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Saving Filipino Film Classics: The Art of Movie Restoration

Matinee idol Piolo Pascual, who resided in a middle-class neighborhood in Mandaluyong, shares that he looked forward to coming home every afternoon from school so he could watch Sampaguita or LVN movies shown on TV. “I would make time to watch,” says the award-winning actor and film producer. “I was excited to turn on the TV and watch Pinoy movies. The old films exposed me to Philippine history. They sparked my interest in show business.”

Model-turned-actress Angel Aquino had the same childhood in Marikina, recounts, “I’ve always been a fan of Filipino movies. When I was a kid, I liked watching old movies on TV after school. I grew up being exposed to the classics.”

Aquino developed a deeper appeciation for Filipino movies when she took up mass communications at the University of the Philippines Baguio. “That’s when I started learning about the really good ones by the best directors of the time. That’s when I started watching Balweg, The Rebel Priest (by director Tikoy Aguiluz), and Ganito Kami Noon, Paano Kayo Ngayon? (by director Eddie Romero).”

Betamax baby

Whereas Aquino and Pascual watched Pinoy classics on TV, Paulo Avelino watched them on video cassette tapes. That was how he learned about Philippine cinema. “Through betamax and VHS,” he says with a chuckle. It is not surprising that the actor, who is fond of old movies, is starring in three upcoming period flicks—the film bio of Gregorio del Pilar tentatively titled Goyong, the film bio of Gregoria de Jesus entitled Lakambini, and the Tagalog musical based on Nick Joaquin’s Portrait of the Artist as Filipino entitled Ang Larawan.

As a new actor, Avelino was surprised to discover that some of his contemporaries were not as interested in the classics. He reveals, “I found out that my taste (in movies) was different from them.” 

He especially liked Ishmael Bernal’s 1981 film Himala, a story about how a young faith healer named Elsa played by Nora Aunor awakens a sleepy town. Avelino says, “I had heard about it because it was always shown during Holy Week. When I hadn’t seen it yet, I couldn’t understand why it was regular Holy Week fare. When I finally saw it, I was amazed. I was blown away by Nora Aunor. The movie is extraordinary; it caught my interest.”

Himala, was written by Ricky Lee and produced by the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines (ECP). It was a box-office hit when it was shown at the 8th Metro Manila Film Festival. It then became the first Filipino film to make it to the competition section of the Berlin International Film Festival. Its themes about faith and society have made Himala appropriate for Holy Week programming.

Nothing short of a miracle

Prior to 2012, the copy of Himala shown on ABS-CBN’s free TV and cable platforms was made from a print that was stained, scratched, faded, and had fungus marks. ABS-CBN had acquired the film from ECP in 2001. Leo Katigbak, then head of the ABS-CBN Film Archives (and now head of ABS-CBN Film Restoration), had wanted to restore Himala as early as 2001. “But the cost would be very prohibitive,” he recalls. Removal of the sratches and the repair of the prints were usually done abroad. 

The rise of digital technology around 2010 to 2011, made the restoration of classic films easier and at less cost. Katigbak deemed it was the right time to give a new lease in life to Himala. ABS-CBN collaborated with post-production house Central Digital Lab to restore the revered Nora Aunor starrer.

The ‘Himala’ story

The restoration of Himala took almost a year. Artists at Central Digital Lab utilized the print as their “canvas,” which posed as a challenge. Senior restoration artist Tikki del Rosario reveals, “The print is not the negative of the film, so we were kind of limited in terms of color.”

Del Rosario then details the process they carry out to bring a film back to its lost glory. “We color grade it first. Then, we do a one-pass. Whatever else needs to be done, we do manually (on the computer), meaning frame-by-frame.” She emphasizes that artists need to be very careful in handling the materials, especially since these are the only surviving sources. “We really have to be very meticulous in order to avoid damages.” 

Restoration on video was complemented with sound restoration, wherein the audio elements such as dialogue, musical scoring, audio effects, were also enhanced via computer technology.

The actual restoration was only the beginning. ABS-CBN then embarked on a multimedia approach to herald the glorious return of the iconic film.  “It was vital that the restored Himala be treated as a brand new movie,” Katigbak underscores. “We treated it as if it was shot yesterday. We leveraged on the ABS-CBN platforms—television, print, cinema, cable, etc.—to implement a timely and interesting PR and exhibition campaign.”

The project got a boost when the Venice International Film Festival programmer got wind from ABS-CBN contacts in the middle of 2012 that Himala was being restored. The filmfest eventually chose to put the Ishmael Bernal opus in its Venizia Classici-Restored Films program. Himala was among only 18 classic films screened at 69th edition of the world’s oldest film festival. 

Himala was then shown in local cinemas nationwide in December 2012. Viewers were encouraged to watch through 30-seconder plugs aired on free TV, with no less than screenwriter Ricky Lee and major stars such as Piolo Pascual talking about the film and the importance of film restoration. 

Multimedia campaign

Other efforts such as a celebrity premiere, TV/print/cable marketing, and press coverage, complemented the one-week commercial run in 13 theaters. A few months after, ABS-CBN released the digitally restored Himala on home video. 

“The entire campaign, from the restoration to the marketing to the promotion and the exhibition, is considered a marquee project,” says Katigbak. “It showed the Filipino’s capability to do world-class film restoration. The multimedia approach was unprecedented; it became a way to promote local cinema heritage and change the way the audience perceives old or classic films.”

The great success of Himala became the inspiration for the succeeding restoration projects—which now count to more than a hundred titles. Among which include the war epic, Oro, Plata, Mata; the historical odyssey Ganito Kami Noon, Paano Kayo Ngayon?; the big screen version of Lualhati Bautista’s novel, Bata-Bata Paano Ka Ginawa?; the Aga Muhlach-Lea Salonga starrer Sana Maulit Muli; Madrasta, which won for Sharon Cuneta a grand slam best actress win; the ’90s youth flick Pare Ko; the Piolo Pascual-Claudine Barretto starrer Milan; Carlos Siguion- Reyna’s sexy drama, Ang Lalaki sa Buhay Ni Selya; the LGBT-themed Nora Aunor-Vilma Santos film, T-Bird at Ako; and director Mike de Leon’s comedy, Kakabakaba-kaba Ka Ba?

Restored films are screened at premiere events with the stars in attendance. Whenever possible, commercial release in the multiplexes are also done. In February 2015, ABS-CBN Film Restoration began its ReeLive the Classics Film Festival wherein restored titles are showcased in a weeklong run at the Rockwell Power Plant Mall. ReeLive The Classics 2 was held in February 2016. Katigbak hopes that their filmfest will become a yearly event. 

New audience

Audience response has been overwhelmingly positive. “Actually, I was delighted!” Miguel de Jesus, a freelance photographer, remarked after the screening of Ang Lalaki sa Buhay Ni Selya at the University of the Philippines Film Center. “I got excited when I saw the trailers and I was not disappointed when I got to watch the film. For the longest time, viewers have been looking for something worthwhile. Selya is good!” 

The restorations have produced an audience beyond the film buffs, and those who are familiar with the restored film itself. Arvin Sedocarbon, a communication student at Laguna University, says, “The screenings of the restored films are opportunities for the youth to experience history and be part of it.”

Starstruck

Perhaps no one could be happier with these developments than the artists involved in the films. 

Actor Ricky Davao was grinning from ear to ear after he watched Ang Lalaki sa Buhay ni Selya, which he shot in 1997.  He said, “Watching it again, it’s as if we just shot it yesterday. It’s good to know that the quality of the film was given utmost care. The sound and the visuals are crisp. The viewer gets to see the nuances of the scenes and nuances of the actors.”

Character actresss Odette Khan couldn’t help but feel sentimental at the premiere of the refurbished T-Bird at Ako. She said, “Beautiful! The restoration is beautiful! Everything is clear. The visuals, the dialogue, the color, everything! I was brought back to the days of my youth!”

Star for All Seasons Vilma Santos (whose films Bata,… Bata… Paano Ka Ginawa?, Kapag Langit Ang Humatol, Anak, and T-Bird at Ako, were restored by ABS-CBN) is very pleased that her sons Ryan and Luis can watch her old films in bright color and clear sound. The acclaimed actress remarks, “When my sons watch my old films, sometimes they can’t believe I did that kind of role… ” 

Ryan was not born yet when Santos made her iconic movies, and Luis Manzano was then very young. “They actually look forward to seeing my old films,” she says of her sons. “Now that they are grown up, they appreciate my works more. And I, as a mother, am happy because my children get to relive my journey as an actress.”

The stars’ reaction to seeing their former roles can also be very dramatic. Cherry Pie Picache admitted that she cried tears of joy after watching Bata,… Bata again. She said, “Director Chito Roño and I found ourselves crying! All of a sudden, I was reminded of my favorite scenes, of my favorite lines. To see the movie again on the big screen is a wonderful and beautiful experience. Classic films are not bound by time. The message is timeless.”

Future perfect

Film production in the Philippines began around 1912. Since then, our local filmmakers have produced about 8,000 titles. According to the Society of Film Archivists (SOFIA), less than 50 percent are accounted for. Many have been destroyed due to natural calamities and fires, others were lost simply because of neglect. 

“It’s an emergency. So much time has passed,” screenwriter Ricky Lee says of our nation’s film heritage. “Our films have been lost and scattered. The need to restore and preserve them is urgent. We need to act now and act swiftly.”

While ABS-CBN Restoration is tasked to take care of the movies produced by the network’s film outfit Star Cinema, the division will continue to save the classics, especially the works of National Artists, and films that are in dire need of restoration.

The task is challenging, Katigbak admits. “It’s important that we find a negative or a clean print that can still be restored. For instance, I would have wanted to restore Celso Ad Castillo’s Pagputi ng Uwak, Pag-Itim ng Tagak, and Burlesk Queen, but we cannot find a print.”

Katigbak still gets a jolt whenever he talks with the youth who are not aware of the Philippines’ rich cinema. “Whenever I mention the names of Ishmael Bernal, Lino Brocka, Mike de Leon, Celso Ad Castillo, they do not know these directors. Yet these Filipino directors were able to compete with the world’s best directors.” He believes that it’s their mission to keep the legacy of these great artists alive. 

Our films and our film artisans are the soul of the nation. Lee reminds us that our cinema is also our map for the future. “Films talk about the truth of a particular era, a particular generation. We have to listen to what our films are saying so that we can chart our next course.”  

 

Article originally published in Metro Society's February 2016 issue / Photographs courtesy of ABS-CBN Film Restoration