'Goyo' Cinematographer Pong Ignacio on Framing an Epic
By now you've probably seen Goyo: Ang Batang Heneral, Jerrold Tarog's sequel to Heneral Luna and yet another important historical movie in the canon of our cinema. (If you haven't yet, consider this an exhortation to—for your own sake). And while there's been much talk of its timely message and its incisive take on history, Goyo also stands out for its spectacular visual package. Like Heneral Luna before it, Goyo is a beautiful film throughout. At times, it even elicits feelings of nationalism using specatacle (as in that scene, when Ronnie Lazaro's Tinyente Garcia points out at the horizon).
For all that, we can thank the movie's director of photography, Pong Ignacio. Here, he talks about the movies that inspired his work, his favorite frames, and what it took to get the film to look so good.
Were there any films in particular that inspired the visual identity of Goyo?
For Goyo: Ang Batang Heneral, we studied what it means to be "epic." It turns out what that meant was filling your frame with elements in the foregound, midground, and background. I studied David Lean films, including The Bridge on the River Kwai, Dr. Zhivago, and Lawrence of Arabia.
Jerrold Tarog and I also love Westerns—so that was a big influence in photographing landscapes in the most perfect light and time of day. I re-watched Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven a couple of times.
I think the key to making historical epics—or movies in general—is preparation. And that's what I admire and appreciate about Jerrold's style of filmmaking: We prepare a lot—months in advance. We take our time to study the material and to shot-list everything. It's painstaking but definitely worth it. We even went up the actual Tirad Pass in Ilocos to study the terrain, and get a feel of Goyo's story.
How is Goyo different from Heneral Luna visually?
There were technical aspects that Jerrold and I agreed would be different. The aspect ratio for Goyo is a wider 2.35. That worked really well for the landscapes we were shooting. Another technical decision I made was to have everything in "deep focus," meaning most everything in frame would largely be in focus. I was conscious to close down my aperture so that the audience would see more of the beautiful elements that the production design had brought in. My thinking was it would make it a more immersive experience into the world and time that we were creating.
There's also around 600 effects shots in the movie—double that of Luna. We brought in green screen elements so that we could extend the sets visually in post. It was a real challenge bringing around chroma walls 20-30 feet high and hundreds of feet wide. We brought them all over Luzon, as far as Ilocos, deep in jungles and up mountains! But I think it was key; again, for the world we were trying to create for our audience. It was all beautifully rendered by our CG team, Blackburst Inc.
What were the most challenging frames to shoot?
There's a scene we call the Horse Ravine, where we had several towers for rain effects, huge cranes, and 40- to 50-foot-high chroma walls. I also lit a large night scene by the river, which became a hazardous location because of the nonstop rain.
But those really pale in comparison to how we did Tirad Pass in Mount Balagbag; where we battled rain, mud, and fog for more than 20 days. It's the climax of the movie, and Goyo's name is synonymous with Tirad Pass. To execute it, we had 4x4 trucks to service the crew, cast, and hundreds of extras. The trucks would go up the mountain in batches and the production management had set up base camps for us in several areas. Sometimes if the conditions were bad we had to walk up or down the mountain in the dark. How we managed that without a major incident or injury is nothing short of a miracle. But when you see it all come together on the screen, its all worth it. It makes me proud to have been a part of that cinematic experience.
What are your three favorite frames in Goyo?
Top of mind: First is the confrontation scene between Mabini and Aguinaldo. My director told me to put Mabini in the light and Aguinaldo in a darker key. This adds to their characterization, and as a cinematographer, it's satisfying to make those technical choices for the storytelling. We later found out that there's a painting in the Mabini Museum that looks exactly like our scene. That gave me goosebumps!
Second are the underwater scenes. I've never done underwater cinematography. Thankfully, I was guided by a mentor, Ms. Marissa Floirendo, who shot those scenes for us. It came out gorgeous!
Lastly, I love the ending credits scene that Jerrold put together. He used all the landscape shots we had taken from every location we were in, laid over with Glaiza de Castro's redition of '"Bato sa Buhangin." It's not a spoiler to say that Goyo ends in a more somber note than Luna. So I found that to be perfect at the end, when the audience is still processing their emotions. I remember Epy Quizon telling me that he wanted to cry during that part, and exclaim "Tangina, ang ganda ng Pilipinas!"