To be a great documentary photographer is to disappear into the milieu of one’s subject. For only when the subject thinks no one is looking does it truly reveal its essential self.
Which brings us to Cesar Hernando—screenwriter, art teacher, book and poster designer, production designer, director, overall creative collaborator and yes, photographer, too. For having inhabited the movie set for close to five decades, no one has really captured Philippine cinema in photographs quite like he did.
For years, Hernando was clicking from the sidelines to catch moments behind the scenes that tell their own stories.
There is the picture of the young Mark Gil and the ingénue Bing Pimentel, sitting on the floor at the Vera Perez office for the workshops of Batch '81, an early encounter that betrays nothing of the on-set romance that will blossom when the cameras started to grind.
There is the one with Vilma Santos, before she goes into character as Sister Stella L., casually holding a cigarette in front of Tony Santos Jr. lying in a coffin—while the actress Anita Linda, the director Mike de Leon, and cinematographer Rody Lacap complete the picture.
There is that photograph of Rita Gomez looking terribly incensed on the set of Pagdating Sa Dulo, flanked by heads of cameramen recording her expression—a picture that mixes reel and real together, on the set of a movie about making a movie.
Because Hernando was part of the fabric of the movie set, the actors revealed their true selves. When they were made aware he’s there, they shoot him a smile or throw him a pose. Whether its stills or his behind-the-scenes pictures, his images possess a cinematic composition, tinged with a deep reverence for the movies and the people who make them. For he was not a mere stillman whose photographs served only as continuity guide. Hernando is both filmmaker and fan of the world he so loved. He was one of the rare guys who was as well-versed with classic Tagalog movies as with world art cinema.
Growing up on comics, radio and movies
Hernando’s fascinations for the illusory world of telling stories began as a child. His father was a plainclothes police detective at the Manila Police Department’s homicide division. “He really enjoyed the problem-solving aspect of his job, and I always heard him talk to my mom about his exploits hunting down criminals,” Hernando told the writer Charlene Sawit in her blog. His mother, on the other other hand, was a housewife who loved the radio soap opera. Hernando grew up amidst comic books and the sound of radio drama.
Click on the arrows for slideshow*
Melissa de Leon, plays the modern Ligaya Paraiso in Mike de Leon's 'Aliwan Paradise,' 1992. Here, she poses by the theater marquee set at the LVN Studios.
Vilma Santos as the nun opening her eyes to the injustices around her in 'Sister Stella L.', Makati, 1985.
"Yul Servo posed for me outside a liquor store in this chilly night shoot of 'Batang West Side' at Kennedy Boulevard, Jersey City in New Jersey.
"Behind-the-scene of rock opera tunnel scene in 'Kakabakaba Ka Ba?' shot at the main studio of LVN Pictures. Waiting for their cue (partly hidden) are Jay Ilagan and Johnny Delgado."
"Vic Silayan as the evil patriarch contemplating before a take in 'Kisapmata'"
"Joel Torre as the investigating police officer in 'Batang West Side' who himself had to face or deal with his own demons. Shot in an apartment in Kennedy Boulevard in Jersey City."
Julio Diaz and Melissa de Leon play scavengers in Smokey Mountain for 'Aliwan Paradise,' 1993.
"Hilda Koronel posed for me before the shoot of Lux soap TVC which I produced for J. Walter Thompson."
Mark Gil, Noel Trinidad, Rod Leido and company, during the Cabaret scene in 'Batch '81.'
The singing nuns of 'Kakabakaba Ka Ba?'
His father was a voracious reader. “At night, during bed time, my dad would tell stories to put us to sleep–his stories fascinated me and my siblings, and the problem was we never got to sleep because we were curious about the endings of his stories," Hernando told Sawit.
Sundays would be spent, after mass, watching movies with the family in downtown Manila. “From dinner time up to bed time, we talked about the movie that we’d watched that afternoon–the story, the acting, the way the scenes were shot, etc.”
He loved movies even as a young man. But back in Hernando’s younger days, there were hardly any avenues for an enthusiast like him to learn film’s disciplines. “My parents were addicted to movies," he said last year, just before The Unseen, an exhibition of his photographs in Archivo 1984. "When I reached college, no courses on film were being offered so I took up Fine Arts which I thought was closer to film.”
While working as an artist at McCann Erickson, Hernando enrolled at an evening film course offered by the Film Institute of the Philippines (FIP); the classes were held at the Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila. There, Hernando became classmates with the screenwriter Clodualdo “Doy” del Mundo who would introduce him to Mike de Leon, scion of the family behind LVN Pictures, himself a filmmaker. Del Mundo wrote the screenplay for Maynila Sa Kuko ng Liwanag where de Leon was producer and cinematographer.
In 1970, FIP head Ben Pinga would recommend Hernando as assistant director (AD) to Ishmael Bernal who was then making his full-length debut feature, Pagdating sa Dulo.
Unlike recent practice wherein a photographer takes both stills and behind-the-scenes photos, Hernando’s work as AD also included photographing movie scenes. And because the newbie did not own a camera back then, he borrowed one from an uncle.
The film universe
Hernando would eventually get to work with De Leon on his next assignment: he was asked to take some photos on the set of Itim, the director’s second full-length feature. It would be the beginning of a longtime friendship and collaboration. Hernando would take pictures of almost all of De Leon’s movies, apart from taking on production design work some of the director’s best works including Kisapmata and Batch ’81. De Leon, in a Facebook post refers to him as our "man of cinema."
For Hernando, movie still photography was more than just taking photos for documentation, continuity and promotional purposes. It was an important skill. “The still photographer should know how the film camera is blocked or placed so that he can see it from a vantage point related to the storytelling of the film being shot—without being a nuisance during the take.”
Since the 1970s, Hernando had photographed many of the productions he was involved in, the most recent one being De Leon’s 2017 political drama Citizen Jake. Although Hernando had transitioned to digital photography, he remained a fan of the analog format. “In analog,” he mused to ANCX, “I was more careful in shooting. You see, the film spool has only 36 shots. So I was always alert about film running out of my camera… In digital, it is ‘point-and-shoot’ and one can have the tendency to overshoot.”
Over the years, Hernando has amassed a treasure trove of images that, when pieced together, offer rarely seen perspectives of Filipino moviemaking. He worked exclusively with the greats, which added even more luster and premium to the pictures he took. While his aesthetics was influenced by the European New Wave filmmakers, his exposure to some of the most sophisticated minds in local film served only to hone his craft. Just as his short films were recently screened in small retrospectives, his body of work in photography has been the subject of exhibitions: once at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, and the more recent one at Archivo 1984.
As film production designer, Hernando is known for his collaborations with directors de Leon, Lav Diaz and Raymond Red. Hernando received four Best Production Designer awards: three from the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino (for Kisapmata, Bayani and Batang West Side) and one from the Young Critics Circle (for Himpapawid). As a Fine Arts professor, the low-key Hernando is responsible for educating and inspiring a whole generation of film artists.
“He was the most approachable guy: a major movie nerd who'd rather talk about cinema than his achievements,” wrote Quark Henares in a Facebook post after hearing the news of Hernando’s passing. “And when I did steer the convo towards his achievements, he'd focus on the nostalgia and joy of the journey towards them: showing pictures of himself and Mark Gil in short shorts in Cannes, telling stories of how he was chased down by Mike de Leon during the making of Bayaning Third World, and randomly giving memorabilia of his movies as gifts.”
Erwin Romulo remembers him bringing up-and-coming semi-famous starlets to his sketching classes, and filmmaking pros to his lectures. "You offered us both enticement and instruction; the flesh and muscle that filmmakers should acquaint themselves with,” wrote Romulo, open letter style, for the film blog Criticine many years back. “The education we were getting was lost on many of us; but for those who appreciated your efforts no film school in the Philippines (then and now) could give us a better schooling in the artistry of cinema, the skill and craftsmanship involved, the sheer wonderment of these visions and dreams, as well as the painstaking costs it took to realize them.”
Indeed, Hernando was educator, designer, writer, filmmaker, chronicler and archivist—a man of many pursuits and disciplines. They enriched the lives and careers of his students, as well as the world he inhabited: cinema, which sustained Hernando's fascination and devotion for most of his life.
*All captions in quotes are Hernando's own.