Which direction does a National Book Awardee and a seasoned artist who’s spent the better part of his career making comic books and deconstructing Philippine monster mythologies go for his next passion project? For Mervin Malonzo, it turns out, the answer is animated horror.
Malonzo is known for founding indie comic press Haliya Publishing and for his books Pakikisalamuha (“Socializing”) and the acclaimed Tabi Po (loosely translated as “Let me pass”). But this time, the Parañaque-based artist is turning to his fellow horror artists for source material, churning out a series that he’s directed, animated, and even voiced himself.
The three-years-in-the-making project has already released one episode to date in its roughly 20-minute, 6-episode target, breathing life into Julius Villanueva’s 2017 comic book Ella Arcangel, about a young girl who is the city slum’s resident mambabarang (“sorcerer”). The animated series faithfully follows Arcangel’s adventures as she battles both men and mythical monsters or aswangs in the impoverished urban village.
A few minutes into the first episode already elicits a few graphic-induced winces. Don’t think either that just because it’s animated, that Ella Arcangel is scrimping on the jump scares and nail-against-the-chalkboard affair.
Coconuts Manila spoke with Malonzo over challenges of the DIY series that he’s built out of love for the genre, his hope for Pinoy animated films, and why some of the voices in the series might sound familiar.
The following interview responses have been lightly edited for flow and clarity.
You’re a writer and illustrator yourself; why not just do an animated version of Tabi Po?
I will definitely create an animated version of it. But at this point, I believe it’s too soon to have another iteration of Tabi Po. It’s already been adapted into a live-action TV mini-series in 2017 which you can watch on Cignal Play. When I do decide to create an animated version of it, it will be the best one that comes out.
What made you choose Ella Arcangel out of scores of other comic books to adapt into animation? Or from writer Julius Villanueva’s other works?
When I read Ella Arcangel for the first time, I was immediately envious of Julius because he came up with the idea first. My first comic Tabi Po was set in the past, and I wanted to create another supernatural story set in the present, but anything I would have created would pale in comparison to Ella Arcangel’s story.
It’s brilliant how Julius weaves Ella’s story to create a new twist to our folklore while having a bold statement about our current society and how they view the poor. Ella lives in a poor barangay [village] and you know how inhumanely they’re treated nowadays. I share Julius’ sentiments in Ella Arcangel and I want to amplify its messages by adapting it to animation. Maybe more people will enjoy these stories and be affected by its underlying theme.
Have you always been a fan of the horror-fantasy genre?
Yes, I have. I don’t know exactly why I was drawn to the horror genre. Being a mild-mannered, soft-spoken man, I guess people who don’t know me would assume that I do light-hearted artworks that uplift spirits or something like that, I manage to subvert that expectation. If it’s something too predictable, I would not enjoy watching, reading, or creating it. In my stories, I want to expose the ugly and twisted underside of humanity because that’s where the monster really lies.
We know that you did all the animation yourself. But we also noticed that some of the characters’ voices sounded similar. Did you have a hand in that, too?
I did all the animation myself. And yes, I did all of the voices except for Ella, which is voiced by my wife Princess. I did everything else, except for the theme music which was done by my brother Jepoi. I know I’m not a voice professional but I just wanted this animation to exist so I used everything in my resources to push this out of the gate.
But you’ll feel a slight change in episode 2, as we gain more support from people who are fans of Ella contributing their talent. Since uploading episode one for free, I received a lot of volunteers as well who are willing to contribute their talent for free because they love what we’ve created. Expect a higher quality and variety in the voice department in episode 2. Julius already created the script and we received tons of voice auditions. I want to prove to people that something wonderful and meaningful can be produced despite the dark times we are experiencing right now.
So you were basically a one-man show in the beginning. What was the most difficult part about putting the project together?
It took me almost three years because I only did [the animation] in between work. It can be done in less amount of time if I had the budget, but I didn’t. That’s one of the difficulties. Another is learning animation as I was producing it. I only knew the basics of animation when I started, but I learned doing 2D animations in the process of producing this. I eventually revised a number of earlier scenes for the first episode because I wasn’t happy with it. There’s still a few that I want to redo but there will be a time for it. I want to focus my energy in creating episode 2.
The first episode was challenging for me in terms of editing and deciding which scenes to extend. The beginning part is particularly hard because I wanted to grab the audience’s attention. I needed to hook them so they would stay until the exciting parts. This is where I learned that background art is also important. It should lure the audience to the world that I created and make them stay there.
So I took time in creating each tiny detail in the background as well. I also found out that putting a focal point should help the viewers, so things like putting a red kite in the beginning scenes so viewers will have something to focus on, that’s one of the elements I played with.
I put a rotting dog carcass at the end of the intro to disarm viewers and let them know straight away that they’re watching a horror animation.
Given that many people are volunteering, are you planning on opening up the series as a collaborative project?
We’ve started pooling for monetary and talent donations to keep the project going, as doing it alone will take more time. I do not have a particular figure in mind for the budget and I am not expecting a lot from the people. But whatever I receive will go to Julius as the original creator and scriptwriter, to me as the animator, to the sound designer, to musicians for original music hopefully.
But I am not in the habit of waiting for a big budget to come in before I start. The rest of the episodes will be produced by me, Julius, and the fans whether we get a big budget or not.
Julius and I have also decided to donate a portion to an organization that helps the poor. It is important to help during this pandemic.
Will all six episodes run for 20 minutes? Is the animated feature loyal to the comic book or will you be taking artistic liberties?
Yes, all episodes will be more or less 20 to 30 minutes. The animation will always be loyal to the comic with even more scenes and details that will come from Julius, the original author himself because he will write the scripts. The only artistic liberties I will take is making the monsters more gruesome and scary. Haha.
Why do you think aswangs, mambabarangs and the mananggal (“body-splitting vampire”) resonate well with Filipinos? Where do you think our monster myths sit against other countries?
These monsters are part of our psyche. They are part of who we are as a collective people. Filipinos are always looking for their identities in everything and are always proud of it when they found one. We have a lot of monsters in our mythology and each represents our fears and longings.
Villanueva mentioned something about how Filipinos now are less afraid of Aswangs because the government is scarier. Do you share the same sentiments?
Yes. Monsters are imaginary. But police violence and the government’s bullying and disinterest in helping the people are real and are therefore scarier.
What other Filipino animated feature do you enjoy watching or have taken to for inspiration? And where do you think the country is now in terms of animated storytelling? Are we lagging in that department?
The most recent Filipino animation that I watched and liked is [2010 3D Pinoy adventure film] RPG Metanoia. We have a lot of very talented animators here. We just lack studio support and good stories. A lot of local studios are not seeing the value of animation and they will regret this. I think more animations will come out locally. I just hope that others would come up with their own style and content and not just copy the shows abroad.
Do you think animated films are the natural next step after comics and graphic novels, or do you consider each art form separate and can co-exist?
Comics and animation are separate medium and I respect and love both. There are things you can do in comics that won’t work in animation and vice versa. If you have a story that you’d like to be in a comic, you have to think in terms of images and texts and how you balance them in order to make your story flow naturally. Do not think of it as a film because you might miss an opportunity in telling a story in a unique way that can only be done in comics.
At the same time in animation, you can’t be confined in the usual camera angles, transitions, expressions, etc. One has to take advantage of the fact that there isn’t an actual physical camera that can hinder you from showing whatever you want. There are things that can be done in animation that’s impossible in live-action.
I believe that if you treat each medium with respect, you’ll truly create remarkable work.
You can support the series and watch full episodes of Ella Arcangel for free here.