Interview Judith Torres
Images BBDO Guerrero and PixelBox Asia
A 30-second preview of the 5-minute film, Our Gift to the World, which is still undergoing finishing touches and will be viewable in this spot starting October 1, 2021
Judith Torres: David, it’s beautiful.
David Guerrero: Glad to hear it.
Tell me your story.
It’s been an incredible journey. It was a puzzle in which we had to fit several pieces together—the architectural concept of the Bangkóta, or coral reefs, together with Marian’s vision of this long, 4,000-year arc of history.
That only she would envision.
Yeah. Her initial brief was, like, “Tell the story of what makes Filipinos unique in a historical context.” So most people in our team at the initial pass was, you know, the Spanish and Rizal, the Americans and Japanese, and all that stuff.
And Marian was, “No, no, no, no, let’s look at the 4,000 years from our very first ancestors. Let’s not even directly talk about the colonizers because that’s giving them too much importance.” Because what makes the culture the culture is the evolution and traditions developed in interaction with the environment.
Over thousands of years.
Yes. Starting from 7,000 islands, starting from the migration from the mainland, in those accurately reproduced boats that you saw in the blue section of the video. Those are accurate representations of the kind of boats our ancestors used. And the Philippines is populated island by island, and with each, the culture in the islands developed their own unique dances, music, woven patterns, and traditions.
So we started off with a whole lot of data. These are the authentic weaves, authentic moves, and authentic plants you find in the Philippines. Don’t use anything anywhere in this film that is not, you know, one hundred percent Filipino.
So that was amazing to have—a brief with authenticity at its core. And I don’t think they’ll mind me saying this—Royal, Marian, and Rosvi were all very exacting in their ways and watching out for different things. And Nestor, too, who was looking after the dance.
So we had that on the client side. They were very engaged, super engaged with every step on the creative and production side.
Then there was Denisa Reyes, the choreographer, with her dancers, all of whom were rehearsing remote, while she was in Tennessee. And then Teresa Barrozo, the composer, poured into it a very modern take on what the music should be but also using authentic Filipino instruments.
(Editor: Royal Pineda is Bangkóta’s architect and artistic and thematic director; Marian Roces, the curator; Rosvi Gaetos, assistant secretary of the Philippine Department of Trade and Industry; and Nestor Hardin, in charge of show production and dance.)
Denisa Reyes and JM Cabling choreographed the dance by remote, with the dancers learning and rehearsing in their homes before coming together for the final rehearsals and filming.
How did BBDO Guerrero get the project?
There was a bid. A competitive bid. We pitched against other agencies through PhilGEPS and the bids and awards committee. That was two years ago, 2019.
Was the concept of Bangkóta final when you made your pitch? How did it make sense with Marian’s curatorial intent and the film they wanted you to do?
The Bangkóta concept was there; we were shown that. The curatorial intent was this authentic rendition of this long arc of history—not a chronological story, but about aspects of culture. They were trying to bring out different aspects of what makes Filipino culture the way it is and Filipinos the way we are.
But also, ultimately, from the DTI perspective, what does that mean to anyone watching this in an international expo?
And that is, this idea that we Filipinos are super collaborative, fantastic at creating networks. So you’ve got this idea that Filipinos are a hyper-connected culture, which is borne out by all the facts of video sharing, YouTube watching, and all that. And, therefore, ultimately—very, very, very long way down the line—you see the idea that it is good to work with Filipinos because they can network and collaborate with your team.
It’s almost a post-national outlook. It’s not about flag-waving. It’s about saying this is the culture that can make things happen because it has these roots, you know, these very clear roots in community and migrational movement.
Did Marian and Royal and the DTI want those ideas you just spoke of to manifest in the pavilion, or is it enough for visitors to kind of sense it through the film, or will it be said in the virtual tour guide?
Yeah, no. I mean, there is another component to this, not in the film. This is an experience. When you get to the final part of the Bangkóta, you’ve been through everything. And in the last room, this is projected on a huge, huge screen.
They were looking for spectacle and emotion. Because no one’s there to take notes, you know, or a lecture. So it needed to be a spectacle, but it needed to have something underpinning that spectacle that was true and real, that actually is connected to the culture.
So, yes, some stuff is expounded on in the tour app like, for example, the golden ornaments in the video that are kept in the Ayala Museum, they’re evidence of really fine craftsmanship that was part of Filipino culture in the 10th to 13th centuries, well before the Europeans turned up in the 16th century.
Could you recount the collaborative process with a rough timeline?
I’ll give you my best recollection of this. The pitch was made to a panel that included Royal and Marian. And secondly, to several other interested parties, like Nestor. There was something of an open brief to create this five-minute film. They were clear on wanting dance, they were clear on wanting an original composition, they were also clear on wanting it untraditional, not like anything seen before. Definitely work with an overseas director…
Whoa, that is an open brief! What concept did you pitch?
I should go back and look at it. We did present something on dance and digitizing it. We’ll see if we find it. I’ll send it to share.
After you won the bid, what was the trickiest part finalizing the concept?
To connect the architecture on the one hand with the intellectual underpinnings of the exhibit on the other hand, which are not quite the same thing. I mean, they’re sort of convergent, but they’re not…aligned, if you know what I mean.
They don’t directly correspond.
It’s like they will converge at one point, but they’re not. So we had to find the point at which the two could converge.
And then, of course, the pandemic happened. So here we were (chuckles), you know, imagining that our Korean director would come to the Philippines or that we would go to Korea or something. But then, nothing!
And then, of course, the deadline was moved back a year. So we found ways to do it, all working remote. We’ve never been in the same room with Denisa, I’ve never been in the same room with the director, never been in the same room with the composer. We’ve literally not been in the same room with anybody, but we’ve worked quicker than if we had been, maybe because we haven’t had to travel.
Maybe because people had to come to the online meetings with something to show other than charm?
Yeah, we had to come to the meetings ready to show. Actually, there’s a school of thought in advertising that the most engaged clients can be the best clients. Because the ones that just say, “Go ahead, do what you like,” is not too helpful. You don’t get to know what they really want.
I think collaborations work best when both sides aim towards something and, sometimes, you have to both admit that you don’t quite have it yet.
There’s a kind of a performative aspect of advertising where you’re supposed to pull back the curtain and—ta-dah! It’s done! Right? Certainly, this job could not be done that way. People had to be brought along with this process. We embraced the idea of authenticity, one hundred percent authenticity with the features, the moves, the materials. All of the plants are indigenous plants, the birds are indigenous birds, the weaving on the fabric is a genuine indigenous pattern, there’s even a section with some face makeup, all that was cleared. And we can thank Marian for her diligence in, first of all, providing us with a lot of the source materials and then also keeping us to it. Like, “Oh, that red isn’t really a Filipino red,” you know?
What is Filipino red?
And is there such a thing? (Chuckles) Yeah. It’s to do with the available plant dyes, factors like that.
Cool! So, they were super engaged. Was it difficult getting approval?
I think for many of them, they’re not the sort of clients who work day in day out with an advertising agency or a production company. So there were some things that we had to get better at explaining.
For example, if something was out of place during a shoot, or if a costume was creased or something like that, it could actually be fixed in the production process. We don’t want to create unnecessary work for post-production, but, you know, there are some things you can look at with just your eyes, but they’re not necessarily what you will see on-screen, not so.
I read a brief Marian wrote that says Our Gift to the World is “danced in conversation with ‘digital choreography’ and projected on a screen…” its “Six Movements in Color visualizes Philippine identity as aesthetic hyper-connectivity.” Tell us about the six movements.
We settled on five, actually, five color sections. And that idea evolved partly to make it manageable by having sections. Because if you had to sit through a five-minute film without knowing where the beginning and end are, it might be too daunting or feel too long. Then we themed each section. Again, this is all collective work.
The gold comes from the origin of the islands being volcanic. So you have volcanic islands coming out of the sea and then the molten lava relating to the craftsmanship of the people, the mastery that the people attained over the elements over time. So we inherited this land and take care of this land and master it in some way.
Blue talks about the migration from north to south and the people’s mastery over the sea. Filipinos today are one of the most dominant seafaring nationalities. So we wanted to make sure that side of the Filipino culture was understood. For the UAE and everyone around the world, you need to understand that Filipinos are outstanding in the water, really good in boats. You can’t get better, right?
Green is about biodiversity. The Philippines is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world. And, of course, it’s implied in the overall Bangkóta or coral reef. So the idea is that we were nurtured by this biodiversity.
Red speaks of the idea of absorbing other cultures into our culture. We’ve woven ideas from different cultures into our culture. We’ve absorbed the Spanish influence; obviously, that’s the longest and deepest association our country has with any outside influence. Then, of course, you’ve also got the Chinese, Japanese, and Americans. There’s an implication of conflict in the color red, but there’s also the positive side of bringing other cultures in, you know.
Into our very DNA. In the brief, the last colors listed are polychrome and silver.
We combined those two, so it’s just polychrome at the end. There are two things here: one is about connectivity—the connectivity of the coral reef itself. So here, the film has to start to connect with the building and the coral reef. We need to explain the building. We need to explain it’s coming from this concept of the highly interconnected network of coral reefs.
And then, with the technological spin is the idea that Filipinos are creating networks around the world, and Filipinos have a particular kind of inbuilt drive to build those networks. And these old community networks have now gone global.
You’ve done a spectacular job connecting Royal’s ideas with Marian’s. Why did the Philippines get a Korean director, Jae Hyung Wang?
Yeah, it was a special, it was a particular request of Marian that we bring in an outside viewpoint on the dance because she was very particular about how the dance was going to be rendered. We were searching primarily for someone who works with live-action and CGI together. He had a track record of working with on-stage shows, with a band and then a CGI background. We wanted someone who would be good at that.
Where did his direction start and end? I imagine you had a lot to do with the shots, the edits?
We were policing the meaning and the script, but the choreography was Denisa, and then the capturing of that we left pretty much to the director. If you have talented people working for you, you just let them get on with it. We tried not to unnecessarily limit.
When we’re looking at the edits, we’d just be saying, “Can we see a bit more of this, a bit less of that?” We’re fine-tuning. Obviously, we check the colors, we review the edits, but we completely trusted the choreography and the direction to the people who can do it best. And similarly, with the music, we just set the parameters and said, go and do it.
Oh, you didn’t storyboard.
We storyboarded to an extent. We had to, you know, to give directions to the choreographer, but there’s a limit to how much we could for the dance. And there was a limit to the director, as well, as he was reluctant to over-explain what he was going to do. So, I mean (chuckle), we had to run on faith at some points. Also, he doesn’t speak English! We were talking through an interpreter the whole time.
But his previous work spoke for him. We explained the job as best we could, we showed a lot of references, comparisons, and, again, no one was shy in the team about—Royal was always sending us little clips, and—
Other dance performances. “What if it was a bit like this?” he’d message us. And then, Marian was referencing some of the masters, you know, Pina Bausch kind of things. And so we had all these different influences, and we communicated them. It’s probably why it took a bit longer than it might have done because we had to bring a lot of people together and eventually get everyone pointing in the same direction. I think we sort of managed it. Of course, we benefited from the delay because it allowed us to finesse the execution.
And the team at PixelBox just went above and beyond and accommodated, you know, a kind of moving target. Not moving haphazardly, but it was moving. You know, it was like, “Can we push it here? And push it there?” And we were lucky, super lucky to have them stick with it.
(Editor: PixelBox Asia is a Hong Kong-based animation company Jae Hyung Wang collaborates with.)
The greatest challenge and greatest joy working on the project?
One of the greatest joys working on the project was seeing the rehearsal videos of the dances. It was a high point for me because we were in the middle of lockdown and how are we going to get this done? No one really knew. And just seeing we were making progress under remote conditions was really inspiring.
The challenge was understanding all of the intentions that underpin this very ambitious project. This is a project that everybody wants to get right. We needed to understand everything. And then we needed to learn things we didn’t know. We thought we knew about history; we didn’t. We thought we knew about architecture; we didn’t. We thought we knew about dance; we didn’t.
We basically had to accept our ignorance and learn. That was the challenge. But it was one we undertook willingly because we trusted the people involved. We didn’t feel they had any other agenda than wanting the best work. That was one thing really clear in this team. No one had any agenda other than let’s make this the best thing we can. •
Our Gift to the World
Film, TVC, website, mobile app, and social media team credit list
Alternate Commissioner General, PH Expo 2020 Dubai
Asst. Sec. Rosvi Gaetos, Department of Trade and Industry
Philippine Pavilion Theme Director and Principal Architect
Curation and Content Development
Marian Pastor Roces
PH Expo Secretariat
Gilda de la Cruz
Shane Krista C. Yumikura
DTI Creative Consultant
David Guerrero (Creative Chairman)
Manuel Villafania (Creative Director)
Nico Zapanta (Associate Creative Director)
Jasper Cajilig (Art Director)
Rachel Teotico (Creative Director)
Lexie Dy (Creative Director)
Maui Reyes (Creative Director)
Andi Olbes (Creative Director)
Eboy Jose (Copywriter)
Cristina Buenaventura (Strategic Planning Director)
Roshan Nandwani (Exec. Director, Transformation)
Ara Cabalonga (Strategic Planner)
Ombet Traspe (General Manager)
Ethel Diño-Datario (Client Service Director)
Hannah Poblador (Group Account Director)
Marga Marquez (Account Director)
Meda Cruz (Account Manager)
Julie Aguila (Project Manager)
Social and Tech Team
Ernest Pascual (Creative Technologist)
Vincent Tan (Community Manager, Content Creator)
Dan Camarao (Social Director)
Gerry Cacanindin (Senior Copywriter for social)
Alyn Ypil (Content Creator) Louise Jacinto (Developer Trainee)
Pixel Box Manila
Jae Hyung Wang
Assistant Choreographer and Dancer
Angella Betina Carlos
Minette Caryl Maza
Michael Barry Que
Just Add Water Productions, Inc.
Senior Managing producer
Idda Aguilar and Harold Orozco
Production Logistics House
Head of Production
Luisa Olarte (executive producer)
Alex Nochesda (producer)
Hair and Makeup Artist
Pixel Box Manila
Joanna Marie Eduardo
Audio Post House
Partners in Website and Mobile App
Jake Go (Project Lead, Owner)
Jea Go (Account Executive)
Marvic Tifora (Project Manager)
Dain Salva (BA)