Romy Vitug: Unedited, Uncensored


Vitug with Celso Ad Castillo on the set of Ang Alamat ni Julian Makabayan
(photo courtesy of Prof. Ernesto Enrique)

In Alamat ni Julian Makabayan, there was a scene where the ricefields were burning and Julian was on a horse and was being chased by the constabulary. As the smoke from the flames was eating up the fields, the farmers who by this time were surrounding Julian, were like floating on clouds. It was nearing dusk, the shadows were prefect. It was like in a dream. 

                                                                                         Romy Vitug on his most memorable scene

Starting out as a photographer for The Manila Chronicle in the late 50s, Romy Vitug would eventually venture into film upon much prodding from his artist and photographer friends. With more than 50 feature films to his credit, he is arguably one of the country’s foremost cinematographers. He has won every major award in his field including the first FAMAS Hall of Fame and the Parangal Patnubay sa Kalinangan for Cinematography by the City of Manila.  
Not only does Vitug belong to a different period, he is of a different time. However at 76, his memory is as sharp as ever. His father Honesto Vitug wanted him to be a lawyer and work in the Foreign Service. But the focus of his lens and clicks on the camera were too unbearable to ignore to the curious Vitug. Always smiling and approachable, like an unedited reel, he was unstoppable in sharing his memories during the interview: how he passed up Himala, how indie movies can be our last best hope for a flagging film industry. Ever optimistic and light-spirited, he would chuckle at his every comment.
Similar to his low-key, dramatic lighting style that he was known for, Vitug confesses that he is not comfortable with being in the spotlight as much as he enjoys behind-the-scenes. He shares you his thoughts.

posters courtesy of

Q: Can you tell us briefly about your family?

A: My late father is Honesto Vitug (1908-1993) who was considered the Father of Philippine Photojournalism He photographed 14 presidents starting with General Aguinaldo to President Corazon Aquino. He was short-listed for the National Artist Award last time. But sad to say, maybe for lack of budget, painters were always preferred. Walang laban ang photography. Bakit ganun?

At the start, my father did not want me to be a photographer. Nag-drop out na ko sa pre-law in MLQU. He was even insistent to say “ituloy mo na pag-aaral mo.” Pero nagustuhan ko na photography. As the son of the chief photographer of The Chronicle of the Lopez family, I was accepted as a stringer. But my father wanted me to take up law, eventually be in foreign service.
Q: When did you want to be a photographer?
A: Masyadong mababa ang tingin sa photography noon. Gusto ko iangat, however for three years I was not even an apprentice in the Chronicle. I would cry to senior photographer Rosendo Cruz about this. Was it lack of talent or was it delicadezasince my father was the chief photographer? Cruz advised me, “the Chronicle will get you because of you, not because of your father.”
Looking back now, I guess my father wanted me to be independent from him. He did not want to influence anyone just to get me in. He even said, “iinumin mo muna ang Ilog Pasig bago ko raw siya maabot.” As a photographer, natuto hindi umasa sa tatay ko.

Since I know the laboratory  guy of the Chronicle, he would give me extra rolls of film. Using my old Nikon rangefinder, I would go to Intramuros and shoot, to practice exposure. Madilim, maliwanag. My father advised me not to use light meter. “Use your eyes!” he said. Pag-uwi ko pa sa bahay, dala exposure meter, kukunan ko pa ang pamangkin katabi ang kandila para mag-practice exposure. Tinatandaan ko lahat.

Madalas ako maglakad sa reclaimed area where the Cultural Center of the Philippines is now. Kinukunan ko yung pag-reclaim — yung pagsipsip ng lupa. Minsan may nalunod na bata. Takbo ako dun. Di makita ng scuba diver yung bata. Tapos nung nakita, pag angat, parang eksena na pieta. Against the 3 o’clock sun, nakunan ko ng sillouette. Click, click, click. I took series of shots hanggang sa inakyat sabreakwater. Dinala sa Philippine Navy para ma-resuscitate. Pero wala na. Then may pari dumating, binendisyunan.

Yung police detective, dala-dala yung tsinelas at damit, pupuntahan yung magulang para ipaalam na namatay. Sumama ako. Gusto ko makita yung reaksyon ng nanay. Nasa likod ako ng detective. Kumatok. Ipinaalam na “nalunod po yung anak nyo.” Pagkakuha ko nang reaksyon ng nanay. Umalis na ko. Dinevelop ko sa Chronicle then na-feature the next day entitled Sea Tragedy  front page yung parang Pieta naphoto. That’s the time the Chairman of the Lopez group, Oscar Lopez asked me, “would you want to join The Chronicle?” Napatalon ako! Kasi noong araw ginagalang mga photojournalist. Nagtagal rin ako mga five years. Then sa Manila Times 2 years.
Early photograph of Romy Vitug

Q: What were the highlights of your being a photographer?

A: Actually hindi pa ko photographer for Chroniclewhen Magsaysay died in  1957. My father took closed up shots of the gripping hands of his family. During the funeral, he advised me to focus on the crowds. Thus when I arrived at the Chronicle and there was still no front page, they asked for my photos. They ended up in the front page the next day. So I felt proud because father and son were front pagers.
There’s also a classic photo of Marcos when he ran for president in 1965. It was in Carcar, Cebu when I took his photo with a victory sign on stage with the crowd as his background. The photo eventually became a main image of his campaign poster. He credits that photo to be his good luck charm. I shot him again in ’69 when he ran against Eugenio Lopez. This time it was in Dinalupihan, Bataan. Marcos won again. Since then President Marcos will call me just to photograph him and his family. In fact during the EDSA Revolution, I was in Malacanang and took final photos of the Marcoses in the Philippines which was featured in the Philippine Daily Inquirer.
Another milestone is courtesy of National Artist BenCab. I was the first Filipino photographer to formally exhibit in an art gallery in the Philippines. That was in his Indigo Gallery in 1976. I showed about 30-40 photos mostly landscape on the Manila Bay’s ongoing reclamation near CCP. In fact BenCab was with me when I took most of the shots. Alfredo Roces who had a column then even reviewed the exhibition.
My artistic inclination was further honed when I befriended artists like Mauro Malang Santos, Vicente Manansala and the rest of the Saturday Group. I would take their portraits while they were painting or having a discussion at their favorite restaurant in front of the US Embassy.

Q: What made you shift from photography to film?
A. My concern was, yes I’m a photographer but what if there is no news? Kung walang bakbakan, barilan, patayan, what will I do? The thought made me shift from film to cinema.
In 1974, a UP professor named Virgie Moreno was part-owner of a bar named Los Indios Bravos in Remedios, Mabini. A frequent hang-out of artists and writers including Nick Joaquin, she commented “Romy, you move to movies na, hindi na journalism yan. Pag di mo na gusto aayusin mo. Inaayos mo na. That’s editing.” The truth is, I really love moving pictures.
Then I applied in Channel 5, owned by Roceses, they said I still have to train in handling yun nga lang the video camera 16 mm, I would start from the bottom rank. I didn’t mind.
For Channel 5, my first assignment was to shoot an apartment na nasusunog sa may Buendia avenue. Isang bumbero lang sinundan ko. Yung eksena, involves mga manok natataranta, then pan ako sa may matanda sa bubong, babalik na naman ako sa bumbero. Hanggang sa namatay yung bumbero. Hanggang sa dumating pamilya niya. Nung pinanood sa Channel 5 pati may ari commented masterpiece daw. Regular na ko the next day. However after one year umalis na ko. Biruin mo nag-aral ka na ng camera may sweldo ka pa?

I met Lino sa mga stage plays of PETA. I was publicity photographer on the side and he got  me to do stills for Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang in 1974.

Kasabay ng Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang yung Pinakamagandang Hayop sa Balat ng Lupa ni Celso Ad Castillo. Sabi ni Direk Lino “Panoorin mo yan, may mata yan.” Pinanood ko, na-impress ako. Then Lino Brocka gave me my biggest break with the movies  Tatlo, Dalawa, Isa and Lunes, Martes, Myerkules, Huwebes, Byernes, Sabado, Linggo.

Lunes Martes was shot in a bar in Olongapo. The shooting had to wait because it took me forever to study the lighting inside the night club scene. I even kept the Americans as extras waiting, even Director Lino was waiting. Lino even remarked to our publicist Bibsy Carballo: “Romy is obsessed!”

 Q: What makes a good cinematographer?

A: Ilaw, framing, composition. Ang cinematographer kahit gaano kagaling, kung mahina ang visual range ng director, tagilid yung cinematographer. Masarap yung magkakasundo kayo. That’s why I love working with Celso. Paglipad niya, lumilipad ako. On the average magkasama kayo ng three months sa shooting. Kapag six months, magandang-maganda na yan.

Q: What do you remember of directors you have worked with?
A: Naalala ko kay Lino Brocka mabait siya at magaling siyang umalalay sa baguhan. Pwedeng mag-teacher. Nung first day ko sa kanya, nagulat ako pinababa nya yung maraming mga ilaw. Sanay kasi ako bilang photographer isang ilaw lang. Tumakbo ako sa kanya, “direk bakit ang daming ilaw?” He said “dyan kita kailangan, lahat ng dadaanang eksena ng artista, iilawan mo.”

Then I met Celso Ad Castillo when he was doing Burlesk Queen and I was filming Mga Bilanggong Birhen. Ako nanalo for photography, he won for Best Picture. Celso promised me Pagputi nang Uwak, Pag-itim ng Tagak (which was sidelined) when he will resume shooting. Pagputi ng Uwak, Pag-itim ng Tagak starred Vilma Santos, Bembol Roco (his second film after Maynila sa Kuko ng Liwanag) and Christopher de Leon (first time actor winning Best Actor). It also won for me my first Famas trophy for photography. Celso naman napakataas nang visual range niya. Nagsusulat rin kasi siya. Celso and I also did Isla and Paradise Inn.

Himala was also offered to me. With all due respect to Ishmael Bernal, I already accepted to shoot Haplos for Butch Perez when they sent me the script for Himala.

Si Director Eddie Garcia naman nakasama ko sa PS I Love You, first movie ng Viva Films. May mataas na visual range rin si Direk Eddie. Pati sa kanya nanalo ako for  Saan Nagtatago ang Pag ibig? Iba siya pag artista, iba siya pag director. Pag take na wala nang kibuan. Ibang tao na.
One of the few directors I really respect is Laurice Guillen. May mata rin on the craft and mataas ang visual range. Kalmado lang sa set yan. Gusto nyan pag natataranta o nagmamadali ako kasi ibig sabihin may magandang eksena akong naiisip. Sasabihin pa nyan, “Romy, nandyan na naman tyanak mo.”

Q: As a cinematographer, what do you think are your most important films? Your artistic contribution to the industry?

A: First, I am always proud of Alamat ni Julian Makabayan (directed by Celso Ad Castillo). Ginagawa pa lang naming, we were already criticized. Nung matapos we were criticized again.Martial Law kasi. Kinopya daw namingfrom a foreign movie. Kahit hindi nanalo ng awards, happy ako dun. Nanghihinayang ako bakit hindi nanalo pero di ko makakalimutan.
Another is Pagputi nang Uwak, Pag-itim ng Tagak (directed again by Celso Ad Castillo) then Haplos (directed by Butch Perez). Proud din ako sa Atsay. Naalala ko ni-request ako ni Eddie Garcia as cinematographer.
Q: What would you still want in the future?

Vitug on location for “Apoy sa Dagat”

A: Gusto ko gumawa ngperiod film, parang Lincoln. May nagawa ako nung baguhan pa ako nung70s, tele-movie kay Armida Siguon-Reyna, Dong-aw sa mga Ilocano nun panahon ni Diego at Gabriela Silang. We shot in Paoay it in 16mm.
Gusto ko rin gumawa ngRizal or Aguinaldo. Something I could leave behind as a legacy. Nung araw dream ko to go abroad. Pinadala ako ng United States Information Sevice to observe cinematography abroad pero wala akong nakasalimuha na cinematographers. Later nag-decide ako. Dito na lang ako, a big fish in a small lake rather than a small fish in a big lake abroad.

Gusto kong gawin yung halong aksyon at drama. Dito pagaction puro action. Pag drama puro drama. Walang halo. Dito yung konsepto mo ng action yung tumatakbo ang mga bida habang may sumasabog sa likuran nila. Ang layo na natin sa China, yung Crouching Tiger was excellent. Kailangan baguhin at iangat na natin ang pananaw ng mga manonood. 

Q: How is the current state of Philippine cinema?
A: Ang maganda sa indies yung nanalo tayo sa mga festivals abroad. Pero ang question ko bakit ayaw tanggapin sa mainstream? Nanalo tayo sa Europe kung saan-saan, pero sa sinehan bakit hindi tinatangkilik? Tinatanggap yan sa festivals like Cinemalaya pero sa mainstream hindi. Parang sa tingin ba nang tao hindi siya film kaya di sinusoportahan kasi video ginamit? Mahal kasi kung i-transfer sa film. Bihira lang yung nalilipat sa film, an example is yung Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros (directed by Aureus Solito). Kumita yun kaya na-transfer sa film. Pilipinong-Pilipino yung kwento. Bakit hindi natin kayang gumawa ng tulad ng Slumdog Millionaire e yung location nung opening scene parehas na parehas sa mga squatter sa mga syudad natin?

Kaya natin. Dito nag aral yung producer ni Bruce Lee. Dito nag-umpisa bago nag-produce sila. Bakit sila naka-produce ng Bruce Lee, pati Jackie Chan, international?Magandang tanong bakit walang mag-gamble?