Film

Animation: Trese is ready for her close-up

MANILA, PHILIPPINES — On June 11, 2021, one day before Independence Day in the Philippines, a little Philippine history is going to be made when an animated series borne from the minds of Filipinos begins streaming on Netflix. Trese, which originated in comics form from writer Budjette Tan and artist Kajo Baldisimo, will have a six-episode season on the global streaming service and could be the first of many Filipino intellectual properties to hit a worldwide audience.

“I’m excited to see it!” says Tan of his supernatural private investigator’s initial foray into animation. “I’ve only seen one episode! And, of course, I’m hoping the people who watch it will enjoy it, especially the people who have not yet read the comic book.”

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When the first issues of Trese were released in 2005, local comics (or komiks, as we love to call them) were not exactly in the best shape. The glory days of Darna, Ang Panday, Kenkoy, and the like on substandard newsprint paper had long past and Filipino publishers were not exactly looking for local talents with unique stories to promote. Most Filipino pencillers who might have considered publishing their own work were instead dreaming big and submitting their work to Marvel Comics and DC Comics in the US.

It was amid these circumstances, with inspiration from anime like Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex and the gritty live-action Kolchak: The Night Stalker, that a pair of creative people from the advertising industry put their heads together to make something different. By 2007, the first collected stories of Trese were published by Visprint Inc. followed by five more collections including one hardcover.

“The basic template of Trese is it’s Pinoy horror stories told through the lens of a detective story or a police procedural,” Tan continues. “So, that’s why a lot of inspiration comes from The X-Files, CSI, as well as Criminal Minds, Law & Order, etc. It was also partly inspired by an old HBO movie called Cast a Deadly Spell, which was a noir mystery set in the 1930s, where America continued to use magic spells and this one detective who hates using magic. So, in way, he’s the reverse-Trese.”

“From comics, I borrowed the template of Warren Ellis’ Planetary and Global Frequency – which are one-shot/one-issue stories that tell the story of a bigger universe,” he notes. “Planetary was treated like an investigation/archeology of modern fiction. Trese is an investigation of Pinoy myth, folklore, urban legends, etc.”

The basic premise of Trese is that a female investigator with access to the supernatural, Alexandra Trese, is contacted by Capt. Guerrero of the police when crimes are decidedly beyond what they were trained for. Armed with years of knowledge in the arcane and the occult, her mystical kris called “Sinag,” as well as her twin bodyguards The Kambal, Alexandra is the proprietor of The Diabolical, a bar which serves as neutral ground for several supernatural entities.

Serving as bartender at The Diabolical is the mysterious Hank Sparrow, someone who Tan and Baldisimo based on a real person, Hank Palenzeula. The real Hank has long-embraced this tribute of the Trese creators, often cosplaying as the comics version of himself during local comics conventions like Komikon and Komiket.

“Sixteen years? Damn, ganoon na pala katagal yung Trese?” Palenzuela states in amazement. “Wow. I never think that far ahead. So no, I didn’t think it would be made into a animated series on a global streaming service like Netflix. But now that we are here, 16 years later, I wanna say… ‘It’s about effing time.’ But I would be lying.”

It was back in 2013 when Tanya Yuson and Shanty Harmayn of BASE Entertainment began pitching Trese to foreign studios. Several producers, both here and abroad, had made overtures to Tan and Baldisimo about Trese but none came to fruition for one reason or another.

“Kajo and I were not directly involved in the production and voice casting,” Tan points out. “That was entirely up to Jay Oliva, Tanya Yuson, and Shanty Harmaym – the producers of the series. Kajo got to spend a day with Jay and Jojo Aguilar, the Art Director of the series, talking about character design.”

“I got on a Zoom call with Jay and the writing team, which included Tanya and Mikh Vergara and Zig Marasigan,” says the former Executive Creative Director of MRM Worldwide. “We also talked about characters and storylines. After those sessions, they ‘closed the door’ and went to work and the next time we saw anything, it was already the finished product.

Asked how he felt the first time he saw Alexandra and the other characters moving for the first time, Tan says, “I was smiling the biggest possible smile. I was smiling so much, it started to hurt! Hahaha!”

The first trailer for Trese dropped over the week of May 17 and quickly went viral on social media. It wasn’t just the English dub that was released, however, Dubs in Filipino, Japanese, and even German were released, clearly indicating that the Trese anime is targeting a global audience.

When Trese was first published, the first story was titled “At the Intersection of Balete and 13th Street,” shining a bright light on that source of urban legends past, Balete Drive. The trailer for the anime also shows familiar Filipino things like the MRT and mythological beings like a tiyanak and nuno sa punso, clearly grounding the show nowhere else but in the Philippines.

Serving as a Creative Director of LEGO’s internal ad agency in Billund, Denmark since 2016, Tan confirms this when he says, “From what I’ve been told, Netflix was all for making this series as Pinoy as possible. So, there was great support to stick to the comic book as much as possible.”

“Just like in the Trese books, each case starts with a map of Manila,” he intimates. “It somehow helps the reader know where they are at, it grounds them to the crime scene. And I think that’s what those scenes do – seeing the MRT suddenly stop on Guadalupe Bridge makes you say, ‘Hey! I know that place! I’ve been on that train! I know what it’s like when it suddenly stops like that!’”

With a voice cast that features Liza Soberano and Shay Mitchell providing the lead character’s voice in the Filipino and English dubs, fans of the Trese series are keenly anticipating if the series will match what they’ve heard in their heads while they have read the comics for the past decade and a half. This early, Tan already fully endorses both, saying, “For both Shay and Liza, I think they were able to perform and sound like how I’ve imagined Trese all along.”

Yet for a real-life person who is about to find himself in animated form, Palenzuela is just as eager to see his alter ego make the leap. “I want to watch and hear how they voice me first,” he says. “After I do watch and hear, then I can make a better call. Visually, from what I saw in the trailer, I don’t feel they got the “guwapo.” Hank kind of looks like a thug. If Manny Pacquiao and Paquito Diaz had a love child… and that is not necessarily a bad thing.”

For Trese readers curious about what stories will be featured in the six-episode first season or who might want to re-read their comics ahead of the series arrival, Tan shares that this season covers stories mostly based on Books 1 to 3.

A few years ago, Tan stated that the Filipino komiks industry is not quite an “industry” yet because he could not quit his day job to just work on comics full-time. Today, Tan shares the following insight: “If we compare the Filipino comic book scene to other countries, then it still feels like we’re not an industry yet. If we were, then most comic book creators would be earning a living from their work – which is not yet happening.”

“In the U.S., the worst selling comic book might sell 5,000 copies a month – which is already considered a best-seller in the Philippines,” he adds. “The best-selling comic book in the U.S. would range from 100,000 copies a month to 1 million copies.”

“But it feels like things are getting better – because of last year’s lockdown, publishers and comic book stores have started to sell more titles online,” he continues. “More readers have started to buy online. And now we have a comics platform like Penlab.ink, which makes it easier to read comics for free and eventually get to buy them. So, maybe, after nearly 15 years of doing this, we might be inching our way closer to become a thriving industry again.”

Aside from his part-time bartending and other interests, Palenzuela could often be seen cosplaying at several conventions before the global pandemic. Of course, one of his most popular outfits was when he’d put on the vest, bowler hat, and shotgun of Hank Sparrow. “Surreal. Every. SIngle. Time,” he responds to how it felt when he’d be recognized. “And such a thrill! I wish I could compare it to something relatable, but how many people can relate to, “Pare, parang ginawang kang komiks. Tapos ginaya mo sarili mo, na based sa yo. Pati yung costume mo, ginaya mo. Oh, di ba?”

“And I love the Trese fans,” he professes. “Solid sila! You feel the love. In my case, I feel it is undeserved. I didn’t write it like Budjette or did the art and layout like Kajo. But sumasakay na rin ako because as a fan myself, I see myself in their shoes.”

“Salamat guys for all the love you have had for Trese all these years,” is Palenzuela’s message to the fandom. “And the patience they have between the books coming out. Sana tuloy lang ang suporta. Come to The Diabolical when the series drops, day before Pinoy Independence Day. First round is on me. Cheers!”

As for Tan and the history that his co-creation is about to make on June 11, he has the following message for the audience: “I hope they enjoy what they see and that they would be intrigued enough to want to learn more about our country, our myth and folklore, and our comic books! I hope this means more people – readers, viewers, producers, publishers – will take a look at what’s being create by today’s Filipino comic book creators!”

 

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