In September 2012, the restored version of the highly-acclaimed film Himala (1982) premiered at the 69th Venice International Film Festival in Italy. In December of that year, the Ishmael Bernal classic had its Philippine premiere, attended by some of the most respected people in the industry of cinema, including the film’s screenwriter, Ricky Lee.
The audience sang praises in unison. Those who have watched the film before were astonished at the film’s new-found clarity, which allowed them to see—in much detail—the film’s cinematic style, the cast, the production design, and even the eyes of the lead actress Nora Aunor. Aunor’s eyes, many believe, have always been her most powerful tool.
The younger members of the crowd, who were watching it for the first time, were introduced to this masterpiece—and they wanted more of its kind.
Behind this achievement are the people who work with the ABS-CBN Film Restoration department, headed by Leo Katigbak. And this endeavor was only their first step toward a bigger advocacy.
The history of film restoration
On the basement floors of the Eugenio Lopez Junior (ELJ) Communications Center, inside the ABS-CBN compound in Quezon City, are the offices of the ABS-CBN Film Archives and Film Restoration department.
Julie Galino, who used to work as a technical specialist for film restoration for LVN Pictures, Inc., manages the film archives section.
The office space on basement 1, is your regular office, except that there are no windows and a view of the bustling city. Instead, there are walls plastered with posters of local films, majority of which are the classic ones by Ishmael Bernal, Eddie Romero, Lino Brocka, Mike de Leon, to name a few. Where office cubicles usually fill up majority of the rooms, this special place instead holds equipment used for some parts of film restoration, and props from old movies and TV series. Somewhere in that collection, a dark-brown-colored, bald figure with huge eyes, that’s about three-feet tall, sticks out—it was used for the TV series Kokey (2007). Three life-sized dolls with long, dark hair, and sinister eyes—used in the 2014 horror film Maria Leonora Teresa by the late Wenn Deramas—stand beside each other. All of these random objects stay safe in a temperature-controlled, freezing space that’s huge enough to hold a vault and 13 employees (including Katigbak and Galino, although the former usually stays in his office in another building).
The history of Film Restoration dates back to 1994, when the Film Archives department was set up to house the film materials acquired by ABS-CBN for their cable channel, which is now called Cinema One. In 1993, Star Cinema, the film production arm of ABS-CBN, began its operations, and it needed a group to handle the archiving of their projects.
At the time, digital restoration was expensive. According to Katigbak, while analogue restoration was available, it couldn’t deal with the problems inherent in the prints stored in the Philippines. These problems occur because our weather does not lend itself to proper preservation.
“We tried to restore Peque Gallaga’s Oro, Plata, Mata , but at the time, it would have cost us 25 million pesos,” Katigbak reveals. “And still, it would not have addressed the problems of the copies.”
By around 2008, Hollywood was already doing brand new scans in high-definition (HD) format; they were phasing out the Blue Ray format; and they were big on colorizing classic movies. “Around that year, a lot of work was being done to tweak the classic film materials,” Katigbak says. Their team then started to revisit the possibility of restoring the films, which they already have in their archives.
In 2010, Katigbak and his team presented their plans to restore films to the management of ABS-CBN, who were immediately “impressed with the advances in technology.” To prove their concept, the team tested their restoration process on Maalaala mo kaya…The Movie (1994), which had scratches, warpage, and discoloration, to name a few.
Katigbak recalls, “Gabby Lopez [the current chairman emeritus of ABS-CBN Corporation] already felt at the time that there will be a new technology coming soon for broadcast. He said we needed to prepare the materials of ABS-CBN, and to prepare the movies for that future technology.” The budget was promptly approved, even if it was a little hefty.
While Maalaala mo kaya…the Movie was already being restored, Katigbak felt the movie’s age wouldn’t be enough to push for their film restoration campaign. “Paano mo ipo-promote ang isang sine na hindi man lang 20 years old?” Katigbak says. “Why don’t we start with movies considered real classics?” In fact, they already owned the rights to some of the experiemental films—Himala, Oro Plata Mata, Ganito Kami Noon, Paano Kayo Ngayon? (1976)— which they bought from a public bidding.
Coincidentally, Himala was celebrating its 30th anniversary, so a book and a documentary about it were about to be released. The idea was to have the more recent films like Maalaala mo kaya…The Movie piggyback on the classic films.
Katigbak saw this as a great opportunity to start their campaign. They then came up with strategies to give the movie more value in the present time: they made new posters, put together a new teaser for the film, and created new marketing materials.
“There is no point in restoring something unless you let people watch it,” Katigbak says. “So, for example, when someone walks in front of the new poster, the person would actually stop and consider watching the movie.”
The restoration project was a success. ABS-CBN Film Restoration’s campaign, called Sagip Pelikula, was then born. And the rest, as they say, is history.
How to restore a film
It takes a minimum of two months to restore a single film, that’s why the process is costly.
Galino, who was with LVN Productions when it closed down in 2005, is in awe of the technological achievements in our country. She stayed with LVN until 2010, when the company’s shares were sold to a new management. She was later hired by ABS-CBN to work under Film Restoration, which was then part of the now-defunct Special Projects division.
Every day, she comes to the office happy because she believes this is her calling. The petite, cheerful Julie tells ANCX, “Parang hinihila ako papunta dito. Natuwa ako no’ng napunta ako dito kasi it’s only a continuation of what I used to do—from conventional to digital, nag-level up. Mas challenging, mas exciting.
Despite the absence of sunlight inside the entire office, the atmosphere doesn’t feel heavy. The small team gets along well, and their job is their passion. One of the staff members, for instance, JR Macatangay has been working for the film industry for years. Before handling the film materials at ABS-CBN, he had worked for Sampaguita Pictures.
The tasks on their to-do list may vary from day to day. Galino’s team helps select the films needed to be prioritize in a given year—they can restore an average of 15 films a year, depending on the budget. After selecting the film, they need to acquire the film’s rights, if they don’t have it yet. Acquiring these rights may take months, or even years, because some remaining copies of Filipino films are stored outside of the Philippines (especially those that competed in international film festivals).
When everything is done, they begin the process of restoration.
The prints and negatives are stored in vaults, which must be checked every day. These vaults must maintain a certain temperature and humidity: 8 to 10 degrees Celsius for the long-term vault in basement 1, and 15 to 20 degrees Celsius for the medium-term vault, in basement 2. The copies must go through two acclimatization rooms (for day 1 and day 2) before they are taken out of the vault.
The copies go through a process called film inspection, which may take two to three days, depending on the kind of repairs the copies need. These copies are then scanned, transferred to a hard drive, and brought to a restoration facility. The oldest film they’ve restored so far is the Dolphy starrer, Omeng Satanasia (1977).
While all these undertakings are happening, Galino and her team simultaneously answer requests for airing of the films they’ve restored. Galino says they receive thousands of requests in a month. Their team also helps organize events that raise awareness of the need to protect classic films.
Click on the images for slideshow
One of the rooms in the basement office of ABS-CBN Film Archives.
A record book noting copies of the teleserye Kay Tagal Kang Hinintay.
The vaults are mostly made up of rows and rows of shelves containing copies of films owned by ABS-CBN.
A vintage film projector kept in storage.
The temperature in the vaults are monitored.
The copies must go through two acclimatization rooms (for day 1 and day 2) before they are taken out of the vault.
Film reels of the romantic drama One More Chance. Right: a temperature monitor among the film reels.
Eligio “JR” Macatangay used to work for Sampaguita Pictures. He now handles film materials at the ABS-CBN Film Restoration department.
Julie Galino was in LVN Pictures for 20 years before joining ABS-CBN where she recently assumed the post of managing the film archives.
JR is seen here using a particle transfer roller which cleans a film roll before it is put to storage.
A couple of work areas in the archives department.
Magnets from the staff just before the inspection room. Right: old editing machines.
The fantaserye character Kokey. Right: various solutions kept in the inspection rooms.
A film can and (right) one of ABS-CBN's fantasy characters.
Reels of Himala, the first movie the company restored.
The Sharon Cuneta-Richard Gomez starrer, Minsan Minahal Kita, in tape format.
A well-preserved prop from the Manuel Conde classic Ang Prinsipeng Hindi Tumatawa (1946).
“Films do reflect the culture, architecture, fashion, social norm of a particular era,” says Katigbak. “It becomes a cultural snapshot."
According to records, there have been around 8,000 Filipino movies produced on film—from 1919 to 2012—and not even half of that number has been saved and stored properly. Of the 8,000 films, only a quarter can be restored.
In short, there’s still a lot of work to be done.
“Films do reflect the culture, architecture, fashion, social norm of a particular era,” Katigbak explains. “It becomes a cultural snapshot. Nakakalungkot that you have the likes of Lino Brocka, Ishmael Bernal, Mike de Leon, Eddie Romero—who have already been known in Europe since the ‘70s and ‘80s—na limot na ng tao ngayon. Part of our advocacy is making sure that people will remember these greats.”
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The pursuit of that advocacy has been sadly put on hold, however, following Congress denying ABS-CBN its franchise. The archives department is closing and, after its last two completed restoration projects Markova and Minsan Lang Kita Iibigin, so will the restoration efforts. The effort to save our movies has truly been one of the most unexpected casualties of the ABS-CBN franchise denial.
Meanwhile, as the countdown to the August 31 closing of offices begin, Katigbak is scrambling to find a solution on how to keep the treasures of the archive vaults safe for the future. “At the very least man lang maalagaan itong ating archives,” he told TV Patrol recently, “kasi hindi biro na ito’y naitago. Ayaw namin mangyari katulad nung sinakop ang ABS-CBN nung martial law, na na-destroy lahat ng kopya ng lahat ng ginawa ng ABS-CBN kasi nirecycle ang tapes at ibinasura.”
Photographs by Geric Cruz