FELIPE SACDALAN: Unflagging Proponent of the Invisible Camera
“The camera should be invisible!” : this is a dictum Felipe Sacdalan, swears by. “If the cinematography gets noticed, if the audience leaves the moviehouse swooning over the shots -or if they said bad things about it — then the cinematographer has not done his job.”
For thirty four years, from 1946 to 1979, “Ka Ipe”, his nickname in the industry, has been pushing the storytelling function of the camera. Because he doesn’t believe in flashy, attention-calling cinematography, Ka Ipe works on images that contribute to the overall film design. Compared to those of other cameramen, his work is subtle, never intrusive, and hence, even more powerful because it is wholly integrated with the story.
A corollary dictum is his insistence on reading the script. “The cinematographer must know what is going on in order to make decisions on the shots. He must read the script beforehand.” It is only after Ka Ipe has familiarized himself with the material that he starts working on the angles and selecting the filters and lenses that would effectively bring out the heart and soul of the film.
This is not to say that Ka Ipe is merely dexterous; for his films are compelling accounts of the larger than life occurrences, the fantastic, and the surprises that make the quotidian sometimes indelible in the mind. Gerardo de Leon’s The Day of the Trumpet and Kulay Dugo Ang Gabi, Eddie Romero’s Man on the Run and Escape to Paradise, John Cromwell’s The Scavengers : these are but a few of the films whose engaging storytelling and screen power have been shaped by his craft.
Ka Ipe was born in Calumpit, Bulacan on April 30, 1916. At the age of seven, he became an orphan and thus had to push hard to get to his status. He remembers he was so poor that he was not able to pay for his high school diploma. However, he was not without luck; his uncle, fellow cinematographer Higino Fallorina’s dad, ran a photography studio and got young Ipe to work in the lab.
Because he was acquainted with the basics of photography, he was hired by Filippine Films in 1939, first to work in the photo lab, later as stillman and then as assistant cameraman. But Ka Ipe wanted to improve on his knowledge and subscribed to a correspondence course with the Motion Picture Institute in Birmingham, Michigan.
During the war, when film production was grinding to a halt, he found himself in the lab again — this time, a motion picture lab. He became active in the processing of prints until raw stock finally ran out.
After the war, he became a full-fledged cameraman for Fernando Poe’s Royal Productions, starting with Dugo ng Bayan in 1946. He shot several films for Poe’s studio. In the Fifties, he transferred to Premiere Productions where he worked with some of Philippine cinema’s major directors: Gerardo de Leon, Eddie Romero, Chat Gallardo, Efren Reyes. Some of the films he shot on the lot: Aawitan Kita, Singing Idol, I Believe, Huling Mandirigma, Lagalag, Darna at ang Babaeing Tuod, Batang Angustia.
He won the FAMAS five times.- May Bakas ang Lumipas (1954); Mga Yapak na Walang Bakas (1961); Ito ang Filipino (1966); Dalawang Mukha ng Tagumpay(1973);and Krimen( 1974).
Because of his expertise, he was often chosen as the cinematographer for many of the international co-productions. In 1956, he shot The Day of the Trumpet, with John Agar, Premiere’s first production intended for worldwide release. This was followed by many of Eddie Romero’s international joint ventures: Man on the Run with Burgess Meredith and Escape to Paradise. He also shot Hollywood director John Cromwell’s Scavengers with Vince Edwards.
He was also the favorite cinematographer of local producers when they decided to shoot abroad. For Premiere, he did Arizona Kid, Lollipops and Roses at Burong Talangka in the United States and El Pinoy Matador in Spain. For Regal Films, he did Elwood Perez’s Pinay — American Style, his last film before his self-imposed retirement.
“I was often chosen because of my other skills. I could be counted on to repair the camera in case something happened. Also, I am a judo champion twice in a row, a 2nd Dan conferred by the Kodokan Institute. I could also be a bodyguard to the stars in case the teeming crowds watching the shoot became unruly.”
Ka Ipe is a fervent Seventh Day Adventist who adheres to the principles of a sound mind and a healthy body. As with his craft, Ka Ipe is very zealous with his health and eats only fish and vegetables. Already 81, his sturdy physique belies his age. He has a daily routine which prescribes daily excercises and forbids him to eat in-between meals.
Ka Ipe now runs a camera rental company. “Many of our cinematographers do not really know the constitution of a camera. They keep blaming the camera for their own lack of understanding. I took it upon myself to know the camera inside out and to learn the equations by heart. Some of our cameramen just don’t have the patience to do this.”
Asked what his favorite films are, Ka Ipe Sacdalan protests, “I don’t have any favorites, I pour myself into every film I do, every shot I make. Maybe that’s why I choose the people whom I work with. If I cannot function in this manner, I’d rather not do it. No amount of money can make me.”
It is this total commitment to the job that has made Ka Ipe Sacdalan’s career a proud and distinguished one in the history of Philippine film industry.
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