August 5, 2015

SCA Alumni Stories: Mar Elepano

Born in the Philippines in 1954, Mar Elepano ’80 arrived at SCA in 1975 as a Film Production major. He has played a significant role in his many years at SCA, teaching in the MFA in Animation Program since 1993 and serving as the production supervisor of the program. Elepano recently discussed his time as an SCA student and professor, and shared his take on the widely known motto of SCA: “Reality Ends Here.”

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How did you know that you wanted to pursue Cinematic Arts? What influenced your decision to come to SCA to study film? I did not know right away that I wanted to be involved in what was then known as “making movies.” Today we call it “creating content.” It was a slow process. As a young person, I was involved in theater and also experienced 8mm filmmaking and reel-to-reel video. I followed the cultural mainstream, which is to get a college degree. This all happened in the Philippines. I kept following that cultural model—graduate school. I was 21 and my mind was mostly on having a girlfriend and my role model was Bruce Lee. My parents insisted I study in the U.S. I applied to two programs—UCLA and USC. I was rejected at UCLA.

What professional accomplishment are you most proud of? Being a teacher is the best experience I have had. I was an adjunct with our Animation program for 14 years. I am still able to experience the best part of teaching, which is to help others understand. It is said that to understand is to be free. In that sense, we have a lot of freedom fighters here at USC.

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Mar Elepano (left) as a student

How did you decide to pursue teaching? Could you share with us your journey as an SCA professor thus far? Like all the wonderful things that have happened to me, I ran into it one day. I started doing community workshops and then I was asked to teach one class every semester at our newly established animation program in 1993. It went on for 14 years until 2007. I am still getting insights into the learning process, human communication, and how our minds work.

What does the phrase, “Reality Ends Here,” mean to you? How do you think its legacy has shaped the creative paths of SCA students? I think I finally have an understanding of this. It is the power of our perception. Our minds (reality) are shaped by our perception. The person who can shape our perception or influence our perception is effectively creating it (ending it or limiting it only to what is being offered). If our students understand this, then they can be effective in shaping people’s perceptions. This is at the core of creating media content, storytelling, art-making, and most of all—commerce.

What are your thoughts on the role and growing presence of Asian Americans in the film industry and other narrative platforms? Our society has changed in that it has been more inclusive and more tolerant and more compassionate, but it is still racist, bigoted and mercenary. The industry and art we so dearly value is part of this. I believe that it is an ongoing dialectic that slowly transforms to something always better but slowly.

Going back to your days as a student, what do you remember most fondly about your time at SCA? It was back in the late 70’s and early 80’s, the wooden shacks where the School was situated were former stables for the horses that worked in the LA trolleys. That whole place and everything that happened to me there are unforgettable. Here is one story. I will give it a title of a film classic I much admire:

UP IN SMOKE – It was my first summer at USC as a graduate film student. I was walking to the editing room in the stables when Dude, a seasoned grad student, invited me into his VW van. He was a much admired surfer and also the 480 top gun editor of the stables. (480 was the most advanced production class at that time—the Holy Grail.) We shared a stick of grass. Due to my naïveté, I was not aware of the enduring and endearing effects of cannabis. I just remember inhaling too fast.  I bid the Dude farewell and thanked him for his fraternal spirit. He was happily working on his second stick. He was intending to spend the night in his van parked on 34th St., which was then very skanky and not like the Paris Boulevard that it is today. This perplexed me since reliable sources have confirmed that the Dude had a shack by Venice beach where he would embrace the surf with his board every Pacific Coast sunrise. I decided I would commence editing. I got as far as sitting down on the bench. I stared at the sync block and started to wonder about the epistemological nature of its very existence. I put my head on its cast iron frame as if it was a soft pillow and heard the bull pen (what the editing room was fondly referred to then) denizens whisper “…man…he is gone…”. My innocent nature started telling me to get my keister home. I started walking to the bus stop and saw the electric poles come close and then pass me by but I was still miraculously in the same spot. I checked to see if I was on an LAX escalator but I was on Jefferson heading west to Vermont. That whole area had the ethos of economic disadvantage and challenge not like the aura of plenty it has today. To shorten a long story, I am still here 40 years later. The real blessing came when the Dude reached out to me last year asking if I have a line on crack editing software. Unfortunately, I was unable to meet his need. He still has his VW van, he still lives by the beach AND he laments the big change in his life – having to drive his Porsche more than his VW van.
This next story captures the moments that opened my mind to that fragile and precious life of an artist. Most of it happened in the old wooden building. I will give it the title of a film I made in ’84:

WINTER – Even though I graduated in ’80, I kept making experimental animation using 16mm film, sometimes 35mm film and later video which included HDTV, a struggling format at that time. I had access to a lot of traditional film technology since I was in charge of the 16mm motion picture processing lab that our school had at that time. It was under the mentorship of Gene Coe, who taught animation at SCA in the 70’s and started our first MFA Animation program (a 2 year program which later expanded to 3), that I discovered this world of expression. I kept taking Gene’s advanced classes where you make a film each semester. I made these explorations mostly because I was curious how things would work and how it would be satisfying for me and later for that audience I showed it to – Gene and my classmates. It was not about creating a portfolio so I could get a job as an animator or a filmmaker. It was not obvious to me then that I was already a filmmaker, I was already an animator and that I was lucky enough to create what I envisioned and I had an audience to share it with. The act of doing is the act of being. This is so important to remember because we are constantly distracted by the seduction of awards, money and recognition. One of the films I made is WINTER. Most of it was done without a camera. I burned the frames, spray painted on it, scratched it. I used an optical printer to reverse the black & white images and also to arrest it – a “freeze frame”. I followed the music that fascinated me for years – Vivaldi’s WINTER. The result is a film (you can call it media content too). It confirmed what Everett Lewis, my colleague and former classmate under Gene Coe, said so well about film – it can only come alive when it is screened with an audience, that each screening even with an audience of one will bring a unique meaning to the film and finally it is a time capsule in that it preserves the thought and personality of the person who made it at that moment in time – just like an entry in a diary. I realize this each time I watch WINTER. It is such a special experience. I hope all the students in my program have this experience. Thank you Gene!

I have more stories of this nature to share but fear running out of cinema server space if I do. However, I will not refuse any request. I know full well the meaning of – “don’t get me started.”

If you could go back in time and speak to your 20-something year old self, what would you tell him? I would look at him and say, “You won’t believe what will happen to you.”