(STAR) By Ann Corvera - Once upon a time, the Philippines was churning out the best computer graduates and in faraway lands, multinational companies sought us out from among other Asians. But the image has since blurred, the story becoming almost a fable and Filipinos, only almost famous.

The good news is that technology is moving so fast and so diverse that the real challenge is how the Filipino talent could be harnessed to its full potential, giving the story a sense of continuity to inspire the generations to come.

Ironically, it is only when movies become box office hits – in Hollywood, that is – that Filipinos are reminded of their "goldmine" of talent.

Such is the case of Philippine digital arts, surprisingly an industry still at its "infantile" stage even though Filipinos are not wanting in creativity.

The likes of Ricky Nieva, John Aquino and Anthony Ocampo are living testimonials to this talent yet they get little recognition from their own homeland, notes an industry observer.

"In the animation industry, most of the blockbuster motion pictures involved a lot of Filipinos. I don’t think there’s yet a major movie which had no Filipino participating in it," says Fred Lao, an arts buff who, for five years, has extended his support to the industry through the First Academy of Computer Arts.

"These artists really went through the gauntlet for years," he says of Nieva, Aquino and Ocampo, among countless other Filipino artists who are making it big abroad.

For those still at a loss as to who the three are, they are the digital artists whose works were integral in the success of CG (computer graphics)-aided Hollywood films like Finding Nemo (Nieva), Chicken Little (Aquino) and the TV special Helen of Troy, for which Ocampo won the 2004 "Vessy" or Visual Effects Society Award for his creation of the Trojan horse.

While noting the Filipinos’ "endless stream of talents," Lao laments that digital artists and the industry itself don’t get the protection, recognition and promotion they need to make the Philippines a global force.

"In the performing arts, they have associations and they have laws to protect them. Digital arts is so new, only in its infantile stage, and there is no organization yet that has the mandate to protect or do what it can to get the most out of the artists," he says.

On the trend of Filipino movies going digital, Lao says, "I think that’s a different interpretation of digital. The animation is still very fundamental."

"To produce the Final Fantasy series, it took Koreans about two years to finish it and I don’t think we have the resources to do that yet. It’s also too expensive and we don’t have the equipment yet," he adds.

Lao says it’s not so much as relying on which software and equipment to use, but harnessing the natural talent Filipinos have for the arts – whether performing onstage, behind a desk with pencil and paper, or in front of a computer console.

Before First Academy – where Lao serves as marketing consultant – was founded in 2001, they conducted an informal survey three years earlier to measure just how many Filipinos are "right-brainers."

"Eight out of 10 Filipinos are basically creative even in the performing arts, or at least know how to appreciate the arts," he explains of their findings. The survey respondents were from 15 to 50 years old.

It’s in the skills

No doubt about it, First Academy has the essential software and equipment, but Lao emphasizes, "We try not to ingrain on students to rely on the software."

"A lot of schools are focusing on the software, but actually (students) have to be able to use any kind of tools" when they have the talent, he says.

First Academy offers courses in basic and advanced digital arts, print and multimedia arts, 2D and 3D animation, Web design, digital storytelling and digital filmmaking as well as a digital arts certificate program.

Apart from the graphics editor Adobe Photoshop and vector-based drawing program Adobe Illustrator, First Academy is using a computer application called Maya, which is widely used for 3D modeling in most films today. The software is also popularly used in the TV industry as well as for computer and video games.

Lao says 70 percent of their students are enrolled in digital arts, and the rest in 3D animation.

Under the digital arts program, students get to master design software applications in print and multimedia. They learn the essentials of both basic and advance photo editing and vector graphics, page layouting, character illustration, and cartoon animation.

During NetWorks’ tour of First Academy in Makati City, training manager Margot de los Santos showed some of their students’ original designs for various marketing collaterals.

"Digital arts students are required to create their own designs, develop their own concepts," says the 29-year-old De los Santos, one of the First Academy pioneers.

For instance, the students’ designs are graded based on their resolution and pixelation if they are represented by images as a collection of pixels, or "raster" graphics.

For vector graphics, the use of geometrical formulas to represent images such as points, lines and curves, among others, should be smooth.

"Students should know how to use raster images for photos and illustrations for vector," De los Santos says.

She showed a "demo reel," done digitally using a combination of applications, which the students also have to produce.

A graduate of management information system, De los Santos, 29, observes that First Academy’s students have so much vision. Lao himself sees this creativity at work as he witnesses both their young and old students strut their stuff in class.

Take it from Lydie "Cookie" Roces Guerrero, a 60-year-old student at First Academy, whose passion for the arts ignited her interest in new age technology.

"It’s exciting because these younger classmates of mine, many of them in their 20s, have a lot of fresh ideas and they are so talented. I like seeing these young people do something with their talent," she says.

Belonging to the Roces clan of publishers, Guerrero, whose grandfather, Don Ramon Roces, was the force behind Liwayway magazine and its affiliate publications, has had a lot of exposure to comic book illustrations. And being "an artist at heart," she says she wanted to understand what digital arts was all about.

"I feel an affiliation with the artists. I thought to myself, ‘Hey, why don’t I see how it’s done,’ because I found it fascinating," she says.

When First Academy opened, students didn’t actually come in droves even though the market was there. But Lao found encouragement in his experience at DPSI, former Philippine distributor of Apple products, which he founded. At DPSI, he says they offered classes and produced highly competent graduates in graphic arts.

"We (wanted) to use the same comprehensive approach (in First Academy)," he says.

In putting up First Academy, Lao kept in mind that not too long ago the Philippines was the "leader" in programming and other jobs related to information technology, and that this could be regained if the Filipinos’ skills were sharpened and utilized to the hilt.

"The Philippines was the first choice of international companies in programming until the mid-1980s in the whole of Asia. But then we started turning up mediocre graduates. That was the time we started sliding. Eventually, slowly, we just lost the edge basically because of poor IT education," Lao says.

The "paradox," he says of the country’s IT employment situation at present, is that "we have a lot of vacancies for good IT people, on one hand, and we have a lot of IT graduates, on the other."

"But businesses are not hiring these people. Employers eventually saw how many graduates had diplomas but really lacked technical skills so they started looking somewhere else," Lao says, bewailing the mushrooming of "diploma mills" in the country.

"We decided that (we have) to get back to where we used to be," he says of the philosophy behind First Academy’s founding.

After a slow start, First Academy eventually got through the market. "We even have a student who commutes from La Union every other day. Another student, from Bicol, travels back and forth once a week," he quips.


First Academy currently has some 200 students and has so far produced more than a thousand graduates. "Several of (our) graduates shifted careers after training with us," says De los Santos.

One of them is Larsen Aniana, who used to be a graphic artist at a printing production company. Hoping for a career in 3D animation, he enrolled at First Academy. Now, the 32-year-old Larsen is a Maya applications engineer at Autodesk, a leading supplier of advanced 2D and 3D designs, in Dubai.

Paolo Roa, 22, was still taking his digital arts program when Phil Animation, one of the few animation studios in the country, hired him.

Dennis Norońa, 31, a graduate of interior design, found himself working for a call center. He later pursued a digital arts course at First Academy, and it did not take long before National Pen, a multinational company, took him in as a graphic artist.

First Academy sales manager Joy Cayetano says they have 20 instructors handling morning, afternoon and night classes throughout the week.

Another pioneer at First Academy, Cayetano, a 29-year-old IT graduate, says she and De los Santos started out as career councilors, molding programs which their potential students might need.

According to Lao, First Academy ensures quality learning for their students, who on the average spend P200 an hour or less for junior classes. A class is limited to eight students for more thorough learning.

"Second, we have a responsive courseware and we gain more knowledge from our students’ feedback. Also important is the amount of homework for our students," he says, citing the importance of constant practice to hone one’s skills.

No borders

The youngest student at First Academy, according to Lao, is eight years old as the school offers junior classes. There are also high school and college students – and retirees, too.

"We have junior digital arts, digital comics for the young ones… for the housewives, we have a digital scrapbook program. We have different courses for different ages," he says.

Guerrero is on the third month of her digital arts course and has never missed any of her classes. "I get eye bags learning this!" she laughs. "I find it very interesting and there are so many fields, there are so many avenues you can specialize in."

She even impresses her children, aged 22 and 38, whenever she shows them her works. "I would take a copy of my work to show it to my kids. They’re like, ‘Ma? Did you do this? Wow naman!"

"I’m the oldest student here. I have a lot of laughs with my classmates. I really enjoy doing this," she says.

Meanwhile, the academy’s digital filmmaking program is divided into three modules: digital storytelling, creative directing, and non-linear editing.

De los Santos explains that digital storytelling enables the students to create their own non-fiction stories using their PCs. Creative directing, on the other hand, is for fictional stories.

The last module, non-linear editing, "is the post-production part of the filmmaking program where the students put together all the shoots and pictures they had collected and transform their work into a masterpiece," she says.

Apart from photo and video editing, special effects and categorizing scenes are part of the program.

First Academy also goes to different universities to hold workshops such as on 3D animation. It also offers scholarships for deserving and "naturally skilled" students.

While Lao says the best graphic artists are probably in Korea and Japan, he confidently says, "Filipinos are bigger in terms of the number of talented people."

The idea behind First Academy’s establishment, Lao stresses, is to encourage the Filipinos’ "artist’s genes" to come out. "We have artist’s genes and that is a very, very powerful natural resource," he says.

"We are barely scratching the surface even in (movie animation). Most movies have at least a few minutes of animation and the need for animators is growing almost exponentially," he relates.

"Here we are at the forefront of digital animation with high-grossing films like Finding Nemo and the creator is a Filipino but he is not given recognition here. I suppose the government should be at the forefront of recognizing these talents," he says. "They are the heroes. They have earned it the hard way and they have contributed to the industry."

With these Filipinos daring to show what they can do, Lao hurls this challenge to those aspiring to get into the digital arts field: "If you have the talent, don’t waste it."

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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