Joey Agbayani: Blazing The Trail For Pinoy Film Animation
This story originally appeared in The Sunday Times Magazine of The Manila Times
Lola is a beautiful young woman appearing in her first movie. She is not what appears to be, though. Lola possesses a deep dark secret: she is an aswang – the fearsome, shape-shifting, flesh-eating vampire of Philippine folklore.
Then came the Witching Hour. She transforms. All hell breaks loose – and the intrepid director captured it all on film.
Lola is the first of its kind: an independently-made critically acclaimed film: a finalist for the Cinemalaya 2010 — and winner of various international awards including Best Animated Short at the 2011 Atlanta Horror Film Festival in the United States and Best comedy Animated Short in the 2011 Giggleshorts International Comedy Short Festival in Toronto, Canada.
All the more amazing is that this modern cult classic is written, animated, edited, produced and directed by just one guy—animation and MTV pioneer Joey Agabayani.
“I did all the animation work for this short, so it's practically a zero budget film,” he tells Manila Times. Actress Doreen Bernal acted out the scenes of the director character, Manny Opsyons, and “this served as my guide for the movement of the character.”
Hollywood animators use a “Motion Capture device which can accurately capture the movement of a live actor,” he explains. “What we have here is what I call Emotion Capture device, a cheaper alternative.” Composer Jasper Perez and Raul Blay of Soundesign Manila worked on the original movie soundtrack.
The Philippines is home to some of the best animation artists on planet earth – they're in Steve Job's Pixar, Steven Spielberg's Dreamworks to name some -- but in a nation of talented artists, Agabayani stands out.
Joey Agabayani is the country’s pioneer music video director – the visionary behind the celebrated MTV show Music Bureau in the 1990s. An award-winning – and today’s most in-demand – TV commercial director, his 1989 drama Kidlat (Lightning) won the FAP and the Urian and became the Philippine entry to the Oscars.
He was still a teenager when his first movie, The Eye In The Sky, which he shot entirely with a Super 8 camera – his parents’ gift to him – won the grand prize at the 1984 short film competition of the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines.
Test of Time
Throughout his groundbreaking achievements is the guiding hand of the genius who brought happiness and beautiful memories to countless generations – Walt Disney.
“Disney’s works are timeless,” he says. That was the greatest lesson he learned from his spiritual mentor. “So in all my works, creative decisions, I’d always choose something that will stand the test of time.”
Awakening to the brutal realities of life fueled his art. “My siblings and I went to Edsa during the 1986 Revolution,” he recalls. “It was still dangerous at that stage,” and “we sort of risked our lives. After Marcos fled the country, we were all so happy.”
Then fate took a drastic swing. Their father, Gov. Aguedo Agbayani of Pangasinan, was replaced by an Officer-In-Charge appointed by the President. The Governor, though a member of Marcos’ KBL political party, “was very independent-minded” and was not even close to the strongman.
But the country was still high on People Power. “People really embraced and glorified everything that was anti-Marcos,” Joey says. “There were dangerous changes to the Constitution that people ignored.”
Suddenly, “We have been forgotten,’ he recalls. “What I learned from this experience is that politics is not at all like in the movies where there are heroes and villains. There are no good guys or bad guys, black or white. It is so easy to blame and condemn leaders but the truth is, it really is so difficult to care for millions and millions of Pinoys who are probably at the grade school level when it comes to ethics and principles.”
Born January 24, and seventh in a close-knit brood of nine, Agbayani has wonderful memories of childhood. “Marcos stopped or limited importing goods from foreign countries. That meant there are no longer imported toys! That was very frustrating for a kid. What happened was, we became very creative; we made our own toys, like guns made out of wood, airplanes made out of toothpicks. We became very adventurous; we stayed outdoors and with our bikes we explored the neighborhood. Sobrang daming (so many) adventures!”
That was the 1980s – the era of the Betamax. “We discovered the Dubbing function of the VCR. We taped a lot of local TV shows and commercials and we dubbed and changed all the dialogue to make them all hilarious!”
All the while, “I had no idea that after about ten years I’d be directing TV commercials too.”
When he reached his teens, he became fascinated by Steven Spielberg (E.T.), Ridley Scott (Blade Runner) and of course, George Lucas (the Star Wars trilogy). His favorite filmmakers today reflect his eclectic influences: Stanley Kubrick (2011: A Space Odyssey), David Lynch (The Elephant Man), David Fincher (Se7en), Tim Burton (Edward Scissorhands), The Coen Brothers Joel and Ethan (Raising Arizona), Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction) and Guillermo Del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth).
A voracious reader, he went from Mad Magazine and The Adventures of Tintin to Frank Herbert’s classic Dune, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy and vintage editions of Omni Science Fiction Magazine – and many other fantasy and sci-fi books and magazines that developed his imagination and sharpened his directorial vision.
Then into his life walked the creator of history’s most famous mouse. The young future filmmaker “became obsessed with animation and began reading books about Walt Disney, his life and his works, and how things were done at their studio.”
Walt Disney, among a host of other magical stuff, invented the use of the storyboard. “There is actually a huge cork board on a wall and this is where they pin drawings; and since it is a corkboard they can actually just re-arrange the drawings to fix a scene. Today we use the storyboards during the pre-production stage to help us visualize and plan the shooting of a film.”
“I pleaded and asked my parents for a Super 8 camera,” he recalls. Fortunately for all of us, his parents gave him one “So I made a few experiments with animation but I also got interested in live action filmmaking. I joined several film workshops such as the Cinema-as-Art workshop at the UP Film center. My very first short film is The Eye in the Sky. I was 19 then. This is a combination of claymation, cel animation and live-action.”
The budding director joined the Experimental Cinema Short Film Festival in 1984. “Before submitting the one and only copy,” he says,” “I saw a damaged portion of the film print; the sprocket holes in some parts were beginning to tear off.”
It was nerve-wracking. “All throughout the festival I prayed that the film will survive the screenings.” That was all he hoped for – then he won the grand prize.
It was the happiest moment of his life. “After this, I really wanted to pursue my dream of making an animated film. I began to work on The Ghostwriter.”
On a film set, the director reigns supreme, the captain of the ship as it were. What we see on screen is how he first envisioned it. But the final product, after the smoke has cleared, is essentially the result of teamwork.
Agbayani’s second film came in 1988. Prayle (Friar) is “a collaborative effort” with four other filmmakers from Mowelfund –Noel F. Lim (Ang Magkakahoy), Patrick Purugganan (True Blue American Coconut Grove), Roxlee (Juan Baybayin) and Raymond Trinidad, who appeared in Una Kang Naging Akin.
The following year, Agbayani did a short film based on “real events that has affected my family.” Kidlat is “an editorial cartoon,” as he describes it, “a satire about a corrupt politician who cheated in an election.”
“Around 1988, nung hindi pa uso ang vote buying or naguumpisa pa lang (when vote-buying didn’t exist yet or was just starting) and politics was not yet a ‘trade’, my father for the first time in his career, was defeated by only 300 votes. There are over a million voters in Pangasinan. It was obvious to the family that we were cheated.”
Kidlat was funded by the Goethe Institute through Mowelfund, a product of the Experimental workshop with German filmmaker Christoph Janetzko. “It’s a live action film combined with some animation and visual effects, complete with word and thought balloons.”
Joey’s family threw their full support. His brother, film director Rob Agbayani, did the editing. The original musical score was courtesy of his sister – the singer Viktoria.
Kidlat won a Gawad Urian Award and a Film Academy of the Philippines Award and became the official Philippine entry to the 1989 Student Awards of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, more popularly known as The Oscars.
“After Kidlat, Rob, Viktoria and I became active in making music videos. In 1991, we produced Sasabihin Ko Na music video. Viktoria's recording company was asking us what was this for? There was no use or venue for a music video here at that time.”
Serendipitiously, “A few months after finishing the video, MTV Asia was launched. We then produced and directed more music videos for Viktoria and others artists.”
Then Joey and Rob got “to work with almost all Pinoy bands and recording artists through our very first TV show - The Music Bureau. Hosted by Jao Mapa, G. Toengi and Joey Mead, The Music Bureau on ABC 5 was instrumental to the phenomenal success of the band explosion of the 1990s – which launched the Eraserheads, Rivermaya, Parokya Ni Edgar, Afterimage, True Faith, Introvoys, Yano, Tropical Depression and a lot more.
Everything Was Manual
Agbayani’s third film, The Ghostwriter – featuring the voice of brilliant comic Jon Santos – makes you want to immediately grab a (hopefully not) pirated copy: A ghost who’s a very talented writer (get it?) has finally finished his literary masterpiece. Then the vampire Count Roach steals the manuscript. A haunted house becomes the witness to the battle between a ghost and the vampire.
“I started working on this in 1986 using my Super8 camera” he recalls. “There weren’t any computers then, so manual lahat (everything was manual). I was crazy enough to attempt to do all the work myself: background paintings, line drawings, etcetera.”
The short film was 11 epic years in the making. “It took that long because I worked on it only during semestral breaks when I was still in school and as a professional whenever there are few projects. I completed several other shorts and music videos before finishing this short film.”
Agbayani went to the University of the Philippines and earned a degree in Architecture “Then I became an in-house director at Unitel Productions. Unitel was very supportive. I decided to reshoot the film in 35 mm.”
Resourcefully, he got the unused film negatives from other projects. “I asked for the help of several artists like inkers and painters. But I still insisted on doing all the background paintings and line drawings for the animation.”
The Ghostwriter has recently been screened at the Offshoot Film Festival last Oct. 28 at the University of Arkansas in the United States.
Ad of The Year
His first TV ad, Odyssey, won the 1991 Ad of the Year Award from the Advertising Creative Guild.
Another Joey Agbayani project was the More than the Usual ad of the Department of Tourism. “One of my favorite projects is the Kill Bill spoof TV ad with Pokwang and Tuesday, the Payless Pancit commercial.
His latest is the Rejoice TV ad with Mara Clara stars Kathryn Bernardo and Julia Montes.
New Golden Age
We seem to be watching a new golden age for original Filipino movies. The commercial runs of the independent films in the 2011 Cinemalaya, like Quark Henares’ Rakenrol and Marlon Rivera’s Ang Babae Sa Septic Tank – the country’s entry to the coming Oscar Awards – were all blockbusters.
There is the resurgence of mainstream movies too. Just recently, Ruel Bayani’s No Other Woman is now officially the highest grossing Filipino film of all time, raking in over P2 million even in the aftermath of typhoons Pedring and Quiel. Even before that was a parade of box office hits like Jerry Lopez Sineneng’s Way Back Home and Mark A. Reyes’ Tween Academy: Class of 2012.
If given an offer, would Joey Agbayani direct a mainstream movie? “Yes,” he says, but mainstream film studios “will probably offer a horror or genre film.”
Gay films are perennial favorites in international film festivals. They played a major role in the evolution of local independent filmmaking, according to radio show host Rafael Reyes in latest episode of Heard On Thursdays which featured Alemberg Ang, producer and co-writer of Alvin Yapan’s Cinemalaya 2011 film Ang Sayaw Ng Dalawang Kaliwang Paa which is finishing its successful commercial run.
Agbayani is open enough to direct a gay film but only “if the screenplay has something new or different,” he says. “The usual ones are focused on gay relationships and sex.”
The journey was full of adventures even if it wasn’t all smooth sailing. “In 2009, there were so few projects and the future seemed uncertain,” he recalls. “So I decided to continue studying 3D CGI.” (Computer Graphics Image) “I've done some graphics before but only with inanimate objects such as landscapes and structures. While studying character animation, cloth simulation and hair simulation in 3D CGI, I came up with a zombie-like character which I was planning to use for a live-action short.”
Then “After working on several tutorial challenges which I imposed on myself, I came up with the story idea of a very demanding director and a real aswang,” he says. “Lola is really a metaphor about the nightmares of a TV commercial shoot.”
There is a good side, though. “I just noticed that whenever I feel frustrated, depressed or hopeless, that’s when great ideas come,” he says. “The I get really excited so the frustration, hopelessness and depression fade away.”
Different and Original
Agbayani is optimistic about the future of film animation in the Philippines. “Most of the animated films we see abroad are partly done by Pinoy artists. We have a lot of very talented animators in our country. I have seen a lot of fine works from the Animahinasyon Film Festival . Most of these are shorts by professionals and students. I'm also impressed with the recent feature length animated films like the RPG Metanioa.”
A lot has to be done first. “There are still very few feature length animated films because the process is very tedious and it is very expensive.”
Joey Agbayani has so much to teach the new generation of Pinoy film animators: “Choose a subject or theme that really fascinates you. If you do so, you will really enjoy the process of making your movie.”
Equally important, “While you’re making your movie, don't be too conscious about film festivals and winning awards concentrate on your characters and the story you are telling. In making movies or any form of art, as much as possible try to come up with something new, different and original.”