Protecting the Filipino heritage through film restoration

by Matthew Escosia
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Filipino films are dying, literally.

The film prints of old Filipino movies continue to decay overtime, a lot of which are too damaged enough for chances of resuscitation. In a report by film author Bliss Cua Lim, an estimate of only 37% of locally produced films have managed to survive. That’s 3,000 titles from approximately 8,000 works made since 1897, the introduction of cinematograph.

Expiration of the material is not the only issue here. The problem can easily be blamed to poorly managed houses these film prints were stored, not conducive enough to negative handling.

Many have attempted and were successful even to preserve the heritage of Philippine cinema. Film artists, historians, the academe, and critics have been leading to at least safeguard the memories and the fine details surrounding it. The big issue is the lack of physical evidence to complement the recollections.

ABS-CBN’s “Sagip Pelikula” initiative under their Film Restoration team has been prominently holding the fort for restoration of Filipino films by preventing Filipino film prints from further damage. The project, as the team’s Head Leo Katigbak would describe it, is committed to “preserve cinematic heritage.”

The term cinematic heritage extends to cultural heritage of a certain period, one of the big reasons why ABS-CBN Film Restoration has been working hard to restore as much old classics as possible.

In an interview with SEA Wave, Katigbak shares the history of ABS-CBN Film Restoration and the challenges that comes along as one of the only few institutions in the Philippines conducting actual film restoration work. Below is the transcript of our interview:

Leo Katigbak, Head of ABS-CBN Film Restoration. Photo courtesy of ABS-CBN.

Hello Sir Leo, can you share how the ABS-CBN Film Restoration team was established?

The restoration project is an extension of the ABS-CBN Film Archives which was set up in 1994.  We started discussing Film Restoration in 2008 looking at possibilities as technologies started advancing and costs became more manageable.  Work began more earnestly in 2011. Basically, the Film Archives Team is the Restoration Team but while Restoration is outsourced, everything else is done in house.

What has been the main goal or vision of this department?

It’s still an expansion of the role of the Archives which is to preserve the films we have in inventory.  Unfortunately, many of those films were no longer in the best condition and digital restoration allowed us to bring the films closer to the quality originally intended by the filmmakers.

What’s the very first film preserved by the Film Restoration team?

The first film completed was “Maala-ala Mo Kaya, The Movie” but for launch purposes it was fairly recent and didn’t have the pedigree of the older titles. “Himala” was another work in progress and given its marquee status [plus it had also been voted Asia’s Best in the CNN poll], it was the perfect film to launch the Restoration project.  To be followed by “Oro Plata Mata” [another Experimental Cinema of the Philippines or ECP title] and “Ganito Kami Noon, Paano Kayo Ngayon?”

What are some of the notable challenges that came along with it?

We wanted to show that restoration could be done locally so we worked with Central Digital Lab which had also done the preliminary R&D based on our long-term plans for the films in the Archives.  The early work on “Himala” was quite good but when we projected it on-screen, the quality didn’t match-up so there were certain realizations and the restoration work was repeated.  It was learning in progress, but it allowed us to get more insight on what we will be doing and facing moving forward.

“Himala” took about 7 months with all the learnings and repeats but by the third movie, the technical learnings allowed us to advance the work.  However, restoration is just an aspect of the work.  Deciding what film to restore, all the legal work and then all the preparation for its re-release from posters to trailers to marketing materials to venues are all part of the project.  This also distinguishes us from many Archives where they focus just on restoration and not the processes and concerns before and after.

Before and after the restoration of Celso Ad. Castillo’s “Virgin People” (1983). Photo courtesy of ABS-CBN.

How do you select which films to restore?

Our campaign is director focused and we do a list of titles per director that we wish to prioritize.  Unfortunately, not all films are accessible, and others have more complicated backgrounds so within subsets, we work on what is easier to access from the priority list.

What has been the most difficult Filipino film to restore?

It would have to be the ECP titles “Misteryo Sa Tuwa” and “Soltero” by virtue of the film condition.  A few years back it was deemed unrestorable. I am only talking about films which we can actually restore.  A few films are complicated because of legal rights while others have incomplete materials.

I noticed a lot of the actual restoration work has been done internationally. Are there any existing organizations in the Philippines capable of such work?

Actually no. About 80% were done by Central Digital Lab.  However, not all films are marquee enough for event premieres that’s why there is a perceived skew to international labs.

Central Digital Lab is based in Makati. FPJ Studios also have their own equipment.  We do our color-grading and audio restoration with Wildsound which is in the Sampaguita Studios compound along Gilmore Avenue.  Audio mixing is done in ABS and we do film scanning within ABS using the Film Archives facilities.  In more recent movies, we have split the work to manage costs.

Restoration of the 1990 Mel Chionglo film, “Nagsimula Sa Puso”. Photo courtesy of ABS-CBN.

How would you describe the current state of film restoration in the Philippines?

It’s sadly lacking.  Arts and culture are low on the government agenda but in most countries they are a priority.  Much of the initiative between ABS and FPJ Studios are privately done with little incentive from government.  We do get to work with some government agencies, but this is more of an inter-organization relationship rather actual government support

Is there a scarcity of institutions employing film restoration work for Filipino films?

Since films no longer shoot on actual film stock, it doesn’t make sense to have facilities as there is a finite number of films and clients not unless you open to international clients.  In fact, there are no more film labs in the Philippines so replicating the materials on film stock would have to be done abroad.  Of the 8,000+ movies shot on film in the prior 100 years, only about 25-30% survive in print form and can be considered for restoration work.

Apart from providing a clearer recollection of old Philippines and making classic titles more accessible, where else do you think restoration of old titles serve its purpose?

They provide a historical record not just visually but even the psyche of the people at particular junctures in our history.  They are reflections of society and culture and re-enforce that even before, we were already competitive in the world stage, something that many have forgotten because of lack of access

What can we expect from ABS-CBN Film Restoration’s “Sagip Pelikula” project in the future?

The project is not done so it’s basically what we are doing.  There are movies in the pipeline that will already join the 185+ we have restored to date.

Last question. What’s your dream film to restore?

“Burlesk Queen,” “Tinimbang Ka Nguni’t Kulang,” “Ang Tatay Kong Nanay,” more movies from LEA Productions, LVN, Sampaguita, Premiere and others.  We just completed “Biyaya ng Lupa” so we are happy we did that and even brought the legendary Rosa Rosal to the premiere.


(Transcript of interview includes minor edits for flow. Thank you, Sir Leo Katigbak, Ms. Jane Tenorio, and Ms. Carmela Barbaza for the interview.)

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