Leo Abaya seems to have that natural artist’s eye. A visual artist, commercial director and the award-winning production designer for José Rizal, Kubrador and Muro-Ami, he admits that he couldn’t point out exactly where in his family he got his affinity for art. He could name about a couple of relatives in the field of art, but most of them are businessmen, doctors, teachers and lawyers.
But influences from Abaya’s childhood prepared him for art. As a child, he was encouraged to read and one of his favorite books then was Alice In Wonderland. In his pre-teens, he enjoyed the works of Margaret Mead, Greek mythology, and comics like Spider-Man, Batman and Tarzan. He was also listened to a lot of radio dramas while in the company of his yaya when his parents were at work. His artistic streak was soon evident. In school, he filled his notebooks more with drawings than with notes.
Abaya basically had a normal childhood, though he felt at some point that his dad had a bit of preference for his brother Butch. In an attempt to get his parents’ attention, Abaya participated in art contests, always managing to win first prize.
However, he didn’t take drawing seriously at that time. When it was time for college, his first choice was economics. After college he got a certificate in short filmmaking from the UP Film Center Cinema as Art Program at the University of the Philippines Diliman. Among his batch were designer Eric Paras, visual artist Alan Rivera and Cynthia Estrada, and their director of photography was Clinton Morales. Their film entitled Napindan won first prize in that year’s festival.
Because he didn’t have any connections in the film industry, Abaya entered the corporate world instead, working in Meralco and PNB. Later, though, he got accepted in Ricky Lee’s workshop and started writing TV scripts. A story that Abaya wrote was used in an actors’ workshop by Laurice Guillen and Johnny Delgado. Soon he was asked to art direct Vietnam Rose by Cesar Ad Castillo, but he got his big break with Misis Mo, Misis Ko by Carlitos Siguion-Reyna. After that, offers started pouring in.
With his pick of scripts, Abaya makes sure he reads each one before choosing. If he doesn’t like what he reads, he doesn’t do it. He believes in aiming for quality not quantity, that what matters is not whether your filmography is long, but that everything in it is good. In retrospect, he admits there were films he wasn’t particularly proud of, but wouldn’t repeat his mistakes.
Abaya also got into directing commercials through Vittorio Romero, who saw one of his films and got him to work on his commercials. Among Abaya’s most memorable works are Bagong Tunog for Cosmos Bottling Co. and shampoo commercials for Head & Shoulders.
After meeting some art directors, he decided to pursue formal art studies. He got his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Painting from the UP College of Fine Arts in Diliman in 1995, graduating magna cum laude. In 2004, he got his Master of Arts in Painting from the Winchester School of Art at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom.
In 1997, while teaching at the UP College of Fine Arts, Abaya was offered by Greg de Guzman to work on the film José Rizal. Abaya saw it as a challenge and he was determined to see the task through – to recreate the 19th century Philippines and give people an idea of what we were then. For his work on the film, he won the awards for Best Production Design in the 1998 Metro Manila Film Festival, the 1999 FAMAS Awards and the 1999 Gawad Urian, and Production Designer of the Year in the 1999 Star Awards for Movies.
The work he is most proud of so far is Muro-Ami, as well as Kubrador and Itanong Mo Sa Buwan. Still, he feels that his best work is yet to come. For now, his dream project is as a filmmaker and not as a production designer. He feels he is ready for directing, and if he made a film, he would like the story to be very simple but something that reaches the soul.
As an artist, he has held a number of solo shows. These include his first solo show, Bliss, at the West Gallery in SM Mega Art Walk in 1997; Corpora Immobilia, a large installation work at the Corredor Gallery at the UP College of Fine Arts in July 2003; Figures and Grounds at the Pinto Art Gallery in Antipolo in April 2005; and Tropical, Baroque at the Utterly Art Gallery in Singapore in June 2008.
Among his awards and recognition are the Juror’s Prize in the AAP Art Competition in 1993; Best Production Design for Muro-Ami at the Metro Manila Film Festival in 1999; Best Production Design a Faculty Fellowship Grant for Overseas Postgraduate Studies from the University of the Philippines in 2003; shortlisted, one of two finalists for Best Book Design for Ani: The Life and Art of Hermogena Borja Lungay in the Manila Critics Circle National Book Awards in 2007; and Best Production Design for Kubrador at the Gawad Urian in 2007.
Abaya reveals that he is not a harsh critic when watching other films, because he understands how difficult it is to make movies. However, he is a bit harsh when it comes to Hollywood productions, because they have a bigger budget and there is no excuse for making mistakes. As a professor, he doesn’t make too much room for his own opinions, as he is only there to guide his students. He believes that one could make a learning experience out of even the most trivial event and that one should always strive to improve one’s craft. To achieve this, it is important to know oneself and to have passion and discipline. Abaya is a testament to his beliefs.