Covid-19 changed the world and with it changed how we make movies. It created covid free bubble sets that put the artists and crew numbering to around 80 to 120 in isolation for 20 to 30 days.
An industry that requires a large group of people to do a creative endeavor and a larger group of individuals to appreciate it, film and TV was one of the hardest hit industries by the pandemic. The last two years and a half was a tremendous struggle for most of its workers to survive, with hundreds still jobless. Some have moved on to other jobs while the rest of the film workers have learned to adapt to the “normal” working conditions – self-isolation before shoots, regular Covid tests, wearing of masks for 12-16 hours, eating cold food in packed meals, being in lock-ins and away from families for long periods, and being always at risk of acquiring Covid.
Barely four months after the March 2020 lockdown, I was already shooting a TV series for a 21 day lock-in somewhere in Rizal. At that time rapid tests were still being used before entering the bubble, which of course we all know today, are inaccurate. The mood on the set was upbeat and hopeful because people were out of work for a long time. There were bills to pay and families to feed so everybody was aggressive to beat Covid. We relatively had a smooth shoot, following strict health protocols and strictly working for 12 hours. After going through the exit rapid tests on our 22nd day, we all went home. Two days after, we were all requested to do an RT-PCR test because some of the crew had developed symptoms. I came out negative from that test but I believe a large number of people came out positive with Covid-19.
That pretty much defines how my life is in production sets. My day usually starts with a 20 to 30 minute travel from our hotel to the location. That 30 minute trip becomes a contemplative moment to think through what has happened to the world and how this pandemic will end. It’s something mildly therapeutic and at the same time utterly profound. Upon arriving at the location, I check if the place has been disinfected before we even enter the set, I also check if people not involved in the shoot are cordoned off from the set and then I check if my crew is in the process of disinfecting the cameras. As people start to move after the director has given the first set-up, you mentally prepare yourself to work for the next 12-14 hours wearing a K-N95 mask and talking to people with a plastic goggle. Then I sit alone off-set as I listen to my muffled breathing and feel the 34-degree heat inside my mask.
Top: Wearing goggles instead of a face shield makes it possible for me to use the camera’s viewfinder, the battery operated Easy Flow pumps filtered air to my mask making breathing easier. Bottom left: Hotel isolation rooms, no one is allowed to go out so food are dropped on monoblock chairs. Bottom right: Endless covid tests before, during and after shoots
After a month, I’m back on the set while the pandemic rages. It is my first movie with a new set of health protocols – a one-week hotel quarantine, an RT-PCR test on the seventh day and once results come out, that’s the only time you can start shooting. Within that 30-day shoot, no one is allowed to go out of the hotel not even to exercise. Subsequently, I entered into another bubble of a TV series for another network with another set of health protocols. Interestingly, all succeeding shoots I had each laid out a unique set of rules. At that point, I have realized we really do not have a central body in the industry or a government unit that can lay down a more scientific and realistic approach to shooting during pandemic that we all can follow. You would think the pandemic will unify the film industry even to the level of health guidelines for production but it didn’t. Early on the pandemic the Inter-Guild Alliance (IGA) was formed and it created a comprehensive guideline for shooting which I think became the basis for a lot of production. Sadly, the IGA does not have powers to check if the rules are being complied with. There are production units that disturbingly disregard the guidelines to cut corners even at the expense of the safety of film workers even up to this day.
Before the pandemic, I have always said that real change in the industry cannot come from the top. It should and will need to come from below — from the film workers themselves. Back in 2000 when I started to raise concern about extended working hours, the general consensus among film and TV workers is that it is downright inhuman. Oddly enough, no one was questioning this unethical and unwritten rule. People simply accepted the system. Until Covid-19 came. Who would have anticipated that the catalyst for change would be a virus?
The major revamp in working hours did not only change the system but more significantly, it reminded us of the joy of being able to spend more time with our families. All of a sudden, going home at 4am, and waking up at 6am for a 7am calltime seemed to have happened in the distant past. When in fact, for many years we accepted the long and grueling working hours of this industry.
At this point of the pandemic when protocols start to ease up, the biggest challenge to be confronted by each one of us on every shooting day is the moral responsibility not to go back to an old unjust system and to see the current situation as an opportunity to create a ripple for lasting change. Over and beyond Covid-19, the best legacy we can leave to future Filipino film workers is a just and humane working condition.
Top left: Exit swab test after a 20 day lock-in. Top middle: Constant check of temperature while shooting. Top right: My pescatarian dinner. Bottom left: Master list of antigen result. Bottom right: Required wearing of face masks during shoot.
Or better yet, how do you shoot a prequel of an iconic movie during a pandemic?
Five months ago, I got a message from Star Cinema if I would be interested to shoot a movie for them in early October. Sixteen shooting days and 1 month lock-in, given that this is the new normal now in production shoots. I asked who the director is, which is usually my first question before accepting a film project. When they told me Mae Cruz-Alviar is directing, I immediately said yes. I have worked with Mae quite a few times during our MMK days – shooting episodes in Baguio, Thailand and Korea. But we never got to work in a movie. Having done AD work for directors like Rory Quintos, Olive Lamasan, Jerry Sineneng and Chito Roño, Mae as a director is persistent, uncompromising and likes sunrise shots even if it is 5 degrees outside. This was 14 years ago, but I would have said yes even if it’s to shoot a porn movie, as long as Mae is directing. Of course I doubt if a Mae Cruz-Alviar will ever make a porn movie. I will basically shoot a movie with her even if it’s going out of my comfort zone. It was a chance to reconnect with an esteemed colleague and I was also curious if she’s still fond of sunrise shots.
Although I have not seen Four Sisters and A Wedding prior to shooting the prequel, its presence in all media platforms in 2013 when it was released is undeniable enough to make a mark. Prequel/sequel movies automatically set some high audience expectations and with the current limitation in film production, I was curious how the team will pull off this film in 16 shooting days. Four Sisters Before The Wedding is also technically my first official Star Cinema wholesome/family-oriented film ever and a fresh respite from the type of movies I have been doing lately. To put into context my excitement in doing this film – my last 6 films deal with loneliness, agony, violence and depression : a dark look on Pinoy idolatry (Fan Girl), two movie writers trying to rewrite the script of an unfinished love story while the other writer’s wife is dying of cancer (Write About Love), a story of three women in a leper colony set in the 1940s (Culion), a girl’s pessimistic view of the rain reminding her of disenchanted love and other depressing moments in her life (Ulan), a romantic drama about failed dreams and second chances (Alone/Together) and a macabre story of an old maid who met a corpse that changes her life (Oda Sa Wala). So, making a movie about four young girls trying to save their parents’ marriage and their family is like a detoxification process for me. Although Four Sisters is totally on the other side of the story spectrum, it is still a humanistic story that deals about family and forgiveness. Recreating stories and emotions that affect people is the magic of cinema that transcends genre and it is one of the main reasons why cinematographers make movies.
“Direk 10 talents lang po allowed sa shoot”, that announcement from our associate producer during our early pre-production meetings dashed any notion that this is going to be a big movie just like the original. With all the limitations like only one location per shooting day, a cut down on the number of my crew, only 50 people on the set at any given time and working for only 12 hours set the tone on how we’re going to do this movie. On top of these limitations, some questions popped up in my head early on :
-since this is a prequel should I follow the visual style of the original?
-how do I make it look like it’s 2003?
-do I make the film glossy and real? or something in between gloss and realism?
-can we finish our daily scheduled sequences in 12 hours?
-can we actually finish the movie in 16 days?
-how do you light a Star Cinema family drama?
When Mae and I first talked about the film’s treatment, she wanted a “visual connection” to the original movie but we are still free to explore on our own. Of course I said yes but actually I didn’t exactly know how to go about it. Since the story happened in 2003, I was thinking of getting my cues from production designer Shari Montague. I first worked with Shari in Chito Roño’s Etiquette for Mistresses in 2015 where she created this beautiful glossy world of women hiding in society’s moral shadows. A period film is always a production designer’s ballgame in setting the color and mood, then cinematography will enhance what is in front of the camera. But then we realized, there were no major changes in terms of fashion and technology in 2003 except maybe cellphones. There’s no dominant trend that was apparent that could be seen on screen and dictate the film’s visual design. Mae also mentioned Korean drama as a visual reference, which I think has a lot to do on how Korean cinematographers lensed their stories. I revisited my limited K-drama education with the likes of The Winter The Wind Blows (2013) and most recently, The World Of The Married (2020) which both have great cinematography. Whenever I make films, I have this habit of getting inspirations from my current interests at that time, from Mongolian throat music to a 90s surf magazine’s graphic design. It is also a coincidence that I am into K-pop music lately, particularly Blackpink and BTS, which makes up my immersion to Korean pop culture before making Four Sisters complete.
Our location check for Four Sisters Before The Wedding is sort of a rehearsal for health protocols before making the movie. It requires us to lock-in for 5-7 days, an RT_PCR at the Red Cross on the first day then we went straight to our assigned rooms individually in the hotel, isolating us for two days until the results were released. Food were delivered in our rooms. We are not allowed to go out of our hotel unless for location check. The feeling of isolation brought back memories of the early lockdown when I was documenting the unfolding events last March at the start of the pandemic. We checked depressing empty hotels and cafes. The once busy compound and offices of ABS-CBN are now empty and I can only think of the thousands who lost their jobs because of the shutdown. A gloomy vibe surrounded our location check and a reminder that the pandemic is still here and that we are being fucked by this government. All our pre-production meetings were held virtually thru zoom and I never got to do camera and lens test before starting, a first in my 29-year career.
Empty cafes and hotels
Much of the cinematography process of Four Sisters was anchored in trying to create a new millennium look without deviating too much from the original. Knowing that the film will be high key and low contrast, I still tried to create a semblance of a one-source lighting in day and night interiors. To simulate a single source and maintain a high key lighting is tricky because bringing in too much fill light makes the scene unnecessarily bright making your overall image flat and uninteresting. There’s a thin line between success and failure in a high key lighting, you need to maximize other elements of cinematography to create interesting and engaging images, like choice of lenses, shallow depth of field, composition and design. You cannot hide set imperfections in high key lighting. Sustaining consistent contrast ratio is also more difficult in a high key lighting compared to a dark low key moody scene and with cameras changing positions for different angles, there’s really a need to be scientific about it by using a light meter because you can get lost along the way. Lighting consistently, not only in a particular scene, but for the whole film usually reveals a cinematographer’s skill in lighting continuity. Our main location which is the Salazar’s house has windows positioned in each area of the house. It has sliding capiz windows in the dining area, a frosted glass window in the living area overlooking the garage. All bedrooms have big windows and the art department placed jalousie glass to add an “old” feel into it. I always have heavily diffused 4Ks pumping in thru the windows to create contrast. Kinoflos were rigged in the ceiling for stand-by fill light, strategically positioned and angled, based on the actor’s blocking and rehearsals that happened two days before we started. Practical lamps were placed in the house but controlled to a minimum to what is acceptably real and logical. In post-production, I worked closely with colorist Timmy Torres since we were exploring a particular look. Early rushes from the first few days of shoot were immediately given to Timmy so she can start playing around with it. My early notes to Timmy were – Four Sisters is “K-drama meets Blackpink in 2003” and “colors are pop because the film is pop but it doesn’t have to be too pop” if those made sense.
Clockwise : Charlie Dizon, Gillian Vicencio, Alexa Ilacad, Belle Mariano
October 10, 2020
Day 1 Shoot.
Four day scenes.
Three night exterior.
Twelve working hours.
As much as I want to commend our assistant director Russel Santos for his optimism, there were a lot of variables on our first shooting day which were very hard to control. By pack-up time, six sequences were dropped and we had one open sequence. Day one was not very promising but as the shooting progressed, adjustments were made and people started to get the new shooting rhythm. As the Covid-19 cases surged in the month of October, we were actually finishing a movie notwithstanding all the limitations and health protocols. Actors, staff and crew bonded forming a solid team and with Direk Mae always creating a happy and stress-free set, Four Sisters Before The Wedding was the perfect movie to shoot at the time of a pandemic. There were just positive vibes all throughout the shoot, a complete contrast to what is happening in our country. That positivity shows in the film. And at a time when the movie industry is still struggling amidst the pandemic, it is a courageous move for Star Cinema to still make movies.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Processed with VSCO with preset
Processed with VSCO with preset
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.
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.
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.
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”.
Juan Luna’s “Spoliarium”. 1884
Robert Doisneau’s “Le Baiser de la Hotel de Ville” (The Kiss by the Hotel de Ville), 1950
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Study#1 A low contrast black and white
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.
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.
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.
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.