Steven Melendez, the talented Emmy award-winning producer began his career humbly as most do in the entertainment industry, as an apprentice. While studying sculpture at California State University in Los Angeles in the 1960s, Melendez, a self professed surfer and artist, decided to pursue his passion for art while working several jobs. As luck would have it, his father, Bill Melendez, the director behind the “Charlie Brown” films, had begun a production company, offered him a job. Melendez began his career in film, and quickly made his presence known through hard work, perseverance, and gumption. This is the first part of a three part interview of the life, and career of this inspiring, talented, and driven professional.
When you were growing up, had you always been drawn to art, or was there something that kind of was the catalyst?
Oh, I kind of fell into it. I was vaguely interested, but I didn’t want to compete with my dad. He was a really good artist. It was not until I got out of high school that I started drawing. Then, I got really interested in sculpture, and that’s what I studied at university.
Let’s talk about how you got involved in the movie business, the entertainment business?
Oh, purely by accident. I was at university and working at a warehouse. My dad (Bill Melendez, the director and animator of the Peanuts films.) called up and asked if I could come and work with him, because he’d just set up a studio. At that time, my dad was also teaching animation at USC. Dad needed a runner at the studio, and was willing to pay more than I was getting at the warehouse. So, I went and worked for him.
Were you apprenticing as you were working, or did you just begin in a position?
Well, I became an apprentice film editor. Then, I became an assistant, and finally they made me an editor. It took about three years in total to become an editor. I was working on a lot of films, and we were doing a lot of commercials in those days. It was just constant, different clients and different advertising agencies almost every day. I was able to meet so many people. Of course working with Schulz was great, because I used to go up and deliver film to him. I’d take up around six cans of film and show them to him in Northern California as we were doing them. I’d take the notes and return to L.A. I worked on all of the early Peanuts films, Babar the Elephant, some Cathy films, and I worked on Charlie Brown Christmas.
Do you think it was more valuable for you to be learning on the job and apprenticing, or do you think film school is still a benefit these days?
Oh, I’m sure school is a benefit, but what I do notice is that every student who comes out of film school is a director. They know everything, which I think is great; they have confidence and all of that. Naturally because I was an apprentice first, I prefer on-the-job training. Learning on the job and from other professionals gives one a much well-rounded perspective on film-making along with the hands-on experience that just learning theory in school cannot emulate. When my dad was teaching at USC, he was teaching students actually how to animate, the craft and all that goes with it. His class was a hands-on experience for the students. They (USC administrators) pulled him aside and said, “Look, we’re not a trade school. We teach theory.” USC didn’t want him teaching people how to animate, just the appreciation for it. Film–making and animation are trades, they require skills in many different specialties, and learning real –time concrete processes of the job, but that’s not what the university thought at all. It’s a different attitude.
What are the differences between making film then and now?
There’s television, video, and the internet in this day and age. What I had when I was growing up was the cinema and some television. Video and digital production craft and mechanisms did not exist. You couldn’t go out and look at anything and research it the way one can now using the internet. Then, if you wanted to research something, you had to go and buy a ticket to the cinema and watch a movie, and go to many libraries and research to find the answers. I remember going down on Hollywood Boulevard and going to cinemas there. You would go in at 12:00 and you would come out at 6:00, and watch the films three or four times. I remember seeing Peter Pan, and Lady and the Tramp, and all these films, and seeing how they were constructed and how everything worked. Then, I was working for my father’s studio, and apprenticing, and learning how to physically construct a film. Today is different in that the internet opens up so many more possibilities for learning.
You produced The Lion, the witch and the Wardrobe, but you actually did more than that.
Well, my dad was directing it, but he was in Los Angeles. I ended up taking over the whole production from London by supervising, coordinating production, editing and producing. I was spending every other week in Barcelona and London working with the artists and editors. I was ferrying stuff back and forth, because this was before the internet so cans of film have to be reviewed, and sketches and story boards developed. Children’s Television Workshop were the producers of it. Dave Connell, their producer, used to fly into London every other week. We would go over every single scene and work on it. I was really thankful to have the opportunity to work with so many animators, which up until then had all been rivals. However, we all banded together, and helped make the film. It was one of the most positive and satisfying experiences for me to this day to have collaborated with rivals on a film, and then to have the same film win an Emmy award.
It is evident that Steve Melendez possesses a great deal of knowledge and experience about the industry due to his long and hard working work ethic. It would probably be challenging to say the least for today’s younger generation of film-makers to even consider keeping up with him. His dedication to the creative process and drive really showcase why he has won awards and continues to inspire film-makers of all ages.
Next week Mr. Melendez will discuss the differences between making different types of films and working with digital and traditional mediums. Subscribe for free to this column by clicking subscribe at the top of the page.