Puppetry: Animation without the huge expense
LONG before I was able to have my first glimpse of Walt Disney’s animated characters such as Mickey Mouse, Snow White and Cinderella, I was already enthralled by a puppet character who could talk, laugh and cry, and even cuss, almost like a human being. I don’t really remember if he was called “Kiko Baterya” which was a popular puppet at that time. Maybe he was an imitation but nevertheless this one was a hit among provincial kids like me who trooped to the town plaza to watch it. The act was the highlight of a promotional activity to sell a product.
In boyhood, I also dabbled in shadow puppetry to entertain my sisters before there was television. I voiced the narration and the dialogue as well as the sound effects. Later I learned that José Rizal as a boy also used to play with the shadow puppets using carton figures stuck in sticks and moved these to highlight at the back of a white cloth. Like Rizal, I used candlelight at the back of the puppets.
Last October 31, on the eve of our traditional Undas, I was able to watch the first of a puppetry film series for children with a reimagining of Ibong Adarna, a 16th- century Filipino epic poem about a magical bird, which is a required reading in high school.
This film puppetry series is an initiative of CCP President Arsenio “Nick” Lizaso, a project under the umbrella of Sining Sigla outreach program. Called Movies Adapted from Literary Arts (MALA), the project is introducing innovation in children’s shows through film adaptations of Filipino classics using muppets, visual effects, songs, and live action and streaming it on digital social-media platforms.
Ibong Adarna is a beloved Filipino classic and its choice as the series opener is Lizaso’s idea. Unknown to many, the Ibong Adarna
story was the first Filipino film in color. Lizaso is quick to point out that the pioneering use of color was in just one scene, when the fabled bird changed colors while singing. But to the moviegoers at that time, it was already something magical and spectacular.
Just as it inspired the first local movie to use color, now the Ibong Adarna story has once again broken ground as the first puppetry film to be on digital platform. Written by premier ventriloquist Ony Carcamo and directed by popular film and TV actor Xian Lim, this version is what Ony calls a tulawit.
A man with a mission, Ony is the first local ventriloquist to have developed and toured an educational ventriloquism and puppetry program that has been entertaining and educating tens of thousands of schoolchildren about relevant topics.
While Ony is an old hand in puppetry, what came as a surprise to me was the director of the film: Xian Lim, a popular TV and film actor. Xian told me that he caught the puppetry bug when he saw Ony’s live performances, which led him to meet Ony, who selflessly taught him the art of puppetry.
There are two things I like about the MALA initiative of CCP President Nick Lizaso. One is the adaptation of literary classics to make them accessible to the new generation and second is the use of puppets, a technique akin to animation which is widely appealing to schoolchildren, who sadly are shunning reading in favor of watching.
A few months ago, I wrote an article where I broached the idea of employing Japanese style anime for classroom teaching. Since this would entail a huge expense to produce it, I knew it would not gain traction. But now I realize that puppetry on film would be the second best thing. Animation has always been the bread and butter of children’s entertainment. Educational experts are beginning to realize that animation can be employed to serve our education system. In such subjects as history, literature, social studies animation is an ideal educational medium because of its intrinsic power for storytelling.
I have always maintained that storytelling is the best way to educate and it is most effective with motion visuals. More than a hundred years ago, Mark Twain who wrote Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, made the astute observation that teaching “by visible and enthusing action” is most effective because it goes “straight to the heart, which is the rightest of right places for them.”
Animation can do that but the problem is that it is expensive to produce. Experts say that an animation film can cost more than a live action film. This is because the cost of all the machines and software add up to a lot. It is also highly labor-centric work. It takes at least 30 people to do just a 20-minute animated episode.
This project of the CCP is showing us that for the fraction of the cost of producing full-scale animation, a puppetry film can do almost the same animated storytelling through the use of puppet characters. Remember Sesame Street and Batibot? A generation of Filipino children came to learn about letters and numbers thanks to an array of beloved muppets as teachers.
Deped should take the cue and encourage teachers to access this series to supplement the current blended learning approach. I understand the next in the series is another tulawit adaptation of Florante at Laura. Soon I like to see Ony and Xian doing puppetry films that promote our national culture, environmental awareness and values of courage, self-reliance, cooperation and other values related to good manners and right conduct. In fact, puppetry can even be employed in such subjects as History, Panitikan, Sibika, Filipino, Kultura, Environmental science and health.
To me puppetry should be part of a teacher’s arsenal in teaching, especially during this time of distance learning. The much acclaimed educational TV programs Sesame Street and Batibot have already proven that puppets can be an engaging and useful way to help students develop emotionally and grow their language and communication skills.
Nick Lizaso, who is concurrently chairman of NCCA, is trying to secure funding for a series of teacher’s development workshops aimed at infusing theatrical skills and techniques in teaching. I strongly suggest that he includes a special module on basic puppetry. I long to see the day when puppets as simple as stick or hand puppetry become part of the teaching routine!