MANILA, PHILIPPINES — While often overshadowed by its international counterpart, Philippine mythology packs a punch that not many people are aware of. It should be no surprise that a country with hundreds of cultures, each with its own history and traditions, spread throughout the islands comes with such a rich expanse of folklore. So, when looking for inspiration, it just makes sense to dig deeper into the immeasurable landscape of Filipino literature and oral tradition. That’s exactly what Epik Studios did when creating Mga Kwentong Epik, one of the latest local works you can find on Netflix.
Mga Kwentong Epik is based on original characters and titles created by Epik Studios, a modern mixed-media creative hub under Viva, combining oral tradition with motion graphic comics. While the story is told through minimal but evocative animation and beautifully illustrated panels from the graphic novels, the experience is made more immersive with narration. “Bernardo Carpio,” the latest season of Mga Kwentong Epik, wraps up the successful run of the series and is now available on Netflix along with the first two stories, “Maria Makiling” and “Osyana.”
Regene Estolatan, one of the writers at the start of the project (now the group head of the team), told adobo Magazine that the show is different from what they initially imagined. “Before the pandemic pa actually, we pitched this already to Viva para gawing animated series. At the time, iba pa yung nasa mind namin — yung talagang full-blown animation.”
She explained that the vision changed when the pandemic hit and that there was a danger of them losing their jobs if they couldn’t produce any work. That’s when they decided that the easiest way to go about this was to push through with the series as motion graphic comics. “Hindi naman kailangan mag-hire ng isang buong animation studio,” she said, talking about how this option what was a small team working remotely like theirs could accomplish. “Siguro hindi lalagpas ng 15 people yung nagwork sa buong production.”
Two of the artists credited in the series — Assistant Studio Head Jim Jiminez and Senior Graphic Artist Lui Antonio — weighed in on the creative process, emphasizing that the difficulty differs in each season’s style.
Lui said it was challenging at first because many of them were still trying to get the hang of animating and the particular kind of animation style needed for motion graphic comics. “Sii Jim medyo may idea na siya kasi dati siyang nagwork sa isang animation studio. Pero, sa part namin, medyo bago pa kami.”
While the decision to go for visual cues that include minimal animation and static illustrations was born out of necessity in the middle of the pandemic, it turned out to be the perfect style for the stories. Because of the nostalgia fuelled by the comic panels and storytelling-type narration — two more traditional mediums that foster immersive and imaginative relationships between the audience and the story — the series was still effective in delivering an evocative homage to Filipino culture.
“Naisip din namin yung nostalgic factor. Yung parang Mga Kuwento ni Lola Basyang,” Senior Writer Rhadson Mendoza said. “Unique din siya, in a way. Ang tagal na ulit bago may lumabas na ganung format […] Nagulat kami na may market din pala [for that format].”
Rhadson added that they thought of Bodjie Pascua, best known as Kuya Bodjie, the Philippines’ iconic actor and children’s television host. They managed to get Kuya Bodjie on board for season one as the narrator of the Maria Makiling story, which was the star power and talent that boosted the series popularity.
“Nabigyan niya ng buhay yung kuwento. Kung baga, magical na yung moment tapos mas ginawa niya pang magical dahil sa boses niya,” said Rhadson.
Finding the perfect voice for these stories was imperative to the team, seeing as this determined how exactly their original stories and characters would be brought to life on the screen and to an even bigger stage like that of Netflix’s. Stories and characters that were born out of Epik Studios’ goal to produce art shaped by distinctly Filipino traditions.
“When we started, ang talagang gusto ng boss namin, si Direk Paul Basinillo, is to create something based on our unique Filipino culture and style. Gusto niya na makilala yung mga mythology natin hindi lang dito sa pilipinas kundi sa ibang bansa rin,” said Regene.
“Nakakagulat kasi na marami pa rin ngayon sa generation natin na parang walang masyadong alam kung gaano ka lawak ng literature natin.”
The team’s goal of reaching a wider audience was definitely one that was accomplished. The series was well-received, particularly by the younger demographic.
“Na-shock kami!” Regene expressed. “Nagstart kami kasi sa komiks, so yung mga unang readers mga matatanda, mga parents. Naging sobrang thankkful kami kasi dahil sa platform ng Netflix, mas nakilala siya, mas naging wide yung audience namin.”
In the beginning, Netflix wasn’t the plan for Epik Studios. Before Netflix bought distribution rights to the series, the idea was just for it to be released on TV5. The team has been overwhelmed by the fact that their work can be found on the streaming giant.
When asked how it felt to have their work on such a huge virtual stage Netflix, Jim said, “Flattered and awesome. Mas na-inspire kami to make more of our own creations, to entertain more audiences.”
Regene, added though, that leading up to the release of the first season, they were nervous. “Hindi kami ganun ka sikat outside comics. So, nung nilabas ng Netflix yung Maria Makiling, iniisip namin na baka kami-kami lang yung manood. Mga friends and family lang.”
They were quickly proven wrong, and the amount of visibility they’ve managed to get was in large part thanks to word of mouth. “Umaasa din kami sa help ng community,” Regene said, talking about how a lot of their support and viewership seemed to have come from fellow Filipinos sharing the posts, making reviews, and recommending the series to their friends.
As the last of the three stories, Bernardo Carpio, releases on Netflix, ultimately what the teams hope for the audience to take away is how exciting, fascinating, and entertaining Filipino folklore and Filipino art and storytelling styles are. “What we want is na ma-rediscover yun ng audience para alam nila na hindi lang Marvel at DC yung nag-eexist na superheroes. Meron din ang Pinoy.”