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Traversing Worlds with Ella Arcangel

By Rebekah Ilo Published Aug 01, 2020 12:00 am Updated Aug 01, 2020 3:03 am

In the dreary, broken down crevices of shantytowns and slum areas around Manila, lurks creatures that have long stoked the primal fears of our ancestors. Pointed teeth with sharp claws, and otherworldly beings that terrify the living daylights out of us from the cautionary tales of our elders.

But the true nightmare isn’t from giant, flapping bat wings or long tongues seeking baby-filled wombs, it is one that plagues our waking lives. From corrupt cops, the struggle against poverty and destitution, drug addiction, and joblessness.

(From left: Whitey, Jepoy, Ella, Bet-bet, Janice)

That is the true nightmare that Ella Arcangel encapsulates in its comic. As 12-year-old mambabarang Ella is growing up in a barangay mired with homelessness and a rising crime rate, she has to protect those who are vulnerable to the attacks of the paranormal.

Created back in 2015-16, Ella was the brainchild of Julius Villanueva. Five years later, it now has an animated adaptation from Haliya Publishing, single-handedly produced by the creator of the Tabi Po graphic novel, Mervin Malonzo.

The animation's first episode was released during November Komikon 2019. We talked to both creators on how the comic and the animation eventually came to be, and what’s next for Ella Arcangel.

Villanueva, a freelancer, got his inspiration when he was still working as part of the reasearch team for a reality TV show. “Every time I had to go to work, I'd pass by a slum area and I witnessed it slowly being eaten by development.” he recalled.

The comic was influenced by a number of things, aside from observing a slum devoured by gentrification, there were a couple of fictional characters that inspired Ella's conception.

“I'm a big fan of Trese,” Villanueva continued. “One day after a con, I was hanging out with some friends and we were doing ‘what ifs?’ of existing komiks. I said what if Trese didn’t have resources and was living in a slum. We all laughed but the idea kinda stuck to me.”

Coraline and Trese, two of the major influences of Ella Arcangel.

To the uninitiated, Trese is one of the more mainstream graphic novels within the Philippine komiks industry. It follows the story of a young woman, Alexandra Trese, a bar proprietress and occasional consultant to the police on paranormal cases. It’s currently going to have a Netflix series soon.

Aside from Trese, Ella herself was based on Tiffany Aching, a young witch trainee from Terry Pratchett’s novel Discworld. As well as Coraline from the movie of the same name, in which a young girl ends up in a supernatural world much like her own, only to discover something sinister lurking underneath.

I just wanted them to be different from anything I've read before... And I wanted the creatures to make sense to me, so I had to reimagine them.

While writing Ella, he originally wanted it to be a YA series. Originally, gusto ko sa Ella kasi eh maging YA comics. Nasa YA ang pera (I wanted Ella to be a YA [young adult] comic. The money’s in YA),he jokingly added. While I was writing it, parang pangit (it didn’t seem right) if I pulled my punches. And I think current YA books are much broader and mature,” Villanueva laughed.

He eventually settled with what it is now. Currently, Ella Arcangel has five stories including the recently released Ang Bangungot Ng Barangay Masikap, and it has been compiled into two omnibuses: Ella Arcangel Tomo 1: Eto Ang Panganib and Ella Arcangel Tomo 2: Awit ng Pangil at Kuko.

It has a spin off as well, Mga Pusa ng Barangay Masikap, about the cats lurking around, guarding the slums from supernatural threats.

Pictures of a city: Ella is within a familiar site for most people residing in Manila.

Within the world of Ella Arcangel, aside from informal settlers and the down-on-their-luck trying to fight for survival in the unforgiving concrete jungle of the city, there are also those trying to helplessly avoid getting preyed on by aswangs, tiyanaks, and terrifying creatures only heard of from folklore.

These creatures of Philippine Mythology are seen in a new light, from insectoid diwata queens, to tikbalangs that look like the ones from children’s science books. New horrors that look natural and exist in our world.

“I just wanted them to be different from anything I've read before,” Villanueva asserted. “And I wanted the creatures to make sense to me, so I had to reimagine them. I was inspired by paleoart, particularly the ‘soft’ dinosaur revolution. Dinosaur books like All Yesterdays and science books like Parasite Rex. Also by artist Memo Kosemen who did reconstructions of cryptids using biology”

He also explained that he was inspired by H.R. Giger’s monster art as well.

When asked about what will happen to Ella in future developments, Villanueva mentions that he has no long-term plans for her yet, “Not sure yet. I really don’t have a long-term plan for her.  Besides, she’s a tween, we will see her in her early teens at least.”

Aside from the themes of poverty, class warfare, and corruption of people in power, Villanueva mentions that other issues such as development aggression, lack of basic resources, human versus human, and human versus nature conflict, as well as personal family problems will be explored in future stories.

He also mentioned that there aren’t any plans yet to have crossovers with other comics aside from the ones that he has created. When asked who his favorite character is, he replied, “Aside from Ella? It’s Mimiw.”

And to those who are planning to create their own comics, Villanueva imparts his wisdom: “Just do it. If the story’s been with you for so long, if it’s been living inside your brain and feels as if it’s gonna explode out of you if you don’t do something about it, go do it. Don’t let workshop mentors, your friends or meme pages dictate what you need to do.”

He tells startups to pace themselves, too, “But of course, take your time also, every situation is different. Some of us have jobs or a family that we need to prioritize, but if that need is there, you’ll find a way. Don’t worry about the audience for now,” Villanueva said, laughing. “First time I sold Ella, I printed 40 copies and less than half were sold.”

Oyayi Sa Dilim

A promotional still for Ella Arcangel: Oyayi Sa Dilim

Mervin Malonzo is the author and artist of the Tabi Po graphic novel which won the 2014 National Book Award for Graphic Literature. He also animated Ella Arcangel all on his own.

We got the ins and outs of producing the animated adaptation, and asked what’s next after this latest development.

What made you decide to create an animated adaptation of Ella Arcangel?

“There’s two things I enjoyed as a child: comics and animation. I decided early on that I would create my own comic and animation when I become an adult. With Tabi Po, It seems that I have proven to myself that I could create a decent comic that a lot of people could enjoy, so I wanted to try my hand at animation next.

Ella’s story and message is very good and deserves to be told in another medium. I just want this animation to exist.

Ella Arcangel is perfect for adapting to animation on my own because the first story contains a small number of characters which could be voiced by me and my wife Prin. Julius’ art style is also unique and appealing which would work perfectly in animation.

“And of course, Ella’s story and message is very good and deserves to be told in another medium. I just want this animation to exist.

How long did it take you to create the whole episode?

“I created this in between comic projects and freelance works for over two years, but if compressed, it probably took me 2-3 months to complete the 20-minute episode.

“I did everything here from character animations, background art, voice acting, and sound design. I only needed help with Ella’s voice which is provided by Prin and the music theme which is provided by my brother, Jepoi.”

What was the most challenging aspect of creating it?

“I studied creating 2d animation while working on this project. Because of this, the quality of animation changes drastically from scene to scene as I learn new techniques and as I get comfortable with the medium. I needed to redo the earlier scenes so that the quality is consistent.

“I also had a hard time in creating a compelling first scene that would capture the audience. The first scene is just a narrator introducing the setting, Barangay Masikap, which is a slum area within the city. For some reason, every time I showed it to the test audience I felt that it lulled them to boredom.

“I figured out that it’s because it’s just one picture of tall buildings and shanties. So, I decided to create another scene where we pan from the buildings to the neighborhood below and I put as much details as I could in the background.

“I also created a focal point which is a red kite falling down from the sky. It did the trick! Now, it feels like I am easing you into this world. This made me realize the importance of the background art in world-building and how it captures the audience.

“Comics and animation have similarities, but they are completely different as well. I had to study film techniques that directors would use so that each of the scenes reads as expected.

“It is important to have clarity because one jarring transition, for example, could ruin the experience of the viewer.”

Backdrop of a city: One of the picturesque settings of the Ella Arcangel universe

What was your favorite part of creating it?

“I would say that my favorite part is every time I make the characters and creatures look alive. Animation is a tedious process. It takes time and patience. So, every time that I make everything move as I like, it is a reward for me.

“I feel like a god creating this universe through my hands one frame at a time. I also feel that I am fulfilling my childhood dream of being an animator and it makes me very happy.”

What's your next step after having it released?

“This is just the first of many episodes. We are currently in talks with several entities who might be willing to fund us in making a full series and a movie.

“I am optimistic that this will lead to something. Later on I will also adapt Tabi Po into an animated movie. Then if things go smoothly I would propose the adaptation of other properties as well.”

Are there any plans of showing it in independent cinemas or to schools?

“Yes. I will talk to several indie cinemas, coffee shops, events, and whoever has a projector and sound system about screening this. But this is also available to watch right now at Vimeo. It’s like Netflix but you only pay once. You can choose rent or buy it. I will greatly appreciate it if you go and watch it right now!” (full episode is also available on YouTube. Link below – Ed.)

I believe in (Ella Arcangel’s) message and that message needs to be heard in these trying times.

What do you plan on improving with the next episodes?

“With the right budget, I can focus on this project and that means even better quality of animation, and expanding the story a bit so you can see more of Ella’s world than in the comics.”

Any advice to those who create animations?

“Just do it. You have the resources to learn at your fingertips. If I could do it, you could too!”

What would you like to say to fans of Ella Arcangel?

“I am a fan of Ella Arcangel as well. That's why I am devoting a lot of my time for this. I believe in its message and that message needs to be heard in these trying times. Thank you to those who support Julius, me, and Haliya Publishing. I am happy from all the support that we get. I feel that we’re doing something that’s not only entertaining but meaningful as well.”

And that’s how Ella Arcangel came to be, from the mind of an author who observed the daily lives of those living in the slums, to becoming a full-fledged animation that tells people of the daily lives of those less-fortunate while trying to make sense of the supernatural dangers in the world they live in.

For those who want to see more insights on the making of Ella Arcangel, you can watch it here:

Watch the full episode of Ella Arcangel: Oyayi sa Dilim here:

Currently, they're producing the second Ella Arcangel episode, and you’ll be able to see the previews of the animation on Mervin Malonzo’s FB page.