By: Maria Shamkalian
Melody Tash has been working professionally in the film industry in a variety of capacities — from director of photography, camera operator, directing, producing, writing, art directing, acting, editing, and teaching — for over 10 years. Melody is the president and founder of Cinema Quilt, a full-service production company that works with clients from concept through final film. Melody’s cinematography has appeared on ABC, CBS, NBC, TLC, Nick, CSPAN, and Billboard.com among other places. Melody has a degree in theater with a history minor from Temple University. Her short film, Hallow Gate can be found on the streaming platform seedandspark.com
1) What is your most recent success and how did you accomplish it?
My most recent success actually started all the way back in 2011, when I wrote and directed a fundraising trailer for a feature film. Our team was super ambitious with our all-or-nothing fundraising goal, and a bit naïve about how to run a successful crowdsourcing campaign. Needless to say, with that combination we did not make our goal. We shot so much for the trailer though that a few crew members urged me to turn the footage into a short film. This idea had been nagging me for years and last year I finally dusted off the hard drive and confirmed that yes, there was enough for a short film. And more importantly, that the footage looked great. I locked picture on the short film Soul Catcher, earlier this year and soon will be working with a local composer and sound designer to polish it up for a festival run next year.
2) How did you get started in the film industry?
I went to college for acting but by my senior year I realized that I was more interested in directing. That year I became friends with Vanessa Briceño, an MFA film student. I was an assistant director on her thesis film, and from that point on we collaborated on several projects outside of school. For awhile we had a running joke that I was trying to drag her into the theater world and she was trying to drag me into film. While I gained a lot of the skills needed to be a director, producer, and writer from Temple’s theater department, the only film course I ever took was acting for film. I taught myself (with the help of books, workshops, and mentors) how to operate cameras and edit. In time, what started off as a side-project/hobby turned into my full-time career. I’ve worked as an art director on a handful of commercials and independent films including McCanick with David Morse. My work as a camera operator and DP has appeared on ABC, billboard.com, C-Span, TLC and more. I’ve directed two short films (Hallow Gate and Soul Catcher), and in 2012 I founded my production company, Cinema Quilt. Cinema Quilt primarily creates commercials and short-form documentaries for local business, nonprofits, arts, and educational organizations.
3) Why do you choose to work in PA and what do you love the most about working in Pennsylvania?
I choose to work in PA because this is where I keep my stuff. But seriously, it is where my roots are. I’ve lived in the Philadelphia area since I was a young child, I went to college here, started a family here, and at this point I don’t see myself leaving anytime soon. I also love that the Philadelphia area is close enough to sometimes be able to work as a local in NYC, DC, the Jersey Shore, and Delaware as well.
4) What are some of your favorite shooting locations in Pennsylvania?
I love filming in Philly— there’s such a diversity of locations from the beautiful skyline, to boathouse row and the Schuylkill river, to all the unique characteristics of the different neighborhoods, to the historical landmarks everywhere. You can find very urban to very rural looks within a short drive.
5) What do you love the most about your job?
I love the fact that I am constantly learning and constantly being throw into new situations. One day my office is at the oldest working theater in America and the next it is at the oldest zoo in America. I love getting an insider’s view of many different types of jobs and lives. Sometimes I’m spending the day with celebrities and other times I’m spending the day with people who have had a very tough life and are struggling to survive. Having a firsthand glimpse into all of their lives is an extraordinary privilege.
6) What are some of the challenges of being a female filmmaker?
I think the biggest challenges that I’ve found were after I became a mother. I remember being only a few weeks pregnant while I was filming the finale for an episode of TLC’s “Four Weddings.” I was exhausted all the time and would sneak away at lunch for a nap. I remember finally telling another crew member why I was suddenly sitting on an apple box every chance that I got and no longer eating the foods I had liked last week. I was afraid that there was going to be a perception on set that I was lazy or weak, something that someone who didn’t know had “jokingly” called me on a set in a prior pregnancy when I was 10 weeks pregnant. I had this fear that if I took any time off from work that I would be forgotten. It’s a feeling that I think everyone in the industry can somewhat relate to: if you turn down too many jobs you will no longer be the first name called. Within hours of giving birth (with both of my children) I was talking on the phone with clients from a hospital bed while also trying to figure out how to keep a new human alive. In retrospect I know it would have been fine to take some time off, but it is hard to turn down a job in the moment. I chose to breastfeed my children and finding time to pump while adhering to a tight schedule is really challenging. Not to mention finding a location that’s both private and sanitary in which to do so. A few times I got really sick because I went too long without pumping on sets in order to stay on schedule and not inconvenience anyone. I found that asking ahead of time if there will be time for a pump break is usually not a good idea if you want to be hired, so I’d hope for the best and only pump when everyone went on a break. More and more I started working with my own clients so that I could control the schedule rather than freelancing as a DP/camera op. I really miss freelance work and hope to be able to do more soon, but the hours are often not very family friendly. It’s a really challenging career to balance with a family, for both fathers and mothers, but it is especially hard for breastfeeding mothers.
7) What is your advice for other women in film?
Show up, work hard, know the going rate and ask for it, have fun, support other women, and don’t be afraid to become your own boss.
8) Do you have any upcoming Pennsylvania-based projects?
I just wrapped a spot for Beyond Celiac’s Step Beyond Celiac 5K Races.
I worked with the client from first concepts through to the final edit on this. We had a crew of 5 camera people filming on location at the Philadelphia Zoo and the footage was turned into a commercial that will be used to draw crowds not only for the Philadelphia race next year, but for their races in Kansas City and Dallas later this year as well. I am also in pre-production for the web series Greatest Weakness, a comedy set in South Philly about blowing the interview and failing at life.
9) PAFIA has been working hard on increasing the film tax credit in Pennsylvania and bringing more film work to our local crew and talent, but we must all unite to really make a difference. What can you tell our elected officials about the importance of PA film industry and the difference it has made in your life?
The film industry in PA is more than a job, it is a family. And much of my film family has moved to places like Atlanta, NYC, and LA over the past few years when work here has dried up. Having a thriving film community in PA means that more people will stay, and it will mean that I can continue being able to do what I was meant to do. When work slows down, it is scary; especially for those of us in the industry like myself with a family and young children to care for. I’ve had many different jobs in my life before falling into film and there is nothing that I’m better suited for than helping to craft visual stories. I love the energy of being on set with people from all different types of backgrounds, all working together to create a visual story. From documentary to commercials to feature films to music videos, to press junkets to live events, the drive and commitment that you find from cast and crew is this business is incredible and so inspiring. It is hard sometimes to watch friends whose careers have skyrocketed after moving to a new state. I am rooted here and wish that I might be able to obtain similar career successes without having to move to another state.
10) What is your advice for the aspiring filmmakers? Some steps to take? Some mistakes to avoid?
When you’re new, sometimes you feel like you are supposed to know everything. And if you’re not careful that can come off as being cocky instead of confident. It is okay if you don’t how to find the ABB button on the camera you’re shooting with, or why or when you want to use it to begin with. Don’t be afraid to admit when you don’t know something and to ask questions. Filmmaking is a team sport. Find your team and go make stuff! Continue to welcome new people onto your team, and be open to learning from everyone. Over a decade in this business and I am still constantly learning.
11) What are some good strategies to find more gigs?
When I first got started in the field I found most of my jobs from craigslist and the film.org website. These days it is more from referrals and some cold calls. Go to film events like the ones that PFIA hosts, go meet people. People like to hire and work with people who are friendly and fun to be around. This industry is too demanding and unpredictable to have a terrible time at work everyday.
12) What are some of the most valuable lessons that you have learned about this industry and wish you knew earlier?
Preproduction is essential. The more time that you spend figuring out what the overall vision of the piece you’re creating in preproduction, the better everything will go. There’s often no budget for preproduction, but without it you’re often scrambling on set and then you end up paying for it in post.
13) What is your favorite film shot in Pennsylvania?
Oh gosh, that’s a hard one. I’m not sure I could really narrow it down to just one. I liked The Sixth Sense a lot. Twelve Monkeys was good too. And Silver Linings Playbook. The Wrestler. In Her Shoes. Invincible. Limitless. So many good ones!
14) What is your favorite project that you worked on?
My favorite project most recently was filming the press junket for Creed II. The energy on set was incredible; it was a friendly, professional, well-oiled machine. And at the end of only three days, it truly was a film family that parted ways.
15) What is your biggest aspiration in this industry?
My biggest aspiration in this industry is for 12 hour days to no longer be considered a “short” day, and for us as an industry to lose the bragging rights mentality about lack of sleep and long hours on set. Haskell Wexler made a documentary about this issue in 2013, Who Needs Sleep?, highlighting the huge safety concerns connected with sleep loss. His motivation for filming the doc was the preventable death of a fellow crew member, Brent Hershman. Watching Wexler’s film made me pause and reevaluate my own choices. I continue to hope that our industry as a whole will do the same. The mentality that there’s no other way to stay on budget is a poor excuse for neglecting the health and well being of cast and crew. Why in 2019 are we proud to be working sweatshop hours? If the industry as a whole doesn’t change, then my hope is to start a production company that shoots features with a strict adherence to 12 on 12 off, or better yet 8-10 hour days. In a dream world, I wouldn’t have to choose between working on features and having nightly dinners with my children.
16) What would be the best way for our local PA cast and crew to submit to your upcoming projects?
Follow CinemaQuilt on Facebook/Instagram (@cinemaquilt) or send a note through our website www.cinemaquilt.com.
Pennsylvania Film Industry Association (PAFIA)461 Cochran Road, Box 246Pittsburgh, PA 15228(717) 833-4561 firstname.lastname@example.org