[for the background and my personal response to this article please see “Background to Inspire#6: Out of Paper Boxes (Melinda Tan)“]
I have always had trouble forming cool, suave and hip introductions of myself on social. It’s a hard thing to do, being honest of how you see yourself and how others look at you, and finally what you hope for others to zoom in on…. all in 20 characters at best. It’s too much hassle. Point to the webpage (with fully-written essay-long bios with cvs, testimonials, credentials,….etc. already.) :) Knowing that, yet, I requested for Melinda Tan, to introduce herself ‘briefly’. Hats off to someone with a life so much more dynamic than 20 characters.
Melinda Tan: “I’m a psychologist, filmmaker, and founding member of an independent short film collective, studio3B.”
Based in Perth, Australia now, I could only afford the pleasure of having Melinda share through emails. However, her honesty and generosity in sharing her thoughts very much removed any imaginable barrier(s) on my part that would have otherwise threatened the effectiveness of these electronic interviews. The following are her own responses, and in her own words. Italics are entirely my own.
Melinda, the Psychologist
when asked if Psychology as a subject has/had always been of interest to her
Yes, I remember deciding on it when I was in Secondary 2! Not sure I even fully understood what a psychologist does back then but it was just a decision I made at that point. Though back when I was in secondary school and JC, my love was always literature.
When I got to University, I pursued Psychology as a major, but being in the Arts Faculty at NUS also meant that I had the opportunity to take modules in literature, film and even theatre. I never saw myself as a theatre student but a serendipitous moment in my first semester at school saw me losing a bid (yes we had to bid for modules!) for the Intro Module to Psychology. And as fate would have it, I ended up taking the module Intro to Theatre Studies to fill up module requirements.
I think that short period of time really pushed me out of my comfort zone because we had to think about the texts in a more performative way, and it was also the first time I had to act in little skits, as well as the first time I had to direct, for our final project (I remember it was a play “老九” by Kuo Pao Kun).
I guess that’s just a very long-winded way of saying, while I had decided to be a Psychology major very early on, I also loved the freedom to continue to explore other disciplines, even as I slowly discovered what Psychology was about. During that period of time, I also volunteered and interned at several places working with children – as a telephone counsellor for primary school children, at the art museum, and also at my current workplace, which gave me a good insight on the role of an educational psychologist.
So I guess where I am right now is an intersection of all these experiences.
And as I look back across my different interests in psychology, literature, film, perhaps the underlying unifying thread, is my interest in the study of the human condition.
Melinda, the film-maker
when asked about her background, her initial sparks, and what drives her passion for film
I first discovered filmmaking when I joined a University student filmmaking club called nuSTUDIOS Film Productions, which was a student film production house back at National University of Singapore (kind of like a CCA – co-curricular activiy). When I first joined, my knowledge of filmmaking was zero, and my entry point was my interest in literature. It was also where I met a lot of like-minded friends who were in different disciplines like engineering, communications and new media, etc but who shared an interest in film production.
I’ve never had formal film education, so being in nuSTUDIOS was essentially my education. Watching films, and learning and developing my craft in writing and directing with each film. I love telling stories, and what I love about film production is that it’s not just words on printed text, but turning that into flesh and blood on screen, using not just visuals, but sound (and sometimes silence), and music together, to shape meaning. There’s always a thrill when they all come together seamlessly in the final product.
Today, I am really fortunate that with my film collective at studio3B, I am able to continue making films on the side, 8 years after I’ve left school. It is really not something I take for granted because filmmaking requires the skills of so many different collaborators. Most of the peers I’ve crewed with when we were still in school have now stopped making films entirely.
Am also grateful that I am working amongst friends whose talents I respect and admire. We fund our own projects so we have to be really careful with the budget but that also means we have full creative control of our projects, which is great.
On the film-making process…
On set, I usually take on the role of writer and director. It always starts with an idea for a story. And sometimes it takes a very long time before I find something I want to say. Making a film takes a lot of time, effort and resources, and it has to be an idea that resonates strongly.
Then comes the writing process. After I’ve completed the first draft of the script, it goes through multiple drafts throughout the pre-production phase as I discuss more in depth with the different “departments” (really just one or two people in our small crew) like the DP and Art to refine and shape the script, and to plan for the shoot. The producer and I will then start casting for the right actors – sometimes through actor databases, sometimes through “cold-calling” someone we think would be suitable for the role, and hold auditions. I believe that casting is 90% direction and so this is a phase we spend quite a bit of time on. Once we have casted, next follows rehearsals with the actors if possible.
Music is a big part of my films as well (as you are familiar, thank you Juliet! :)) and I usually already have a song in mind before we start shoot. I will share the piece of music with the DP and inform him where I intend to use the music in the film, so that he understands the feel I’m going for, and we will then design and plan the shots accordingly.
The actual shoots are usually over weekends when the crew and actors are available, typically over 2-4 days depending on the project. On set, tweaks to the script are also made along the way. Sometimes the actors improvise something better, and that is worked into the script.
Once the shoot is over, that’s when the next phase of work begins. And at this stage, it would just be me and my editor and we would construct the film over several months. Sometimes it feels like we are starting from scratch – making decisions on the shots and how they fit together, and these decisions collectively shape the narrative. After the edit is picture-locked, my editor will work on the sound and the colours, and I will provide him with notes on the drafts, before we finally lock the edit.
After from the planned projects, which typically take about a year for us from pre-production to post. We’ve also recently taken part in a number of short film competitions, partly as a means to hopefully fund our other projects with the prize money, partly as a means to continue to hone our skills in between the planned shoots.
Melinda, on Creativity
when asked if creativity could occur anywhere
I believe that creativity can happen anywhere, and definitely not limited to certain fields of work. That’s why I believe it’s important to expose myself to these different experiences, like a collector, because that’s often the start of creative work, whether it’s writing a script or styling my home (something I’ve developed an interest in after moving into my own place!). There are influences everywhere, and the magic happens when you can put seemingly unrelated influences together to solve a problem, or create something new.
Melinda, on having 2 significant loves
when asked of her perspective on her passion for both film-making and psychology, and if she ever felt she needed to choose
From a very early on, on a professional front, I’ve preferred to compartmentalised these two sides of me: as a psychologist, and as a filmmaker. At work, I wear one hat. Off-work, I put on my other hat.
Psychology is my day job, so I spend a bulk of my time on it. But I’m often asked, how do you find time for film? At the end of the day, I guess it boils down to whether something is a priority. Because it is, at least at this point in my life, I naturally make time for it. When there are deadlines, I would spent all weekends, and many nights at my film editor’s place, straight after work, all the way till the early mornings, before cabbing home to rest for a couple of hours before heading out for work.
Both are exhausting work and so energy-management is extremely important for me. Any remaining time I have left, is really given to sleep and rest. So yes, something’s got to give, and as a result, I don’t really do much entertainment or socialising or leisure brunches at cafes. I guess that it helps that I work with friends. :)
(this made me smile, how precious precious it is to be able to ‘work’ with friends, it just isn’t quite work when you think about it – for more of my thoughts, see article “Background to Inspire#6: Out of Paper Boxes (Melinda Tan)“)
Melinda, on Finding Inspiration
I know it sounds a bit cliched, but I draw a lot of inspiration from everyday life. Since a good short film should reflect real life, I think being a keen observer of real life is important – for example, observing how people speak or interact. If we listen really closely, we don’t actually speak in full sentences, often we interrupt, sometimes we keep silent. A micro-expression, or a glance, what are people saying, even when they are not saying a word. These are little details that make a film authentic.
I spend a lot of time commuting on public transport – back when I was in school, and now for work – the so-called “daily grind”. It is tiring but that also gives me quite a bit of white space to observe people. Sometimes I overhear random snatches of conversation that I file away mentally, sometimes I accidentally witness an argument between a couple. It is funny how we can be so close in proximity (yes, I’ve been there in the stifling peak hour crowds), yet we often form a bubble around us, and every now and then, I look up from my smartphone to burst that bubble.
I also try to catch as many films as I can. I am naturally drawn to certain directors because of the themes in their work, and their sensibilities, but at times I also catch other types of film genres on recommendation. Watching films give me ideas on how other filmmakers have approached a story in terms of style and technique and also provides a reference point for me when I want to communicate with my crew on the particular look I am going for in a project.
Melinda, on her lessons in life
(this is the BIG one, you don’t want to miss out, pull out a tea or coffee cup, feet on your coffee table, and just breathe into this one)
They say that all advice is autobiographical, and I’ve honestly learnt so many things, so I’ll share not advice per se, but just a few points that I’ve learnt in my own journey that I wish I had known earlier. :)
1) I believe that your multiple interests and experiences are never wasted in life, so don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.
Other than psychology and film, I was (and in some ways, still am!) interested in so many things – design, music, writing, poetry, photography, etc. When I told a uni acquaintance about my varied interests, she said “I think it’s because you don’t know what you want.” It was a throwaway comment from her, but it really smarted, because I wondered if it were true.
But over time, I believe that the skills that I have learnt in one discipline has helped me in the other (e.g., sensitivity in working with people, asking questions, conveying information). There are many different types of psychologists, just as there are many different types of filmmakers. It is perhaps your unique combination of experiences that define you, as a person, and in your field.
2) Learning to be comfortable with vulnerability, whether in the decisions you make as a professional, or in the value of your work as a filmmaker, and to keep going on. It’s not easy, and I guess we’ll always be works in progress. Here are two quotes that I love that have put this point across more eloquently than I can:
– “I am learning everyday to allow the space between where I am and where I want to be, to inspire me and not terrify me.” – Tracee Ellis Ross
and this next one by Ira Glass is my absolute favourite, pertaining more to creative work:
– “Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple of years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through”.
3) Focus on the craft.
When I was much younger, I used to use the word “passion” quite a bit to describe my interests in psychology and film. But right now, I prefer to focus on the craft, in developing a “craftsman mentality”**. Passion alone is cheap, anyone can have passion in something but being able to make it work, day on day, even when the days get tough, that really depends on the skills that you are developing and honing in your area of work.
**Cal Newport writes a lot about this, if you’re interested.
(An excerpt to his book “Be So Good They Can’t Ignore You” *requires Flash – a statement Cal Newport borrowed from comedian Steve Martin in encouraging aspiring entertainers)
I made my first 3 short films when I was still in school and shortly after. Back then, we had a lot of conversations and activity about branding and marketing the film and getting the word out… we got a blog, a site, a facebook page. That was fun and we certainly learnt a lot.
But. Right now, I’m at a point in my life where I just want to cut through that noise, and focus on the film itself, and developing myself to becoming a better writer and director. There is so much more to learn, and I am fortunate to be in a position where I can do this at my own pace.
Melinda, on Length of Films
when asked if she would consider longer films in future
Never say never, but right now, I feel like I’ve not exhausted the medium yet. I like capturing the little moments in life, and the short film format is perfect for that. To me, a short film is not simply a shorter, or condensed version of a full-length feature film, it is a medium on its own, which allows for more open-endedness and experimentation.
In recent years, I’ve been taking part in film competitions where the requirements are that the films produced have to be within stipulated length e.g., 80 secs, 3 minutes. While it is a definitely challenging to attempt to tell a compelling story in so little screen time, the experiences have taught me the discipline of making every shot count.
Melinda, on What’s Next
I would like to take a break actually after working on four film projects this year! Would like some time to rest, recharge, and think about next projects.
I have a new script idea in mind, so I’ll likely be spending time developing it.
No websites for studio3B at the moment, but the Paper Boxes facebook page is still up, and I can be reached there as well. :)
(All italics and headings are my (Juliet’s) own.)
Melinda with Studio3b’s current works & screenings:
// Film Festivals & Screenings //
2012 8th InDPanda Short Film Festival (Hong Kong)
2013 18th Portobello Film Festival (London)
2013 Tropfest South East Asia Roughcut George Town Festival (Penang)
2013 Screening at Singapore Night Festival (Singapore)
2013 Other screenings: Best of First Take, The Substation (Singapore)
(Background & Interview on the making of ‘Paper Boxes’ here.) 《这一秒，你好不好》（Seletar)
// Film Festivals & Screenings //
2015 Cathay Motion Picture Awards (First Runner-Up)
2016 Screened at Cathay Cineleisure and The Cathay (Singapore)
2016 12th InDPanda Short Film Festival (Hong Kong)
– Zhiqi (导演)
– Filbert (摄影导演)
– Jeremy (编辑)
– Jiasheng 与 Yishu （好友以及个别方面支持）
I had in another separate article (in Mandarin) on Melinda’s short film successes described the joys of finding like-minded individuals to cross-collaborate with, and also how we had first met. I had however not have had the opportunity to share that there were other times when we had, with no real (definite) agenda in mind, spun off long discussions on ‘take-away films’ and more. In “Background to Inspire#6: Out of Paper Boxes (Melinda Tan)“, you will get a better sense of why it is with so much pleasure and honour to have her share her path and processes so openly on Inspire. Please share this article freely with anyone who needs a little encouragement in their own crafting journeys.
Thank you my wonderful friend, Melinda, see you back on the emails. ;)