completely on a digital SLR. Daza, who at this point was a revered veteran of the industry, was still exploring his art, learning to use new tools.

Daza would take advantage of the light weight of the cameras and their ability to shoot in low light to capture scenes of street kids running around at night, with nothing but the street lamps to light the scenes. Daza would later work again with the late Francis Pasion on Bwaya, refining visual and narrative sensibilities in a more rural setting.

ND: I shot Sampaguita like a documentary. I actually felt the film was more of a documentary than a feature film.

BADIL (2013, CHITO ROÑO)

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Badil (2013)

Badil was shot on a low budget as part of a now-defunct Film Development Council of the Philippines project that gave grants to the “masters” of Filipino cinema. This was actually the second time Daza and Roño produced a film with money sourced from the government. The first was 2010’s Emir, a musical extravanganza party shot in the Middle East that had the express support of the Office of the President. Again, Daza seems comfortable working at either end of the budget spectrum, but it’s when he encounters limitations that his talent really shines. Between the two, Badil has more personality, its restrained, desaturated images of a small-town election creating indelible impressions on everyone who saw them.

ND: We didn’t have budget for lights so we made our own practical lights from ordinary bulbs. Which was fine since I wanted Badil to be dark. Just like living in a remote island where three to four brownouts happen in a day and power is out by 8 p.m. and the people are awake and are used to moving around in the dark.

http://rogue.ph/pinoy-movieland-eyes-neil-daza/

Cinematography Notes

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These notes were written out of boredom in between scene setups on the set. The first post in my Facebook page was three years ago. It started out as thoughts on cinematography and later on became random observations of people making movies and the system’s imperfection all from the point of view of a cinematographer.

 

# 1 : There is no secret in the art of cinematography.

# 2 : Everybody on the set looks at the cinematographer as the technical authority. So, study and know your stuff. Or at least act like you know what you’re doing.

# 3 : First thing to do on the set : Check the camera and the toilet if both are working.

# 4 : If the shot is out of focus, it is 99% the cinematographer’s fault and 1% goes either to the focus puller or the uncalibrated lens or the actors who didn’t hit their mark.

# 5 : It’s ‘picture vehicle’ not ‘feature vehicle’.

# 6 : Be a cinematography student forever.

# 7 : Learn the word ‘compromise’ early on because sometimes it is necessary. Then, know the difference between a compromise and a sell out.

# 8 : If you’re going to do a high-risk shot, please insist for an insurance. Whether the production will give you the insurance or not, is another matter.

# 9 : It’s ‘gaffer’ not ‘gapper’. It’s ‘tungsten’ not ‘tangten’. It’s ‘hot set’ not ‘hot sit’. Thank you very much.

#10 : Accept the reality that not everyone on the set understands that what you’re doing is a personal expression, according to the aesthetic principles of what is beautiful or what we commonly call as art.

#11 : Do not underestimate the importance of an apple box.

#12 : There is a limit as to how fast we can setup the lights. Pushing that limit means compromising certain safety issues concerning the crew, actors and everyone on the set.

#13 : You know you’re in an exciting job when you’re about to shoot a love scene and the AD says, “everybody out of the set except the cinematographer”.

#14 : Cinematographers are in a position to create changes in the system and make it a better working environment.

#15 : Press the record button before ‘Action!’ and don’t sleep during the take.

#16 : Digital cinematography should free us creatively without losing substance.

#17 : Good cinematography is not always connected to the brand of camera you are using.

#18 : My basic cinematographer’s survival kit : light meter, contrast viewer, compass (to determine sunrise/sunset position), 3 day AccuWeather forecast, laptop, dslr, extra clothes (at least for one night), sunblock, toothbrush, cap/hat, wipes, sunglasses, hand sanitizer, mosquito repellant, windbreaker, water canteen and the most important, 2 rolls of toilet paper.

#19 : Master the technical aspect so you can light not just with your eyes but also with your heart.

#20 : What we do between “Action!” and “Cut!” : Take a deep breath, compose the shot, frame the actors with the right headroom, make sure we don’t over shoot, check and re-check if the shot is in focus, watch out for the nasty boom mic, using the other eye, check if the actor hit his mark, listen to the actor’s dialogue as a cue for camera movement, cue the dolly operator, wait for the cut, and all the while thinking of the next shot. It’s a 30 second cinematic challenge with a lot of adrenaline rush.

#21 If movie-making is a battleground then every filmmaker should read Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.

#22 : Shooting a horror movie is always difficult. You’re trying to scare the audience and you need a lot of time to set that up in terms of camera movement and lighting design. Death scenes in horror films are the hardest but also the funniest to shoot.

#23 : Although the technical side of filmmaking is a cinematographer’s responsibility and primarily his concern, it still is a must for a director to know the basics of cinematography. This is, after all, a technical medium.

#24 : It is an industry that hardly follows work ethics, guidelines or any form of standardization and is driven by profit. You basically struggle on your own, try to create your own voice and do something artful along the way. Love the craft and the people who share the same passion in making good films. Create allies to change the system because change will not come from the top, it will come from below.

#25 : There is only one plane of focus (PoF) which is parallel to the camera sensor and lies within the depth of field. There is no ‘slightly’ focused shot. It’s either you’re focused or you didn’t hit the mark.

#26 : Growing up watching cartoons, old movies and reading Marvel comic books brought me to the conclusion that these three formats started my love affair with imagery. It’s always a wonderful feeling to go into the process of creating an image, and at the same time, be reminded of my childhood.

#27 : A focus puller, given the amount of responsibility he has over the image, is one of the most underrated and underpaid staff on the set. The best acting, direction or cinematography can’t save an out of focus shot.

#28 : I’m here to tell a story through my lighting. When I put my actors in the dark, that’s intentional. This is not a hair commercial.

#29 : It’s ‘follow spot’ not ‘palo spot’, ‘pre lighting’ not ‘free lighting’, ‘scaffolding’ not ‘scap holding’.

#30 : Next time a producer tells me to cut down on my light requirements, I’m going to quote Italian cinematographer Vittorio Storaro – “Cinematography is motion, we need a journey and to arrive at another point. We don’t create a beautiful frame, but a beautiful film. That’s why I say ‘writing with light.”

#31 : There’s no romcom lighting formula. The same way that there’s no horror lighting formula.

#32 : Color grading is the final step in the long and arduous creative process a cinematographer undertakes in making a film. It is at this point where the cinematographer, like a painter, puts his signature on the finished artwork.

#33 : The general audience generally has a vague idea what a cinematographer does.

#34 : There are days when those elementary and high school subjects you hated so much become useful while lighting a set and operating a camera because the work demands us to understand mathematics, physics, design and sociology.

#35 : In every fim, a cinematographer will encounter limitations. He just has to work around it. I always welcome limitations. I think that’s when you start to be really creative.

#36 : I will shoot a thesis film with heart over a big budget yet pretentious film.

15 Days of Sun, Rock and Uncertainty

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.

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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.

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daza (2 of 2)

 

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.

Oscars 2019: Here Are the 87 Movies Competing for Best Foreign Language Film