Pinoy Movieland In the Eyes of Neil Daza

Chito Roño’s go-to cinematographer is staging his first exhibit of photographs from the movie set at the CCP. As he sheds light on the making of the images, Rogue reflects on the impact of his work.

by Philbert Dy

This article was originally published in the July 2017 issue of Rogue.

 

For over 25 years, Neil Daza has been shooting some of the most memorable sequences in Filipino cinema. And he’s been doing it at all levels of the industry. He is Chito Roño’s preferred cinematographer, working with him in 2000’s Laro sa Baga, and then joining him on Spirit Warriors. On mainstream TV, he had a key role on the smash hit Be Careful with My Heart, shooting the popular television series in high definition format. He’s also a mainstay in the independent movie scene, his veteran eye bringing a sense of polish to several low-budget features that made a splash in the early days of digital filmmaking.

 

Daza took on the challenge of shooting film noir with the cameras of the time, and the results are nothing short of miraculous, his neon-soaked compositions really bringing the world of Seroks to life.

 

An exhibit of his behind-the-scenes photos runs in the Cultural Center of the Philippines from the entire month of August to the second week of September, and the images tell a story of an artist who explores all corners of his craft, never getting comfortable with just doing one thing.

 

DEKADA ’70 (2002, CHITO ROÑO)

 

Dekada ’70 (2002)

 

Dekada ’70 was the fifth straight film that Daza had worked on with director Chito Roño. It’s striking when you list them all down and see just how different they were from each other. Laro sa Baga was a sexy coming-of-age film. Spirit Warriors was a fantasy adventure. La Vida Rosa was a romantic crime film. Yamashita: The Tiger’s Treasure was a huge adventure production, best remembered for its heavy use of visual effects. At this point, Daza hadn’t really shot that many films yet, but he was already proving to be one of the most versatile cinematographers of the industry. In Dekada ’70, Daza muted the colors of this prestige drama, the interiors capturing the spirit of the times—political turmoil invading this typical Filipino home.

 

NEIL DAZA: Dekada ‘70‘s story connects on a very personal level. I grew up during martial law and it was my own experiences which became the motivation in lighting the film. It was also a minimalist approach. I didn’t want any fancy lighting or camera work that would distract the audience from the political drama happening on screen.

 

SEROKS (2006, ED LEJANO)

 

Seroks (2006)

 

In 2006, digitial filmmaking was just on the rise. Both Cinemalaya and Cinema One Originals had just started, and no one was really sure if this whole independent film thing was going to work out. It’s really amazing to think how much cameras have improved in the last 10 years. The digital movies back then were generally grainy, low-contrast pieces of work, few able to transcend the limitations of the technology. But Daza took on the challenge of shooting film noir with the cameras of the time, and the results are nothing short of miraculous. The movie looks good, even by today’s standards, Daza’s neon-soaked compositions really bringing the film’s world to life.

 

ND: While doing research for Bayaning 3rd World in 1998 (I shot for 11 days with Mike de Leon for this movie), we watched a lot of 1940s and 50s black-and-white noir films. So when Ed Lejano told me he wanted a noir-ish look for Seroks, I just went back to that noir-feel research and made it more modern by using color and camera movement in the narrative.

 

Bayaning Third World (1998)

 

LAST FULL SHOW AND GOD ONLY KNOWS (2005 and 2008, respectively; MARK V. REYES)

 

God Only Knows (2008)

Daza worked on these short films with Mark V. Reyes, a Filipino filmmaker based in the US. Both these shorts explore the underbelly of Filipino life, so the visuals are a striking contrast to Daza’s mainstream work. By this time, he had already shot Feng Shui, and he had just come off a Diether Ocampo romcom, both films created with a certain level of gloss. But Daza seemed to have no problem finding the odd beauty in a rundown theater where illicit things happen, or a motel where a mother makes a very terrible choice.

 

ND: These two films were shot during the transition from film to digital. Last Full Show was shot on 35mm film and went to the bleached bypass process in the lab, giving the film the desaturated colors and really rich glossy blacks. God Only Knows’s visual treatment dictated that we shoot the film on digital format so we could just “linger” and “observe” Angel Aquino’s character.

 

SAMPAGUITA, NATIONAL FLOWER (2010, FRANCIS XAVIER PASION)

 

At the time, Sampaguita, National Flower was touted as one of the first Filipino films to be shot completely on a digital SLR. Daza, who at this point was a revered veteran of the industry, was still exploring his art, learning to use new tools.

 

Daza would take advantage of the light weight of the cameras and their ability to shoot in low light to capture scenes of street kids running around at night, with nothing but the street lamps to light the scenes. Daza would later work again with the late Francis Pasion on Bwaya, refining visual and narrative sensibilities in a more rural setting.

 

ND: I shot Sampaguita like a documentary. I actually felt the film was more of a documentary than a feature film.

 

BADIL (2013, CHITO ROÑO)

 

Badil (2013)

 

Badil was shot on a low budget as part of a now-defunct Film Development Council of the Philippines project that gave grants to the “masters” of Filipino cinema. This was actually the second time Daza and Roño produced a film with money sourced from the government. The first was 2010’s Emir, a musical extravanganza party shot in the Middle East that had the express support of the Office of the President. Again, Daza seems comfortable working at either end of the budget spectrum, but it’s when he encounters limitations that his talent really shines. Between the two, Badil has more personality, its restrained, desaturated images of a small-town election creating indelible impressions on everyone who saw them.

 

ND: We didn’t have budget for lights so we made our own practical lights from ordinary bulbs. Which was fine since I wanted Badil to be dark. Just like living in a remote island where three to four brownouts happen in a day and power is out by 8 p.m. and the people are awake and are used to moving around in the dark.

 

“Neil Daza 25 Times: Images from Behind the Camera” runs until September 10 at the Pasilyo Vicente Manansala in the CCP.