2016 Natatanging Gawad Urian

Romy Vitug


Butch Francisco

THE MANUNURI NG PELIKULANG PILIPINO (MPP) as a critics’ group recognizes the importance of all film aspects – from direction to sound. And since cinema is a visual art, the cinematography is a most vital link in the technical chain of filmmaking.

            This year the MPP gives its highest honor – the Natatanging Gawad Urian – to the most luminous name in the field of cinematography: Romeo “Romy” Vitug, who holds the distinction of being the first in his profession to be billed as director of photography. He also has a total of six Urian awards for best cinematography.

            Romy was born in Floridablanca, Pampanga on January 27, 1937 to Honesto and Esperanza Vitug. (His mother’s maiden name was also Vitug since his parents were third cousins.) Since his father was considered the dean of photo-jourrnalism, it is easy to assume that Romy’s gift for creating visual images that leave long0lasting impact came packaged with his genes. Honesto, however, discouraged his son from pursuing the same profession. “Ano gusto mo, muchacho ka habang-buhay?” Honesto had a point. To this day, most photographes and cameraman merely follow the lead of the reporters, who get all the glory in any coverage.

            From his end, Romy didn’t have any interest in photography. His dream as a youngster was to become a lawyer. He could have been one, except that while taking up pre-law at the Manuel L. Quezon University, the family’s finances became unstable and he had to stop schooling. His father, who knew public officials because of the nature of work, eventually got him a job as a bookkeeper at the department of liquidation, the agency that auction off used government supplies.

On his first day at work, Romy was accompanied by his father, who was friends with PR head of that office. Maybe just to impress on people that his son could be useful for any type of work, Honesto told them “na magaling ding photographer ‘yang anak ko.” Faster than anyone could say “cheese,” the PR head handed Romy a secondhand Leica camera. Forget the bookkeeping job. Romy was going to be the staff photographer. Sure, he culd click away, but that was all he knew about cameras. That very evening, he was dispatched to Pangasinan where the big boss, Pedro Jimenez, was going to make a speech. Romy tried different kinds of exposure – hoping he’d get at least one right.

In Manila, he rushed to his father’s Chronicle office where Honesto’s co-workers at the photo lab helped him develop the photos. “May overexposed, may underexposed – at mayroon walang lumitaw,” recalls Romy. But, as he had hoped, he got at least one right.

Romy didn’t stay long in that government office. He eventually joined the Chronicle where – for two years 0 he languished as apprentice photographer. His father could have pulled strings to make him a regular staff, but Honesto frown on nepotism. He told Romy straight: “If you make a name as a photographer, it should be because you are good and not because you are my son.” Romy took that as a challenge.

Great moments in history were unfolding that time Romy decided to embrace photography as a profession. Ramon Magsaysay was at the peak of his popularity as the Man of the Masses. Then his plane crashed on March 17,1957 at Mt. Manunggal in Cebu, killing everyone except for newsman Nestor Mata. There was national mourning, but media men had a job to do. Honesto trailed the widow, Mrs. Luz Magsaysay, who – in her moments of griefs – held hands with her children. Honesto captured these images – no faces, only hands. It landed on page one of The Manila Chronicle. Titled Linked Hands, the photo became iconic. It was eventually bought by Life Magazine.

Days later, upon the advice of Honesto, Romy took shots of “interesting crowd reactions” during Magsaysay’s funeral while it passed through Rizal Avenue. He chanced upon a slice of the mammoth crowd elbowing each other, but grieving as one. This photo also made it to the front page – upper fold.

During the 1961 presidential elections, he covered the campaign sortie of Diosdado Macapagal in Batanes and got acquainted with Ferdinand Marcos. Macapagal and Marcos were buddies then who ate together and slept together while out campaigning. Along with Cornelio Villareal, they formed the triumvirate created by Eugenio Perez to bring life back to the Liberal Party. Marcos helped strategize the Macapagal presidential bids – on the condition that the politician from Pampanga would run for only one term. When Macapagal won, he chose as his official photographer his childhood friend from Lubao, Honesto Vitug.

With Honesto away in the Palace, Romy was finally able to get out of father’s shadow and managed to shine on his own as a photo-journalist. But in order to be as good as his father, he felt he had to hone his skills some more.

One day in 1964, he was practicing his shots in the then still war-scarred Intramuros when he noticed a car pull over. Through the rolled-down window, he heard a low, booming voice say: “Romy, kamusta ka na? Hindi na kami magkasundo ng kababayan mo.” It was Marcos and he was in the backseat with Imelda. Macapagal had announced is plan to run for another term contrary to the agreement and Marcos was running against him. Would Romy like to cover the Marcos campaign trail?

From Intramuros, Romy found himself n Ccarcar, Cebu where he captured on camera the presidential aspirant raising both hands while flashing the Victory sign in the middle of a large, cheering crowd. That prompted Marcos to call his campaign group the Victory Team.

Marcos won, but Romy didn’t join him in Malacañang. He resumed his career as a photo-journalist and by then had moved to The Manila Times where he met BenCab, who that time was the paper’s layout artist. He also made friends with Virgie Moreno, who encouraged him “to go work in the movies.” He went to television first instead – as a cameraman covering events for Channel 5’s The Big News with Jose Mari Velez. While working for TV, Imelda summoned Romy to the Palace Music Room. The First Lady asked him how much he was earning at Channel 5. When Rommy said P350 a month, Imelda immediately counted: “Bukas, P2,000 ka na.”

Imelda wanted him to join the Marcos’ campaign sorties – hoping that Romy could duplicate the shot of Marcos flashing the Victory sign. Alas, Marcos was unable to gather the same huge crowd that supported him in the 1965 elections. It took Romy almost a year – actually three months before the elections – to finally get the shot they wanted. It happened in Dinalupihan, Bataan, where the crowd wasn’t even as thick as the one that gathered in Carcar, Cebu some four years earlier.

When Marcos was re-elected, Romy worked for the American Broadcasting Company in Manila and had to drive to the airport everyday to send news reels n 16 mm that were stored in cans marked DO NOT X-RAY.

Like most other media practioners, Romy got displaced during martial law. He busied himself taking publicity photos for Lino Brocka’s plays staged at Fort Santiago. In 1974, Brocka asked him to take still photos on the set of Tinimbang Ka Nguni’t Kulang – with the promise that Romy would be the cinematographer at the director’s next film project.

While Tinimbang was enjoying an extended run – drawing crowds even from Forbes Park – Brocka began preparing for his next film, Tatlo, Dalawa, Isa, with Romy as cinematographer.

Tatlo is a trilogy and the first to be shot was Hellow, Soldier, a play written by Sister Angela Barrios. Presented in 1968 on Balintanaw, it featured Loretta Marquez as a slum girl whose only chance at a better life is to join her ex-GI father in America but in the process has to leave behind all alone her illiterate mother, played by Rosa Rosal. The film version starred Hilda Koronel and Anita Linda and principal location was in a depressed area in Mandaluyong.

On the first day of shooting, Romy saw the crewman bring down from the service vehicle different types of lighting equipment. In his head, he was wondering: “What are those for?” Perhaps the crew noticed that he was still groping his way through as a first-time cinematographer. They refused to obey his instructions. Set in their ways, they frowned on the innovations he was introducing on the set. When Romy threatened to resign as cinematographer, Brocka talked to the crew and told them: “I prefer a man who works forward or backward, but not standing still.” Even if Brocka sided with him, Romy was still unhappy on the set of Tatlo. He didn’t feel that his work was good enough.

Assessing the visuals of Hellow, Soldier, he feels – up to this day – that he should have used fill lights to add more layers to his photography; especially in the interior scenes. He also believes that he bungled it up big-time in the episode Bukas, Madilim Bukas.

The most crucial scene in Bukas is the part where the spinster Lolita Rodriguez confronts her mother, Mary Walter, for pretending to be invalid to keep her forever at her bedside. For this scene, Romy installed one strong overhead light, aside from a table lamp that also served as prop. He used up 2,000 feet of film for this “tuhog” (continuous) shot and – to his horror – every time Lolita would come close to the source of light, “parang nasusunog ang mukha n’ya,” says a still embarrassed Romy.

When Tatlo was finally exhibited, nobody even noticed what he calls “his bad work,” Former Manunuri Alfred Yuson – in one review – even described Tatlo as “a fine collaboration between Brocka and Vitug.” Maybe, he was just being too hard on himself, being a perfectionist. Anyway, for what he calls “his bad work,” Romy got paid P3,000 for all three episodes.

The next Brocka-Vitug team-up was in Lunes, Martes, Mierkules, Huwebes, Biyernes, Sabado, Linggo, a panoply of tales about Olangapo bar girls. To make up for Tatlo, Romy exeperimented with new lighting techniques that took so long to set up, Brocka – in exasperation – called him “obsessed.”

His constant experimentations paid off. Only three years after he began his career as a cinematographer, he won the Urian for Mga Bilanggong Birhen, a film that was completed by Romy Suzara after the original, Mario O’ Hara, had differences with producer Armida Siguion-Reyna. “Armida had her rules and she wanted those followed,” recalls Romy, who always managedto survive Armida’s fastidious ways.

On the set of Salome in Paracale, he escaped getting caught in the crossfire during the monumental battles between Armida and director Laurice Guillen by busying himself working on new camera shots. On the beach once, he had portions of sand dug up and positioned his camera there to make the sea look like “it’s at eye level.”

Romy’s willingness to try different techniques allowed him to become versatile: He was able to swing from Brocka’s gritty slums to Viva glossies.

In 1990, Charo S. Concio’s Vision Films produced Kapag Langit ang Humatol, a komiks material intended to be an out-and-out commercial venture. Even theater owners were determined to make this project a huge box-office success (thereby increasing their share of profits) that they pressured production to drop Tirso Cruz III as Vilma Santos’ leading man. They preferred the more bankable Richard Gomez. Nevermind if he was 12 years younger than Vilma (the story isn’t even a May-December affair).

Kapag Langit could have been a shameless and mushy melodrama had it not been for Guillen’s tight grip on the material and Romy’s cinematography that had more texture than gloss. On the big screen, it has the feel of those classic black-and-white Tagalog movies, except that, well it is in color. As a film product, its appeal is very Filipino. In the end, Kapag Langit not only made money, but also earned prestige. Laurice and romy both won their second Urian trophies for this film.

The following year, Romy worked on Carlos Siguion-Reyna’s Hihintayin Kita sa Langit, an adaptation of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. Given the rugged terrain of Batanes (where the film was partly shot) – magnificent cliffs and an untamed sea below – a less prudent cinematographer could have turned this project into a travelogue.

Sure, the picturesque Batanes landscapes were used – but as integral elemennts to the story. His favorite is the scene where Richard Gomez and Dawn Zulueta frolic on a hillside slope. The first time he saw this slope was in the mid-‘70s, while location hunting with Brocka and Orlando Nadres for a film project that never materialized. Since then, Romy had been aching to shoot a scene there. The poetic love story turned out to be the perfect film for his dream shot since that hillside slope looks like it’s merely an arm’s length from heaven where “Richard and Dawn will wait for each other.”

It can be said that Romy’s photographer in Hihintayin helped Richard won his first Urian – actually his first acting award ever. During the MPP deliberations to select the winners in 1991, one scene nailed it for Richard. This is the part (also contained in the novel) where Gomez overhears Dawn’s contempt for his station in life. Richard gives a solid performance in the movie, but Romy’s play of light and shadow add more dimension to the actor’s facial expressions that make up for the absence of dialogue. Siguion-Reyna also won his first Urian for Hihintayin and Romy, his third.

In 1992, the three worked again together in Ikaw Pa Lang ang Minahal – an adaptation of the Olivia de Havilland movie The Heiress (from the play Washington Square). The first problem of this project was casting. Vilma would have been perfect as the spinster swept off her feet by a gold-digging heel (Richard). She passed up on the offer. Maricel Soriano took over, but she is of the same age as Richard.

With the help of the production designer, Maricel is made to look mousy and plain. But it is also Romy’s lighting and camera angles that helped the actress pull off this role and, in the end, win acting nominations. Ikaw Pa Lang won Urian best picture, director and cinematography – Romy’s fourth.

His fifth Urian win was for Saan Ka Man Naroroon, where he lived up to his reputation as “a master of controlled brightness and bold color combinations.” As an artist too modest to talk about his works, all he can say about this movie is that it became unforgettable for him because it was here where Richard and Dawn broke up – “at iniyakan ko ‘yun.”

Romy’s sixth Urian was for Bakit May Kahapon Pa? (1996). Once more, his play of light and shadows has helped make this Nora Aunor movie more suspenseful a political thriller. Although totally different from the love stories he worked on previously, romy still succeeds in Bakit May Kahapon Pa because he obviously studied the material and knew it by heart. “Actually, when you show up for your first production meeting, dapat nabasa mo na ‘yung script – at naiintindihan mo,” shares Romy.

He made an exception for Celso Ad. Castillo, with whom he made Ang alamat ni Julian Makabayan. Since Celso didn’t work with a script, they would only talk the night before the shoot. Or sometimes right before the actual filming. Celso’s Isla was one of the most difficult films he made because it had a lot of sex and nudity. It would take him two hours to set up delicate scenes and study carefully his camera movements so that these don’t come out lewd and indecent.

On the set, especially while shooting nude scenes, Romy always protects the actresses. He was even the one who nagged Ina Raymundo “to go cover herself up” right after doing a nude scene in Burlesk Queen II. “These women would know if you are taking advantage of them,” offers Romy.

Aside from sex scenes, he also finds it difficult shooting anything involving the sea, especially at night. “Naka—banca lang kayo, tapos baka mahulog pa camera mo.”

Scenes with rain effect are also challenging to shoot. Lighting in particular can be problematic here “kasi hindi lang artista ang iniilawan – pati ang ulan,” he points out. “And the fireman should know how to hold the house properly to get the desired rain effect.”

Tricky are scenes involving sunrise and sunset or anything controlled by nature. During the filming of Iisa Pa Lamang in Palawan in 1992, the movie had to show Richard Gomez and Maricel Laxa romancing on an island – with a flock of birds dotting the skyline. The birds fly overhead practically on the dot only at 5 a.m. so everyone slept there and waited.

When everything had been set up and after director Jose Javier Reyes shouted “Action,” Romy’s camera jammed. Fortunately, Romy had the foresight to ask Regal Films for two cameras. However, the spare camera – in its steel casing – still had to be fetched from the boat. Since they lost several minutes (they still had to thread in the film into the camera), they missed a great part of the avian parade.

Petty, but nevertheless stressful, are instances when an actor insists that the shot be taken from his right because he knows he looks better in that angle. Trouble erupts when the scene involves another actor who also looks good fom that angle and they have to talk and face each other. And then there are actors who need – and want – to look younger on the screen. In such cases, Romy avoids using direct lighting. He also uses tracing paper to soften the face. When all else fails, he has diffusers 1,2,3,4, – up to 5 – “although I don’t use 5 at baka mabura na ang mukha ng artista.”

Too bad, not everyone looks like Hilda Koronel or Dawn Zulueta, two actresses he finds so beautiful, “Puwedeng kunan kahit anong anggulo.” Add to the list Isabelle Daza with whom he works now in an ABS-CBN soap opera.

Yes, Romy is back on TV – as lighting director. At the moment, he’s learning the process of digital filmmaking, which “I intend to master.”

            Cinema is an evolving art. Romy wants to keep up with it and doesn’t mind learning digital technology from young people with less experience in filmmaking. This is not false modesty because he is one artist who – even at the peak of his career – didn’t mind distributing snacks to guests during press previews when production was understaffed.

            Even if he is the most decorated local cinematographer (he made it to the Famas Hall of Fame early on), he never developed any ego and has remained humble. This is the reason why co-workers love and respect this man whose signature look is a Mao cap and jacket – plus pipe.

            And despite the fact that he’s been away from film for quite some time, most moviegoers still associate his name with memorable screen images at a time when cinema was mainly celluloid.

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