On the Spot: RPG: Metanoia Director-Writer Louie Suarez
Suarez on his animation team’s five-year journey of creating a fully imagined, faithfully Filipino film.
Director Louie Suarez and the RPG characters. Click for more photos.
With only three days till the 36th Metro Manila Film Festival officially closes, Pinoys would do well to catch RPG: Metanoia, the first full-length Pinoy 3D animated feature.
RPG: Metanoia revolves around the story of Nico (voiced by child star Zaijan Jaranilla), a shy and clumsy boy who lives out his heroic fantasies in the gaming world of Metanoia, an online role-playing game (RPG). The film also features the voices of comedienne Eugene Domingo (who plays Nico’s mom), actor Aga Muhlach (Nico’s dad), and TV host Vhong Navarro (Cel, who owns the internet cafe frequented by Nico and his barkada).
A joint project between Ambient Media (Thaumatrope Animation) and Star Cinema, RPG: Metanoia proudly garnered four awards during the MMFF awards night last December 26; namely, 3rd Best Picture, Best Sound Recording (Ambient Media), Best Original Theme Song ("Kaya Mo"), and Quezon City’s Special Citation for Gender Sensitive Movie.
Made for Pinoys by Pinoys, the film has been praised by critics as "defying the typical storytelling formula used in [other entries]...capturing elements of Philippine society and culture, and for having endearing characters," and some even saying they would put this up against even the best of Pixar movies.
Writer-director Louie Suarez answers SPOT.ph’s 20 questions on his animation team’s five-year journey of creating a fully imagined, faithfully Filipino film.
RPG: Metanoia trailer
Was the full storyline of RPG: Metanoia conceived from the beginning or did it pan out as the development of the animation progressed?
We started out with the basic plot and we pretty much knew what we wanted to happen in the story from the get-go. Of course, as we went through pre-prod, new ideas started popping up, so some things were added, taken out and changed around. We also went through several drafts of the script and things got added, taken out and moved around in there too, but whenever these things happened, we always took a step back to make sure that the story remained true to our initial idea. The test was always to ask ourselves "Is this still the story we set out to do?" Only if the answer was yes, did we commit to a revision. It was a very organic process.
What were the major difficulties encountered by your team throughout the creation of the movie?
I guess we had trouble with the same things any other production would: time, budget, manpower and technology. We figured out a pretty sound game plan to deal with most of those even before we started. But if we had to choose one, it’s probably adjusting the whole production process to something that 26 people can manage (which I guess, also covers the other three problems as well). Everyone had to multi-task. Our modelers helped out in animation, texturing and lighting as soon as they were done with modeling duties. Animators helped out in modeling while waiting for shots to animate, and so on. Any last minute requests that were asked of us were definitely difficult to deal with ’cause it totally choked up the production pipeline.
We encountered a lot more problems, and I mean a lot! It came at us from all sides! You remember that part in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, when a handful of people had to defend Helm’s Deep against 10,000 orcs? That’s what it felt like. One hand was shoving an orc down a wall while the other was busy keeping our heads from getting bashed in. We were always on our toes, doing on-the-fly problem solving and damage control virtually every single day for four years.
Conversely, what were your biggest victories?
Convincing people that RPG was a truly worthy undertaking was our first great victory. We’re really blessed to work for a company that believes in the same values we do. We told them we wanted to do something that would truly make a difference, and they said great, hop to it, we’re behind you all the way! Ambient Media is just awesome.
Just finishing the movie was monumental victory. It wasn’t easy, and it nearly killed us but we loved every single minute of it. All the craziness that we had to go through in between, just made the whole thing sweeter! I’m pretty sure God had a lot to do with it.
Keeping the story true to our original intention. After everything that we went through, after all the extra input that had to be processed into the movie, we’re really proud of the fact that it remained essentially unchanged. Everywhere we go, people kept encouraging us to stick to our guns, and that’s exactly what we did.
RPG: Metanoia OST: "Kaya Mo" by Protein Shake featuring Ney of 6cyclemind and Kean of Callalily
In terms of animation style and art direction, did your team go through more than one revision? Did the characters look very different when you started development?
The characters went through a lot of changes during pre-production. Though the lineup was pretty much the same as originally conceived, their looks went through an entire range of changes. Once the characters were locked down, everything else took its cue from there. They pretty much dictated the animation style and art direction.
How did you embark on character research and development? Were there real people who were sources of inspiration for the characters in the film?
All the lead characters were based on people I know. Nico was inspired by my real nephew, who at one point in his life was in pretty much the same situation as the character in the movie. I used my best friends from grade school as the template for Nico’s friends. Though some of their looks, characteristics and attitudes were adjusted for better storytelling, the group dynamic remained intact. More often than not, the script was driven by what the real person would probably say or do when faced with the same situation.
May was mostly inspired by my girlfriend Jenny who used to make her own jewelry and loves the color purple, which is evident in her avatar’s accessories. She also pushes me to do my best in the things I do just like May does for Nico in the movie.
How did you pick your voice actors?
When Star Cinema came on board, they provided us with their near endless lineup of stars. Most of them had to go through an audition to even be considered for the part. Of all the people in the cast, only Eugene Domingo was in our original wish list. The rest were a pleasant surprise, especially Aga Mulach who was really into his part as Nico’s dad.
Who’s your favorite character in the film?
Nico, of course. I like that fact that he’s essentially a good kid from start to finish. Sure he has his quirks and he made mistakes but those are things that everyone goes through at that age. People tell me I was a lot like him too.
Director Louie Suarez and actors Mika Dela Cruz and Zaijan Jaranilla invite the public to watch RPG: Metanoia
The film is being compared to creations by industry giants like Pixar--but what edge does Pinoy animation have over their foreign counterparts?
Pixar is a household name when it comes to animation and with good reason! The technology and the art and the storytelling are married together so seamlessly that it’s easy to forget you’re watching a cartoon. You believe a rat can cook, monsters can be nice and toys can have a secret life we don’t know about. Their mastery of it all is what a lot of us in the field aspire for, but they’ve raised the bar so high that any comparison would be... painful. If we wasted a lot of our time trying to do what they do, we’d constantly be trying to play catch up.
So I’m not sure if we’re in any kind of position to establish or claim having any kind of edge over anyone really. What we have is a unique perspective about ourselves as Filipinos so we didn’t set out to be like Pixar or do the same things they do. We did our own thing and we just tried really, really hard to do the best we possibly can.
Why the title, RPG: Metanoia? Were there alternatives that you were choosing from?
Originally it was just going to be RPG because we figured it was pretty straight to the point. Metanoia means change or evolution, and in gaming terms, leveling up! It’s a theme that runs throughout the entire movie.
What was the inspiration for the design of the (in-game) world of Metanoia?
We created an entire backstory for the Metanoia 2.0 world to help us come up with the different places we wanted to feature in the movie. First, we supposed that in Metanoia 1.0, the world was overrun by crazy mechanical life forms (like the ones in the opening gambit) that tried to gain dominion over the human population. We then designed the locations in the various Metanoia servers based on the cultures of the characters we were featuring in each particular scene.
The local Metanoia server was inspired by Spanish colonial Philippines, particularly the walled city of Intramuros. We added hints of our hypothetical history by adding pipes, metal frames and giant statues that look like they were retroactively imposed upon some of the more prominent buildings.
The floating islands were inspired by more classic, side-scrolling video games where the main character would have to jump on platforms that would be floating in the air for no apparent reason. This area was supposed to be the site of the final battle between the mechanical overlords versus the humans in Metanoia 1.0 so you’ll see giant robot pieces jutting out of the ground. (We thought it would be cool if a new creature evolved that would actually thrive on eating the rotting metal, and that’s how we came up with the jigglie.)
ABS-CBN video: The making of RPG: Metanoia
What MMORPG games does your team (or you) play? And who kicks the most ass?
From a quick survey around the room: Aion, Ragnarok, Cabal, City of Heroes, Maple Story and World of Warcraft. I actually belong to the group who are more into RPGs like Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age.
Although almost everyone in the team plays video games in some form or another, the ones who kick the most ass are probably the hardcore gamers like Douglas, Wyn, Noel and Daniel (who was the basis for the character of the same name in the movie). The one who used to play World of Warcraft stopped ’cause he said he needed to save up for his wedding.
How did you handle detractors who discouraged you from the beginning?
We created a one-minute test video as a proof of concept so our work can do the convincing for us. A lot of them only needed to see something tangible to be convinced. More popped up along the way, but we trudged on because we believed in the purpose of what we were doing, which was to create something better for the Filipino audience.
What was the experience of managing a small team of designers and animators like? How did you keep morale high and keep motivating your team to reach your deadlines and goals?
We’re really lucky to be working with the team we got. We’ve all been friends for years so the teamwork came naturally for us. The Thaumatrope team has become a family through the years, so coming to work feels a lot like coming home. We get our motivation from each other; when someone does something exceptional, the others are inspired to do better. What kept them going through it all was the desire to see the project come to fruition. These guys are Spartans; they see their battles to the end!
Based on initial sales and the number of people who’ve watched the film, is this project profitable or going to break even?
We knew it was going to be a hard climb and have been preparing for alternative sources of revenue for RPG. What was ultimately important was that we show that Filipinos are capable of creating original, intelligent, high-quality content that would inspire more people to do the same.
Now that you’ve paved the road, what should our designers, animators, the government and the film industry do to ensure that we continue to progress in the field of animation?
Support independent films! A lot of the really good stuff that have been coming out recently have been from independent productions, groups and individuals who have no ties to the ruling entertainment industry. They’ve been getting recognition abroad for their efforts while being totally ignored here. Support them! Help them advertise so that they have a fair shot at reaching a wider audience. Maybe waiting for government support isn’t the answer. They’ve got problems of their own. Don’t be afraid, take a risk, tell your stories and stick to your guns! They can’t ignore us forever!
Has there been any feedback from non-Filipino audiences on the film?
Any other trivia or funny anecdotes we would be thrilled to know about?
You know that Japanese Ninja School Girl avatar that Mark’s been crazy about? Its user is actually a guy-which is pretty common in the online gaming world! We built the model and animated his scenes and everything, but we had to cut it out for length and pacing.
If you look closely, one of the posters in Nico and Cel’s room features characters we created for a fictitious TV show called METANOIA: THE ANIMATED SERIES. You can see better if you stay for the credits.
The names, which appear in Nico’s address book as he scrolls through it looking for his Dad’s name, belong to the members of the Thaumatrope Animation team.
That bridge in Nico’s town that was shown near the beginning of the movie actually exists. You can drive under it when you go to San Juan. Actually, his entire neighborhood was based on San Juan!
What would you advise aspiring young animators or creatives in general?
Go out and experience new things. The more you do, the more you can write or draw or animate about. Don’t rely on the Internet. Sure, it’s cool but you’ll be surprised to find out how much you’re missing. Be observant, study everything. Animation is 90 percent observation. Don’t be a hack. Animation is like studying to become a Jedi; it requires a lot of concentration and discipline. There are no shortcuts. Oh, and collect comics! Don’t download it or just buy the trade paperback. Half the experience is waiting for each issue every month. Trust me, it builds character!
TV Patrol World video: The premiere of RPG: Metanoia
We’re hoping this isn’t a one-time project... So, when is the next one coming out?
Everyone go out and see RPG again! Twice even! If things work out, the next one will be out before you know it.
Lots of people say RPG should have won Best Picture at the MMFF over all the other usual formula-driven entries-what can you say about this?
Wow! We’ve been reading a lot about that lately, and there are more popping up on the Internet everyday. People who have seen the movie are compelled to write about the experience, sending us notes of encouragement and thanks. A lot of those who’ve sent us posts and written reviews say watching RPG made them proud to be Filipino, and reading their reactions made us feel even prouder. Ang sarap basahin paulit-ulit! Honestly, sometimes we just can’t keep the tears from welling up. The feeling we get reading through tons of honest and heartfelt posts, we wouldn’t trade for a hundred awards!
What can you say about the same formulaic artista-based Pinoy movies continuing to succeed commercially instead of more original artistic concepts? Will Pinoy audiences ever be ready to know and appreciate the difference?
I guess it’s what the majority of us are used to seeing at the moment, but we’ve touched a lot of people with RPG, and a vast majority of them are kids. If we don’t let up, in a few years those kids will grow up to be part of a new generation of proud Pinoys who will know and appreciate the difference. There’s hope!
Will RPG be entered in international film fests?
Gee, we sure hope so.
Photos courtesy of Louie Suarez and Thaumatrope Animation.