How the local VFX industry brings to life Filipino fantasies

Superheroes work hard, but these artists work harder. Meet the people bringing the country’s fantasies and fantaseryes to life.

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It is May 5, 1978. The Philippines is finally learning about the Boazanian threat to the planet, and everyone is tuning in. A green moth-like robot armed with pincher claws and missiles is the first beast fighter to attack. Enter, Voltes V. The 200-foot tall mecha arrives just in time to volt in, unleash its super electromagnetic weapons, and save the day.

For almost four decades, “Chōdenji Machine Voltes V” cruised the airwaves of Philippine television. With reruns and even a Filipino dubbed version airing across several stations, the anime has become a rite of passage for most Filipinos. Balmy afternoons were spent humming along to the opening theme, eating merienda, and watching the titular mecha carve a V into the episode’s animal antagonist.

It also helped that it was easy to get hooked into the show’s lore. Earth was being invaded by the cruel (signified by the horns on their heads) Boazanians and their ominous Skull Ship to match. To give the human race a fighting chance, Professor Kentaro Goh created the Super-Electromagnetic Robot Voltes V. But when the professor disappeared without a trace, his sons Kenichi, Daijiro and Hiyoshi, along with rodeo champion Ippei Mine and the general’s daughter Megumi Oka, were then left to defend the planet with the mecha he left behind.

Production for the "Voltes V: Legacy" began in 2019. And by 2022, the team reported that they were halfway done with shooting. The pandemic was definitely one of the factors behind the delays, but the decision to take their time was theirs to make. Photo from GMA7/YOUTUBE

On top of all of this, what the space opera offered was more than just flashy explosions and cartoon violence. It was also commentary on class divide. The Boazanians were split between the horned elite and their hornless slaves with the protagonists eventually working with the latter. It was a theme that was so palpable that on August 27, 1979, former dictator Ferdinand Marcos issued a presidential order to take Earth’s defender off the air. To this day, “Voltes V” serves as a symbol of resistance and collective action in protests.

This long and loaded relationship between the Philippines and “Voltes V” leveled up when GMA announced their next big project: a Filipino live-action adaptation of the beloved series, called “Voltes V: Legacy.” The anime basically has everything a Filipino teleserye needs: a love triangle, a missing father, and a plot twist that most soaps could only dream of replicating (Spoiler: Prof. Goh was later revealed to be a hornless Boazanian prince in hiding). So after nearly a decade of pitches and paperwork, “Voltes V: Legacy” was finally greenlit for production.

The thing with legacies, however, is that they’re often held to higher standards. For example, across the West Philippine Sea, the people of Japan are watching. In an interview for the Howie Severino podcast, director Mark Reyes talked about the process of adapting a foreign franchise. “There are three governing bodies for the approval of everything,” says Reyes. Unlike the other teleseryes where GMA executives give the final approval, the live-action series needs to be cleared by the franchise holder Telesuccess Productions and the creators Toei Animation. “Down to the piece of helmet, to the costume, to the special effects.” All of these passes are there to ensure that the adaptation is at par with the original.

Then, there’s the high expectations from the country’s dedicated fans. Not only do they want an adaptation that stays true to the source material, they also want visual effects that would do justice to the show’s worldbuilding. A quick look into the comments section of the featurette of “Voltes V: Legacy” is a testament to this. Each post, a wish for high-quality visual effects. It’s a valid sentiment and one that’s borne from the country’s complicated history with the artform.

A still from "Voltes V: Legacy." Photo from GMANETWORK/YOUTUBE

History of visual effects in the Philippines

Visual effects were created as a means to bridge the fantastic with the real. Manuel Silos was one of the first Filipino directors to manipulate his medium and capture what can only exist in the realm of imagination. In this case, it was three Nida Blancas tap dancing on stage. This musical sequence was a part of LVN’s 1958 feature film “Tuloy ang Ligaya.” Here, Silos used multiple exposures — a technique that would later inspire today’s visual effects — to allow the movie queen to form a girl group with just herself. It was a cinematic marvel of its time leaving its audience in awe.

“Marahil hanggang ngayon pinagtatalunan ng mga technician kung papaano ginawa ni Direktor Manuel Silos ang eksenang ito,” says the narrator from the 1974 tribute film “Happy Days Are Here Again.

Eventually, the superhero sub-genre would emerge, pushing the boundaries of visual effects even further. “[Superheroes] are more likely to get involved in bigger scenarios,” says visual effects artist Dodge Ledesma. “There’s a lot of destruction, a lot of fight scenes, a lot of action.” Since his start as the CGI artist for Peque Gallaga’s 1996 film “Magic Temple,” the veteran artist has bestowed several of the country’s beloved superheroes with the power to save the day. Today, Ledesma has been helping Jane de Leon deflect bullets from her golden bracelet as the visual effects supervisor for the 2022 TV series “Darna.”

Jane de Leon deflects bullets as Darna in the 2022 teleserye. Photo from ABS-CBN ENTERTAINMENT/YOUTUBE

It’s through these caped crusaders that the visual effects industry found a new and lucrative market. “[The superhero genre] defies physical laws so there’s more opportunity for visual effects,” Ledesma adds. Volta can shoot purple lighting out of her fingertips through the magic of CGI. Captain Barbell gets to patrol Metro Manila from the sky above through a green screen. And with a country that has such deep reverence for its superheroes, this industry continues to thrive. The Metro Manila Film Festival alone has included a number of commercial superhero and fantasy films in the past few years, from “Gagamboy” to “Magikland.”

The visual effects industry would later find a new market outside of the silver screen, all thanks to Claudine Barretto donning a mermaid costume. “Marina” was a cultural reset for Philippine television. Before the show premiered in 2004, verisimilitude dominated primetime television. Fantasy was still uncharted territory until ABS-CBN gave it a shot.

However, ”Marina” proved to be more than just a shiny brand new toy. The flashy magical lights and CGI sea creatures got people interested, but it was Marina’s trials and tribulations that got people invested. “The story is the king,” Ledesma said when asked about his standards for good visual effects. The green screen and CGI are ultimately there to enhance the narrative rather than steal the spotlight.

The succeeding years of Philippine television followed the trail that “Marina” left behind. In his essay “The Teleserye Story: Three Periods of the Evolution of the Filipino TV Soap Opera,” UP Diliman Associate Professor Louie Jon Sánchez cites “Marina” as the first fantaserye. But he also credits “Mulawin” and “Encantadia” for perfecting the genre. Even before the Marvel Cinematic Universe could self-reference, the two fantaseryes had already been expanding each other’s worlds. These shows would end up changing the landscape and economy of visual effects.

Fantaseryes and the challenges in the industry

There’s a reason why teleseryes have a special place in the Filipino cultural psyche: watching them is a daily habit. Families gather over dinner to find out whether Cardo Dalisay survived another explosion or to see their favorite kontrabida get a well-deserved slap to the face. According to Ledesma, a standard teleserye airs five times a week in a span of around six to seven months (unless they get renewed). As a result, the schedules for taping and airing often overlap. It’s no secret that this system can be demanding for the writers, production teams, and even the actors. So if you throw in some fantasy into the mix, you’re bound to get a timetable that’s even more packed.

This is because the role of today’s visual effects artist goes beyond post-production. “It’s ideal that we come into the picture early on,” Ledesma says. When asked about his ideal creative process, the visual effects supervisor shared that he prefers to be involved in the project even before the script is written. “It’s best that we can be allowed to give our input and collaborate with the writer or director, so that we can get a sense of what can and can’t be done based on the timetable and budget.” This collaboration extends all the way to storyboarding and even principal photography. Not only will this mitigate costs, it also ensures smooth sailing in the post-production room.

The timetable for a fantaserye and the visual effects process raise a concern for Jeff Forneste. The director-cum-visual effects artist is no stranger to the rigor and demands of fantaseryes. Forneste was one of the artists behind the iconic 2008 “Dyosa,” and more recently, he served as the visual effects supervisor for the award-winning “Lolong.” “Kapag umaair na, tapos may shoot this week, we have around one week na lang to create the visual effects. Naco-compromise, nahihilaw tuloy,” Forneste shares in a Zoom interview.

Moreover, conjuring creatures and explosions out of thin air requires more than just time. This process also needs money. When asked about the different challenges that the country’s visual effects artists face, Ledesma jokes, “If you compare [our visual effects] to a Marvel film, of course, talong talo ka. ‘Yung budget nila sa catering, mas malaki pa sa amin (Laughs).”

And while a limited budget means less time, it also means less manpower. Forneste compares this to an understaffed kitchen. “Kung sa restaurant, may sampung guests ka na darating. ‘Di kaya ng isang tagaluto lang, tapos ganito lang ‘yung oras mo. I need an assistant, a sous chef, parang ganun. We need more people in the kitchen para mas mapabilis ‘yung gawa.” Given the right amount of people, the demands of a fantaserye can actually be met. However, in most cases, only two to three artists are allotted to do the work of seven.

“How can we do something really good when [we’re] not given the opportunity to do it due to time and money?” Ledesma says.

In 2018, these constraints became the center of the internet’s attention. A harmless cosplay event gets attacked by creatures of Norse mythology. Fields are set on fire and people are frozen in ice. Victor Magtanggol arrives just in time to save the day. However, nothing could have protected GMA’s latest fantaserye from the memes and harsh comments of a disappointed audience. All of the posts held the same sentiment: Filipino visual effects are bad.

Alden Richards as Victor Magtanggol. Photo from GMANETWORK/YOUTUBE

This prompted the late filmmaker Siegfried Barros Sanchez to go on Facebook (under the alias Boy Bardagol) and defend “Victor Magtanggol’s” visual effects artists. In his post, Sanchez recalls a conversation he had with a renowned visual effects artist. According to the unnamed artist, there’s a reason why they allow low quality visual effects to air on TV. “Pati ‘yung sword na pinagawa sa akin, pinagbutihan ko talaga at realistic na realistic yung dating, pati ‘yung apoy akala mo talaga apoy. Pero sabi ng superior namin, huwag daw gandahan. Huwag ipakita na kaya natin ‘yung ginagawa sa Hollywood. Kailangan daw ‘yung kung ano lang ‘yung presyo na ibinabayad sa amin ng mga networks, ‘yun lang daw ang worth na ipakita namin na visual effects at huwag daw tindihan.”

It all boils down to visual effects artists knowing their worth. “Ang ganda ng effects na manggagaling sa amin ay ibabagay namin sa kung magkano ang budget na ibibigay nila sa amin.’ Kaya huwag na tayong magtataka at aangal kung bakit ganun na lang ang visual effects ng ‘Viktor Magtanggol,’ ‘Bagani,’ at iba pang mga fantaserye sa Pilipinas. Product = Value.”

The current state of visual effects in the Philippines

If there’s one thing to be learned from Sanchez’s post, it’s that the country’s visual effects artists are aware of the quality of their work. In fact, these artists themselves are their own biggest critics. “It hurts, you know, to get bashed,” Ledesma says. “It hurts because it’s true. Really, it’s that thin line between what you can do with what you have and what you really need to do.”

But without these constraints, it’s clear that these artists have the capacity to thrive. In one of Smart’s latest commercials, Anne Curtis walks along the ruins of an empty street. There’s ashfall and trash cans burning. It’s dark and it’s unclear whether this was shot on set or through a green screen. She eventually joins Jane de Leon as they stand in front of a portal filled with neon green laser lights. There are so many effects involved and yet they all seamlessly appear on screen. In these 60 seconds, this fantasy world becomes real.

“Sa digital ads natin, topnotch tayo,” says visual effects director Jireh Christian Bacasno. “Kasi, the brands for digital ads, they’re willing to pay the right rate and give the right time to edit.” And while there’s definitely a difference between a 60-second TVC and a 30-minute show, these advertisements demonstrate the possibilities that are often stunted or left untapped.

Bacasno’s body of work is further proof that the country’s artists are capable of high quality visual effects. In addition to commercials, the music video industry is another avenue that can provide the artists with what they need. Given the right budget and a month and a half of lead time, Bacasno was able to come up with the music video for SB19’s “Where You At.” The five-minute-long video stars the members of the P-Pop group as they travel through time. It’s a visually bombastic piece that features elements and graphics from different generations.

There are even independent visual effects artists who post their works online. For them, it’s a hobby. They have full creative control of their dream fantasy worlds. No deadline. No clients. Just their imagination. “Before kasi, bread and butter ang visual effects. Ngayon, makakakita ka sa ibang platforms, yung mga fan-made. Ang galing nila,” Forneste says. And it’s a trend that’s becoming more apparent. “Ang laking factor na kasi ng technology ngayon,” he adds.

Ledesma credits this to accessibility as well. “Artists are now more empowered to learn.” He credits instructional videos on YouTube and free editing software for these self-made visual effects artists. The pandemic also played a hand in this. With people working from home, most artists have upgraded their machines.

This development, however, is a double-edged sword for the Philippine visual effects industry. Artists migrating for better jobs has always been a concern. But with high-powered machines readily accessible from the comfort of their homes, they can now accept editing jobs remotely. “It’s been difficult to hire local artists now,” Ledesma says. “You’re competing with Marvel and DC, and more recently, the gaming industry.”

The search for a more sustainable model

So how can the visual effects industry be better for its artists?

Ledesma sees these technological developments as an opportunity to decentralize the industry. “This was one of the saving graces that helped us out with ‘Darna.’ We’re now working with people from the provinces. I have people working from Davao, Leyte, and Bicol.” There’s now a bigger talent pool outside of Metro Manila. Two artists no longer have to burn out to do the work of seven. All that’s left is for companies to accommodate these new artists in their budget.

On the other hand, Forneste is proposing an alternative model for production. “Lolong” was GMA’s attempt to do a canned show. Unlike the traditional teleserye format where taping and airing happen simultaneously, a canned show can only air once everything is finished, post-production included. “[This] gives the post a longer timetable to create, revise, and render an output that is based exactly on what the show needed.”

“Voltes V: Legacy” is another case study. Production for the live-action series began in 2019. And by 2022, the team reported that they were halfway done with shooting. The pandemic was definitely one of the factors behind the delays, but the decision to take their time was theirs to make. “Ang isang promise namin sa inyo is that ‘di nga namin to mamadaliin,” Reyes says in the Howie Severino podcast.

It also helped that Telesuccess and Toei have been part of every step of the process. This system provided an alternative from the fantaserye timetable. “Lumabas si ‘Darna.’ Lumabas si ‘Lolong.’ Pero hindi humabol si ‘Voltes V’ para mag-compete for the ratings. Kasi they believe na kailangan pa nila ng time para mas maganda yung visual effects,” Forneste says. “May quality check rin kasi si Toei, ‘di ba? So yung mga yun, ‘di papayag na pangit yung output.” Here, the timetable adjusts for quality, and not the other way around.

However, extending the timetable is also easier said than done. Fantaseryes air as soon as they can as a means to recoup the companies’ investments. In some instances, this is what allows the show to continue on. “It’s a delicate balancing act between spending and keeping their business sustainable,” says Ledesma. “The daily release of shows format is a good thing as it gives lots of entertainment to the audience, provides work opportunities for VFX artists, and allows better chances of recouping the investment of the producers.”

Bacasno raises another angle to this conversation: that in order for companies to support their artist, the audience needs to support the art as well. “Feel ko kasi hindi pa ready yung market natin sa Philippines to consume those shows,” he says. “Unlike sa US [na may] Marvel, ang laki na ng fandom and laki na ng fanbase. If mag-out ka ng isang project, for sure kikita siya.” If the current hype for “Voltes V: Legacy” is a sign, then this might be the right direction for the industry.


Cover illustration and design by BEL WEBER
Produced by GABY GLORIA