Rody Lacap: Translating the director’s vision into visual reality
By Nicanor G. Tiongson
“Ang mahalagang kontribusyon ng cinematographer sa paggawa ng isang pelikula ay ang mailahad ang nilalaman ng kuwento na gustong iparating ng director sa manonood, sa pamamagitan ng tamang pagpili ng lente, anggulo at galaw ng kamera, source of light, at komposisyon o framing.” - Rody Lacap, FSC
SCENE 1 : Starkly silhouetted against a sugar cane field being devoured by a roaring conflagration, a motley caravan of peasants carrying bundles of clothes on their shoulders, heads, and hands and servants leading carabao sleds loaded with hacendero families slowly negotiate their escape from the oncoming Japanese from the hacienda mansion to the forest.
SCENE 2 : With the street light streaming through the window curtains and casting a symbolic net on the sala and stairs, Mila in nervous whispers tells her fiancé Noel on the phone how she plans to escape from the house of her incestuous father, even as the camera tilts up to reveal her mother quietly eavesdropping on the conversation from atop the staircase, torn between her concern for her daughter and her mortal fear of her violent, psychotic, and desperate husband.
SCENE 3 : In Rizal’s cell the night before his execution in Bagumbayan, imagination and reality collide when the fictional Simoun of El Filibusterismo staggers in wounded after the dynamite explosion at Paulita’s wedding is aborted. In the lamp-lit darkness, Simoun confronts his maker Rizal and forces the latter to change the ending of his novel -- and Rizal’s life -- by making the lamp explode and blow up the highest leaders of church and state in Spanish Philippines. Rizal objects initially but finally concedes.
These three scenes have been etched indelibly on the memories of Filipino moviegoers for decades now and cherished as unforgettable moments in our cinematic history. And in large measure because of these scenes, the movies of which they became defining episodes (Oro Plata Mata, Kisapmata, and Jose Rizal, respectively) and the directors who conceptualized their mise-en-scene (Peque Gallaga, Mike De Leon, and Marilou Diaz-Abaya, respectively) have found their corresponding niches in the national cinema. And perhaps rightly so. Except that in all three cases, the artist who actually interpreted and recorded all three scenes on camera for posterity has remained largely unknown -- the cinematographer Rody Lacap. Culpable for such neglect perhaps is the common man’s ignorance of both the art of cinematography and the art of Rody Lacap.
One may say cinematography is in Lacap’s blood. Born on January 29, 1950, Lacap is the fourth of the six children of Raymundo Perez Lacap and Generosa Tenorio Austria. His father had worked as a cinematographer for LVN Pictures from 1948 until his death in 1954, while his maternal uncles, Peping and Ding Austria, were in the same profession also in LVN. Rody’s older siblings, Carlos and Narciso, also worked in LVN but in different fields of filmmaking.
After graduating from Ponciano Bernardo Elementary School and Cubao High School (now Ramon Magsaysay High School), Lacap enrolled at Arellano University but had to quit school after two years to help the family out. It was in 1973 that his brother Carlos brought him to LVN, where he first worked as a projectionist, color grader, and optical printer operator. Later, he did special visual effects and title designs for Mike De Leon’s Cinema Artists. In 1975, De Leon, then manager of LVN, trained Lacap in still and motion photography, generously providing him with reading materials on photography, a still camera, some filters, an exposure meter, and generous guidance on the technical aspects of filmmaking. In 1976, he worked as gaffer for De Leon’s short film, Monologo, while Ely Cruz was camera operator and De Leon himself director of photography. Soon after, Lacap became gaffer and lighting director for De Leon’s first full- length film, Itim, with Ely Cruz as cinematographer and camera operator (for their work in Itim, Lacap and Cruz received the Best Cinematography award from both the Urian and FAMAS). When he looks back at this period in his life, Lacap unconditionally acknowledges Mike de Leon as his main mentor and influence in his work as cinematographer.
It was De Leon too that got him his first full-time assignment as cinematographer in 1980. Initially, De Leon, on contract as cinematographer, chose Lacap as his gaffer and camera operator for Eddie Romero’s Aguila, which was calendared to be completed in ten weeks. At the end of ten weeks, only half of the film was in the can, but De Leon decided to leave the production and instead recommended Lacap to take his place as cinematographer for the film. Eddie Romero agreed and Lacap found himself almost overwhelmed by the responsibility of a full-fledged cinematographer. And in a film that was larger than the ordinary because it was an epic spanning a century, from the 1890s to the 1980s, and shot in different locations (Lumbang, Nayong Pilipino, Bohol) and under the direction of a veteran director who was very particular about the exact angles for the camera and the lenses to be used. But he survived the baptism of fire and was recognized with another nomination from the Gawad Urian.
By the 1980s, Lacap had established a reputation as a director of photography who had not only mastered the technical aspects of cinematography but also understood how craft could be transformed into artistry. Not surprisingly therefore, the leading directors of the New Cinema from the 1970s to the 1990s chose Lacap to do the cinematography of their films, most of which are now considered major achievements of that cinema. For Mike de Leon he did, aside from Itim and Monologo, Kakabakaba Ka Ba?, Batch ’81, Kisapmata, and Sister Stella L. For Mel Chionglo, Playgirl, Summer Holiday, Lahar, and Babaeng Hampaslupa, among others; for Laurice Guillen, Kung Ako’y Iiwan Mo; for Peque Gallaga, Oro Plata Mata; for Abbo de la Cruz, Misteryo sa Tuwa; for Ishmael Bernal, Hinugot sa Langit; for Lino Brocka, Pasan Ko ang Daigdig and Orapronobis; and for Marilou Diaz-Abaya, Jose Rizal and Muro-Ami. Working with these directors helped Lacap to grow in his craft and honed his talents as a visual artist.
Lacap briefly describes how these directors worked with him as cinematographer. “Karamihan sa mga direktor na nakatrabaho ko ay mayroong pagpapahalaga o pagbibigay-diin sa mga technical aspects sa kani-kanilang pelikula. Mayroon kaming malawakan at mabusising pagpupulong para aralin ang bawat tagpo ng pelikula para mapaghandaan ito nang mabuti – sa pag-ilaw, galaw ng artista, komposisyon, anggulo, galaw ng kamera, atbp.” But although all the directors understood how crucial cinematography was to what they wanted to say as directors, the emphasis on the technical aspects of photography varied from director to director. Lacap recalls his work with four leading directors of the New Cinema.
According to Lacap, Mike de Leon is a perfectionist when it comes to the technical aspects of photography, De Leon being a cinematographer himself. In De Leon’s films, the cinematography captured exactly through lighting, camera shots and movements, the tone, temper, and theme of each scene he was shooting. In Kisapmata, De Leon wanted an ominous air hanging over the whole film and this was achieved mainly through lighting which created many shadows both at daytime and nightime. Memorable is the lighting and camera movements for the phone call scene described above which had light coming through the curtains of the window casting shadows on the whole scene but which also used gobos to isolate or cut off certain parts of the scene. Another scene of quiet terror is the pamanhikan dinner scene where a single low lamp cast an intense “police interrogation” type of light on the table where the future in-laws were eating and left everything else outside that circle of light in mysterious darkness. But even as De Leon insisted on creating and preserving the same dark mood for the entire film, he still stuck to the style of realism, demanding that Lacap’s lights have clear and definite sources (open windows, hanging or standing lamps, overhead lights, candles, etc.), that fill lights be effective but unobtrusive, and that scenes be shot in one long take (tuhog) in order to capture the ebb and flow of emotion among the characters.
For these light scenes, Lacap coordinated with the production designer, asking the latter to identify where light sources would be and asking for additional sources of light if he needed them (e.g. lamps). Cesar Hernando, production designer of Kisapmata and other De Leon films shot by Lacap, observed that “when Rody lights a scene, he can make everything look natural. He can also enhance the production design and light the actors enough for them to be seen without destroying the mood of a scene.”
For Lino Brocka, Lacap shot Pasan Ko ang Daigdig and Orapronobis, both of which followed the Brocka style of realism in acting, production design, and cinematography. Lacap observes that Brocka also gave detailed instructions on framing and camera shot and movement (he would look into the camera to check on initial shots), but left other aspects of photography, like lighting and lenses, to Lacap. For Brocka, the camera was the point of view of a third person peeping into his scene, so the less movement, the better. Brocka’s main concern was acting, making sure that actors understood their characters and motivation for particular scenes and going through several rehearsals with them before actual take. But even as Brocka demanded realism in lighting, such demands had sometimes to be “modified” in consideration of a producer’s concerns or a star’s image. Thus in Pasan Ko ang Daigdig, which was shot on location on Smoky Mountain and which “deglamourized” Sharon Cuneta, Lacap was advised not to make the lighting “too realistic” or too harsh on Cuneta, since Viva did not want to destroy her “wholesome” star image. Lacap obliged by lighting even the barong-barong interior scenes “brightly,” though not in the glossy fashion of other Viva –Sharon films. In Orapronobis, Lacap had no problem with using “realistic light sources” except for the night scenes, like the one in the hut where Kumander Kontra rapes Esper and kills her son and all other prisoners. Here the lamps were not enough as light sources so Lacap asked for an opening in the wall of the hut for additional light and used many fill lights which remained unseen by the camera.
Peque Gallaga got Lacap to photograph his first and greatest full-length movie, Oro Plata Mata. Shot for six months in different locations in Negros Occidental, the film was roughly divided into three parts corresponding to the words of the title. Oro (gold) shows a very prosperous “peacetime” when sugar is booming and hacenderos live in opulence. Plata (silver) covers the time when the Ojeda family evacuates to a cousin’s mansion to live a less ostentatious but nonetheless confortable life outside the city. Mata (death) chronicles the exile in the forest where the hacendero families sit out the last years of the war at the mah-jong table in their native huts. For each of these stages, Gallaga wanted a specific look: For Oro, a well-lighted and gilded atmosphere for the grand birthday party in the city mansion of the Ojedas; for Plata, a bright rural look for the day scenes at the Lorenzo mansion in the middle of the sugar cane fields, but with many shadows, some very sharp, for the night scenes; for Mata, a darker mood under the trees and inside a rural hut where the Lorenzos and Ojedas are victimized by Filipino bandits; and for the end of Mata, a vision of hell in the run-down school house which became the bandits’ haven. Lacap reminisces about the work he did for specific scenes from each of these stages.
The impressive opening party was shot in four days. On the first day, the director simply blocked and rehearsed the dances and the scenes, with students standing in for the actors, while Lacap and his staff were asked to watch. On the second day, the actors came in in the morning and watched the students (standing in for each of them with name tags) doing the scenes and then rehearsed the scenes themselves. In the afternoon of the same day, the director rehearsed the movements of the cameras without film, using many 300 degree turns, dollies, and tracking movements, but all without lights and film yet. On the third day, the space was cleared of all actors to enable Lacap and his team to set up lights, mainly on a bamboo framework they attached to the ceiling around the chandelier. Here, Lacap attached four strong par lamps that cast a soft light on the whole scene as though emanating from the chandelier. On the fourth day, the director did two rehearsals with the actors in costume the whole day and then shot the scenes at night. Most of the sequences were shot “tuhog,” using up the four minutes of each roll of film. In the final cut, a two-minute long take starts from the small room where the elders are talking about the possibility of war. From here the single camera (on crab dollies) follows two boys into the main ballroom and tarries a while (like a guest) to watch the young men and women dancing, all dressed to the nines, and forming a caterpillar line moving towards the right, then moving towards the left. The camera then plows through the dancers and stops right at the main door where it meets the Ojeda wife trying in vain to make a gay young man comfortable by introducing him to the other young men nearby (who snub him anyway), after which the camera proceeds towards the kitchen following a young man in black suit asking a young lady about her plans to study in Manila. After this the camera pulls back and turns to the right to catch the young Trining coming up the stairs, feeling guilty after she allowed Miguelito to kiss her in the garden. In this opening scene, the camera’s tuhog effectively documents the party’s events and surroundings but also subtly introduces the characters, their class, and their relationships.
The famous Gone with the Wind exodus scene at night took longer than expected to shoot. On the first day, Gallaga rehearsed the scene, asking the caravan of 50 extras carrying bundles of clothes or guiding carabao-pulled sleds to walk single file from right to left of the screen and then to turn back and halfway back to turn left and walk towards the stationary camera. The sugar cane trimmings on the field would be burned and the fire would serve as the background for the caravan as it moved. Lacap put six powerful par lamps (mini brutes) on stands in a row at the left side of the field to light the evacuees from the front. The director then ordered the shoot but when set on fire, the sugar cane trimmings on the ground did not produce a huge fire but small isolated bonfires.
The next day, Gallaga, on a field now clear of sugar cane cuttings, had a bamboo screen measuring 120 feet long and 12 feet high built and thatched with dry sugar cane cuttings and then planted with plastic bags of gasoline all over. After three days, the screen was ready and Gallaga ordered another shoot with the same movements and camera set-up rehearsed on the first day. The staff then set fire to the very combustible bamboo screen and against a tremendous and awesome conflagration, Lacap took the scene long shot with one Arriflex camera with a 25 to 250 mm zoom standing stationary on a tripod, recording first the movement of the caravan from left to right with one long take lasting four minutes (the length of the film in one can). When the film ran out, he quickly reloaded and shot the same caravan now moving from back-center towards the stationary camera. By the time the second shot was taken, the fire had become smaller, so that in the final edit, the two sequences were interchanged.
For the Wild Bunch scene where Hermes and Miguelito shoot down all the bandits that wreaked havoc on the hacenderos and their servants in the forest hut, an American-period high school building was decorated to look like abandoned ruins which became the lair of the bandits. The director’s instructions were to turn the building into a “living hell” through production design and cinematography. Two bonfires were built, one at the back and another just after the arched entrance, both emitting thick smoke which caught the reddish lights and covered the entire scene with a thick infernal atmosphere. Lacap placed most of his lights on the ground looking up at the actors. The long fight scene conducted all over the two-level building demanded several lighting set ups, and many rehearsals for both actors and cameramen. And because the set was literally littered with all manner of junk, Lacap could not use a crab dolly which needed level ground to move on. Instead he had to resort to handheld dollies. The scene was a fitting conclusion to the war episodes, underscoring the movie’s theme of how the war makes animals of everyone, young and old, male and female, hacendero and peasant.
For Lacap, Jose Rizal was one movie that challenged his creativity to the limit because of the demands of both the script and the director. Although Rizal was a period film, the director Marilou Diaz-Abaya did not want it to look like a dead and distant document but a living, pulsating reality. She wanted the film to be viewed as “new material, with a different look,” not as a string of tableaux or postcard scenes. So the movements and lenses for the camera had to emphasize the “natural”. Even flashbacks had to look “new,” while the scenes of black and white from the novel were shot in full color first and then processed in Australia to become black and white with a bluish tint.
In Jose Rizal, the director often demanded 360 degree camera movements which could catch the fullness of cast and set in a sequence, while at the same time establishing its atmosphere and mood. Such were the camera movements for the Malacanang scene which was extremely difficult to set up for Lacap and his staff because it needed so many lights, all of which had to be hung from the top in such a way that they were not seen when the camera did a 360 degree sweep of the scene. Shot in the Filmex Studio whose windows were completely draped in black so that the team could shoot the night scene during the day, Lacap had to find a way to rig his lights to concrete walls all around. With Lacap’s lights and camera movements, the scene at the governor-general’s palace, as completed, overwhelms the viewer with its grandeur and opulence.
Another scene that necessitated 360 degree camera movements was the scene of the Rizal family preparing to evacuate their house in Tondo, where the camera’s movements captured the panic and frenzy of the characters. But probably the most difficult scene that employed the 360 degree camera movements was the final confrontation between Rizal and Simoun in Rizal’s cell on the night before Rizal’s execution. The camera (the same steadicam operated by Willy Castillo was used for all 360 degree shot) had to move around the space, as reality and fiction circled around each other like two fighting cocks, with Simoun forcing Rizal to revise the ending of El Filibusterismo so that the revolution would not be eliminated as an option for social change and Rizal would not be condemned for being a reactionary. For the cinematographer the problem was how to light the night and interior scene adequately with only a candle and an open window as main sources of light and how to put in fill lights that would look “natural” and, most important, would be hidden from the perennially moving cameras. Lacap solved the problem with flying colors because this scene has become a classic in Filipino cinema.
As a cinematographer, Lacap says his favourite scene is the trial of Rizal. While potentially boring because of its talkiness, the scene came alive because the director blocked the actors and planned the camera movements in such a way that the camera was hardly ever static but was actively recording the various reactions of family, friends, and foes to Rizal’s defense and the judges inquisition and judgment. And all these using nothing but “ natural light” streaming in from the open windows (actually Lacap concentrated all his lights outside the window so that their light would look like the natural light of day.)
But Lacap’s achievement in Jose Rizal went beyond all this because in this film, he was able to explore and exploit the cinematographer’s art to define and delineate the film’s principal characters. To underscore the changes in Rizal’s character, Lacap used different color treatments (“Iba-iba ang levels of reality, kaya iba-iba rin ang treatment ng color”). For the child Rizal, he used warmer, earth colors based on brown which contrasted with the black and white scenes of the novel, as well as with the full-saturated look of the adult Rizal scenes. Lacap varied the hues as Rizal grew older up to the time of his execution.
For the scenes of Leonor Rivera and Josephine Bracken, Lacap used the combination of long lenses, slower camera movements, and filters to soften the look and heighten the romance, approximating the glamorous lighting of romantic melodramas of the 1950s. On the other hand, in order to enhance the turmoil in Rizal as he struggles with his demons, Lacap used wider lens, not telephoto lens, to create distortions on Rizal’s face and at the same time bring the audience nearer to the character. Similarly, in the black and white scenes of Simoun running away from the pursuing guardia civil, his camera movements were abrupt, shaky, aggressive – “parang mas matapang ‘yung camera.”
Lacap reveals that in lighting a scene, he begins by trying to understand the character and what the character is feeling in the scene. Thus, he says in the Katipunan meeting inside the cave, all his lights were coming from below as though emanating from the bonfire. “Kaya parang lumiliyab ang galit ng mga Katipunero. Parang mas mainit kasi ang epekto.” This idea came about because he says he put himself in the place of the Katipuneros. “Kung ako ang Katipunero, ano ang mapi-feel ko? Saan ang source of light ko? Anong gusto kong lumabas na character? Doon ko binabase ang lighting ko.” This Katipunan scene became the production designer Leo Abaya’s favourite because “Rody Lacap’s lighting was perfect. The arches motif is also seen here, huge arches of stone pressing down on the Katipuneros.”
Lacap says he also worked for other directors in the commercial mainstream, if only to satisfy his curiosity about how films could be made in one, two or three weeks. He came away from many of these movies less than satisfied (some of them he finished halfway and passed on to other cinematographers), because most of them constricted him and did not allow him to express the artistry that his camera was capable of and raring to do
Since the late 1990s, digital video technology developed rapidly, coming up with silent and very portable cameras that have video assists (eliminating the need for rushes), new lenses that require less lighting, new and more sensitive film stocks, and new lights that come with digital cameras. Today Lacap uses this new technology for the commercials (shot in 24 hours with as many as 20 takes on budgets that are astronomical compared to feature filmmaking) that are his bread and butter, but the artist in him yearns to tell more stories and create more characters with his camera. Lacap’s prodigious talent as a cinematographer is there for old and new directors to tap. Whether they do or not remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the film classics that this cinematographer helped to create in the last three decades are already in the can – and in the hearts and minds of the Filipino people.