Bulawan nga Usa: The Invisible Artists on the Set

By Aira Jamoles and Juliane Judilla

Lights, camera, action!

In the realm of cinematic wonders, “Bulawan nga Usa” emerges as the lone Ilonggo film entry in the highly acclaimed Cinemalaya Film Festival 2023. Its triumphant journey, however, was not only steered by the director and producer or the creative team alone but by the ensemble of technical virtuosos — the architects of this golden tale. Behind the scenes, an army of invisible artists worked tirelessly, their artistry and passion illuminating every frame, weaving the enchanting tapestry of “Bulawan nga Usa” onto the silver screen.

Cinematic Visionaries

Makoy’s journey and other characters became more scenic with visual storytelling that would touch the audience’s emotions. The cinematography was captured into simple yet striking shots, natural lighting, and colors along with subtle visual symbols for it may be foreseen as an artwork or a painting and add up to the depth of the film.

“We captured the scenes with simple shots, nothing too fancy, but beautifully crafted. We also wanted the visuals to have a natural feel of lighting and colors as much as we can so that the audience will be immersed in Makoy and other [characters’] environments in the film,’’ cinematographer Mark Tarroza Dizon told Daily Guardian.

Dizon was the director’s vision. They had worked together on different films before and this led them to blend in creativity and artistry from pre to post-production, combining efforts in terms of design and costume to ensure a cohesive look of the film.

“Me and Direk Ken have worked on films before, so to work on this film, it wasn’t really hard for us to understand each other,’’ said Dizon.

On the other hand, the team also experienced key challenges where Dizon stated that it is his first time using a blackmagic camera thus, he had trouble operating it. Additionally, working on a full-length film in the mountains of Miagao town is a test for them given that there were only seven of them in the camera department (Dizon, 2nd cameraman, two gaffers, one camera caretaker, and two interns).

Dizon furthered that shooting in the province was difficult in terms of availability, resources, lights, and other equipment but the team showcased unwavering commitment to the film’s triumph.

Despite these challenges, Dizon also shared a significant sequence from the film in which they needed to have heavy rain in the mountain, thus, it should be natural to appear real on screens. Luckily, it rained and they shot quickly to finish the scene on their list. The team even managed to stabilize the shots though they lacked a stabilizer in the mountain.

“We need to be innovative and creative on how to mount and light a scene even if we have less than what we actually needed… So I’m excited for people to see how we did magic, [no, not magic] but to see how everyone in the production’s hard work paid off with this film,’’ he added.

Melodic Maestro 

Tapping into the whimsical upbringing of a young man’s journey, it is imperative to evoke the magical yet eerie feeling it radiates especially in setting the tone and the mood for the film.

For composer Steve Magbanua, it is important to give the intended feeling you want to show in each and every scene, sharing that they have read the script thoroughly to perfect the film’s score.

“I read the script multiple times to give the intended [feel] that I want to show [in each scene],” Magbanua said.

“Our music [intensifies] the story as well as the emotions of each character. ”, He added.

The film’s score is a mixture of modern, ethnic, and folk music for all ages. It is all unique and originally composed.

The film’s official soundtrack, “Bulawan nga Istorya,” was composed by Steve Magbanua, lyrics by Director Kenneth De La Cruz, and performed by Joshua Toledo.

Builder of Actors

Every thought-provoking scene comes with tremendous practice and multiple takes. Though the majority of the film’s cast are theater and experienced actors, some are yet to discover the wonders of what it is like to be in front of the camera.

Retazo acting coach Laragene Servando shared the techniques she used in making the film. According to her, it is important to understand the story first, to have a clear and cohesive view of the emotions needed to be portrayed. She highlighted that sometimes, the simpler the better.

“I made it simpler especially for the kids.  We used understanding the text and followed by identifying their scene objectives,” Servando said.

“I believe that understanding the material is the most important thing for an actor,” she added.

Though at first, dealing with the actors posed a challenge, Servando recalled having to feel that sense of fulfillment seeing them break through throughout the end of filming.

“It was during the last shooting day, we were in one of the most important sequences when John Niel, who played the character of Mingo, had to do one of the most important scenes. Everybody was so tired and so excited at the same time. It was the last sequence to shoot. I went to him, I was so ready to say what to say to him, how to motivate him but he just told me, ‘ma’am kup-e lang ko’ (Ma’am, just hug me). I was shocked! Nauna pako ya maghibi sa iya! (I even cried first)”, She shared.

“Another [instance] was during the longest sequence that Ron had to shoot. It was the morning of the last shooting day. I knew that he was so tired physically and emotionally and everybody was so excited for that scene. That was the scene that we have been all waiting for. Direk Kenneth had to get the best of Ron for that scene so, we had numerous takes,”

“Before the last take, I went to him. No more motivational talk, no more giving advice on what to do or how to do it. He was crying, he hugged me and said thank you and gave me a signal that he was ready. I saw and felt Ron’s whole vibe transformed! It was my first time to feel that vibe from Ron.”

Being the first-ever film in Cinemalaya to have an all-Ilonggo production staff and crew, Servando takes pride in having to work in it. The film is a love letter to Ilonggos, with the promise of seeing more Ilonggo faces on the big screen in the future, and this is just the beginning.

Costume Connoisseur

Venice Marie Hulleza, stylist/wardrobe designer in Bulawan nga Usa also shaped the film by putting the characters to life and capturing the essence of the story’s setting. There are creative processes behind the wardrobe choices that played a pivotal role in filmmaking from pre to post-production.

“Direk Kenneth De la Cruz had specific instructions for the overall look and color schemes but also gave the wardrobe team free reign on choosing the pieces, a lot of which came from the ukay-ukay, just to have that ‘worn out’ feel. Color progression and the presence of specific colors in particular sciences was also a consideration for Direk Ken,” Hulleza said.

“The film is set across decades, and we wanted it to be as sensible, I guess, and almost nostalgic – really just a day in the life of Makoy, in different time periods,’’ she added.

She further revealed that she was challenged to differentiate Ron from Makoy regarding wardrobe. This was already established by the director from the outset to ensure a clear distinction between actor and character. Thus, they created bio-data sheets and played on stereotypes to visualize a look.

“We also had to really study the characters, and we played a lot on stereotypes. One of the funny things that we had during pre-prod [was] these ‘bio-data sheets’ for each of the characters – it contained details like the character’s occupation, when he or she got married, and his or her personality. None of these things were stated in the film, but those profiles really helped us visualize a specific, stereotypical look for the characters”, she explained.

Photos from different time periods came in handy for the team, especially during that of the 90s and 80s, when the specific scenes are time influenced. Most of their work was also referenced by Panayanon and Visayan folklore as well as ancient Visayan women and Visayan indigenous tribes.

As seamlessly as possible, they have perfected the subtleness of transitioning from one era to another, which worked perfectly in depicting the message the film wants to capture, blurring the lines of reality, a longing sense of being lost and found all at the same time.

This feature story is the second of three parts. 

First part: Bulawan nga Usa: The Minds Behind the Golden Ilonggo Film