Why the Time Is Ripe for Animation in Philippine Feature-Length Films

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As the year 1897 ushered in, there was an air of excitement as a Spaniard that went by the name of Señor Pertierra introduced the first motion pictures at Escolta. Despite this game-changing feat, however, it would take two more decades for a Filipino to release their own full-length work. The silent film Dalagang Bukid (1918) would make its way to cinemas and pave the way for the vibrant film industry that would come in the many years that followed.

In the international field in 1917, further developments in the film industry would lead to the Italian-Argentine immigrants’ first feature-length animated film.Titled El Apostol, the film is a political satire mimicking the regime of the Argentine president at the time. This celebrated progress in film came on the heels of the development of animated shorts that began as early as 1906. However, our nation’s real love affair with animation began only in the ‘40s.

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Unbeknown to many, it was in the pre–martial law era of Ferdinand Marcos Sr.’s reign that we would have our first feature-length animated film offering. Helmed by New York-educated animator Nonoy Marcelo, Tadhana was released in 1978 and had a 60-minute running time based on a series of volumes of unofficial Philippine history written by the late dictator. There was a significant gap between this first attempt at the new medium and the next fully animated feature-length film; Gerry Garcia would release Adarna: The Mythical Bird only in 1997. The gaps would persist afterward, with the next film being released more than a decade later in 2008 with Reggie Entienza’s Urduja. Since then, Filipino-made animation films have been sparse. It’s quite unfortunate that to date, Philippine cinema currently has less than a dozen animated films under its 100-year-old history.

The question remains: Could the tides shift in animation’s favor this time?

Early Beginnings

As early as pre–World War II, local animation on the screen had already shown promise. The first few works were of animation being used as a support for the creation of mainstream films through the use of special effects. Later on, it was introduced in the world of advertising through its use in commercials for consumer products. Cartoonists would then venture into converting their caricatures on paper into animated shorts, many of which were renderings of the country’s folklore, like in Jose Zabala Santos’ Juan Tamad in 1955. In the ’80s, local animators would look into producing cartoon storylines skewed toward the masses. In an effort to make the relatively new art form favorable for daily viewing experiences, storylines of comic book characters were used in a television series format.

The Marcos regime birthed a new era for animation, shifting the industry’s identity as a reflection and critique of the nation’s tension-filled state. Through short films, more Filipino animators took a stand toward the various prevailing political and social issues through their work. In parallel, a new wave of experimental types of animation were introduced. Quite notable are the Alcazaren brothers’ works during this era, with eight of their films using claymation to convey their visuals.

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However, even with these developments in place, the medium struggled to gain acceptance in the industry. Networks were hesitant to finance costly animation projects because of the lack of demand from domestic audiences. It has been reported that when networks did fund local animation projects, they claimed all the rights, leaving little to no profit or recognition for the animators behind the films.

For the most part, Philippine cinema has consistently been plagued by the notion of masa or a celebrity-oriented film culture, especially as more Filipinos clamored for their favorite actors and love teams to grace the silver screen. Perhaps this could be largely attributed to the fact that even before the advent of cinema, our forefathers were more attuned to theater as a form of entertainment, especially with the proliferation of zarzuelas and vaudevilles that employed actors imitating life, rather than inanimate objects coming to life.

An Animation Hub for the Global Stage

Because of the lack of support and a meager pay for local animation work, the industry gradually reinvented itself into becoming a creative hub for foreign studios through subcontracted labor. According to one report from a global outsourcing firm, the Philippines is top of mind when it comes to being a provider for global demand in animation-related services. This has been attributed in large part to the impressive resume of our animators, relatively cheap labor in the country, the animators’ proficiency with the English language, and their naturally adept Western-oriented culture.

It wasn’t long before Filipino animators started to produce content for international big-shot studios that were putting a lot of their investments into pushing animation forward, not to mention that these involved esteemed works in the industry too. Filipino animators comprised the talents behind Cartoon Network’s Tom and Jerry, Scooby Doo, and The Mask. They would also be part of the teams that helmed famed works from Japanese animation studio Toei Animation, with the likes of Dragon Ball Z and Slam Dunk, which would later develop a cult following when Filipino audiences were given a Tagalog-dubbed, or Tagalized, version of both shows. They also lent their craft for graphics in the gaming industry under companies like Nintendo and Sega.

But perhaps our biggest international break in landing animation-related stints is with Walt Disney-owned Pixar Animation Studios. In fact, Finding Nemo, the first film from the studio to win an Academy Award, was composed mostly of Filipino animators. They even gave a nice little nod to this in the film; notice that the “P. Sherman” plastered on the diver’s mask in one scene sounds a lot like “fisherman” in the stereotypical Filipino accent. Storyboard artist and writer Ronnie Del Carmen was part of the Pinoy crew who worked on the 2003 international hit before becoming part of other laudable films from the studio, including award-winning films like Up and Inside Out.

In a Rebelde PH masterclass, Del Carmen spoke of what it meant to be part of these landmark opportunities: “The reason that I started becoming relevant to other people’s push to make movies is because I started telling them my story and because of that, they couldn’t hear other homogenized stories. They started hearing mine and they felt like that means something.”

Of coming from a country largely unknown to the rest of the world, he added, “Of course, I will doubt these things because I feel like, what good is my story coming from the Philippines? What could a poor boy growing up in Cavite city, dealing with typhoons, risking tetanos in the floods, starving, and wondering what am I gonna become if I’m hungry, why would that person have any relevance in a global stage? And yet here I am. I’m a result of all those struggles doubting myself, and becoming this person anyway.”

Reviving Local Original Animation Film’s Lost Luster

In recent years, there has been a discreet but growing movement pushing for the return of local animated film’s vigor. Full feature animated films started entering the prestigious Metro Manila Film Festival, which served as a platform for Filipino animators to showcase their work again to local audiences. Akin to earlier years, our country’s folklore took the spotlight in Dayo: Sa Mundo ng Elementalia in 2008, reinventing mythical creatures like the manananggal into an approachable character in a young boy’s adventure. Meanwhile, the film RPG Metanoia (2010), which served as a closer look into the youth’s love for online gaming, exceeded expectations with critics lauding its heartwarming plot and advanced CGI animation features.

The rise of independent filmmaking also brought to life the Cinema One Originals Film Festival, which celebrated these creatives. Fifteen years since its launch, it has showcased feature-length animated films like Carl Joseph Papa’s Manang Biring (2015) and Paglisan (2018). Likewise, the Animahenasyon Film Festival, which only started in 2007, took the movement a step further by bringing together Filipino animators from different regions of the country and recognizing talents from different walks of life.

Director and animator Avid Liongoren has been part of two of these local festival circuits. He has been making cartoons for a while now, and has dabbled in creatives for advertisement gigs. In an email interview with COMMONER, he shared, “I just love comics and cartoons. It was never really a decision to make animations for a living, and more like something that just came naturally.”

It was this passion for the discipline that also led him to build his own animation studio, Rocketsheep, from the ground up — specifically to work on the quirky MMFF live-action-slash-animation charmer Saving Sally. The film became his introduction to moviegoers unaware of his brand of storytelling, like his personal preference for forlorn monsters and happy dogs in cartoon form. It took him twelve years to make his first commercial movie, which valiantly pushed through despite recastings, several reshoots, and budget constraints that even led Liongoren to ask for the help of fans while holding up a placard saying “Kidney 4 Sale” in jest, before the film officially got to the big screen in 2016. “We had no idea what we were doing,” Direk Avid said of the decade-long affair. Though it struggled to make much waves in the domestic box office on opening day, it quickly gained momentum and closed as the fourth highest grossing film in the festival of the same year.

Lately, his second feature film Hayop Ka! — fully animated this time — made its debut on Netflix. The film being the first Filipino feature-length animation to drop on the giant streaming service, this is yet another great leap for the local animation scene. The idea for the film was born of a noontime radio drama the director and his fellow creative were listening to during a traffic jam, and just like that, it got the ball rolling.

It took three years for Rocketsheep Studios to complete the project, as helming a full feature animation film had its own set of challenges “When you do live action,” Liongoren shared, “you shoot a lot of footage and edit it down. In animation, there is no excess footage and everything that ends up on screen is carefully planned in stages. It’s a maddening process, kind of like crossing an ocean back in the olden days and having no idea if what you’re doing is correct until you finally see land in the horizon.”

Like in Sally, the up-and-coming director also used familiar settings as a backdrop to his animal dramedy. As early as the trailer’s release, audiences were already treated to snippets of Metro Manila life with allusions to large shopping malls (Mall of Aso), bumper-to-bumper traffic on EDSA, and the neighborhood carinderia, among many other Easter eggs. All these were part of the conscious effort of Direk Avid, representing the city in a quest to create a Pinoy animation style, much like Marvel’s New York skylines and anime’s Tokyo urbanscape.

When asked about his thoughts on why the medium of animation in the local film industry still hasn’t caught on, he attributed it to a couple of factors. “It takes so long to make an animated film and everything about our entertainment industry is about speed. Also, no one yet knows how to make money out of it, to make it a sustainable endeavor for the business folks to invest in.”

Despite this, he remains hopeful. “We are home to thousands of talented animators but, sadly, we are not known for ideating and producing our own work.There has been less than 10 animated feature films in the entire 100 year history of Philippine cinema, and we want to continue adding to that, while also hoping that little by little, someday Filipino animators can be known as not just service providers, but creators as well,” he captioned an Instagram post.

Who knows? It could very well be Liongoren’s Hayop Ka! that would reignite that spark and possibly set up the renaissance age of animation in Philippine feature-length films. After all, it’s been a long time coming.

This article was written by our contributor, Arrah Balucating.

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