Have you ever thought of where many of your favorite directors got their start in movie-making? Even the greatest artist has to start somewhere. The names we know today as the movie-making giants began just like any other. Sometimes they were actors or screenwriters who naturally progressed to becoming directors. Others took a more traditional route, going to film school, and putting in the hours and rising to the top. Others just struck out with their own camera and a script.
Very often, these great talents created short films as an early foray into filmmaking. The good people at Mental Floss have compiled a list of 12 Short Films by Famous Hollywood Directors. When you have the time, you should some of the early offerings by Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese, Wes Andersen, Tim Burton, and other favorites.
Some filmmakers did short films early in their career as assignments for class. Looking from the professor’s standpoint, assigning a short film is a natural way to assess the skills of a student. The challenge of telling a story in a few minutes, and putting together all of the details of casting, story, shooting, and so on, can be condensed into a few minutes’ worth of footage. This makes it easier for the professor to grade a class and to see the potential that a student might have without committing to watching hours and hours of aspiring directors’ full length films.
And then there is the point of view of the young director. Getting started can be tough, especially when you are young and lacking in support. The drive and ambition of these greats is amazing to watch now, but just picture having to get started without the budgets and talent pools they now command. How did they get there? Putting together a feature-length presentation on a minimum wage budget on your free time might not be feasible. Doing a short film is much more reasonable in terms of investment of time and money.
Steven Spielberg created short films as a young Boy Scout. He did his very first film to fulfill the requirements of a photography merit badge. His dad’s still camera was broken, and the creative young Spielberg asked if he could make a short film instead. If Spielberg’s father had kept his camera in good repair, he might have never fallen in love with filmmaking.
If the young director can get the right people to view their films, the big break might be right around the corner. These films aren’t only learning exercises, but they are also the young directors’ calling cards. By creating, in less than an hour, something that moves and speaks to an audience, the director proves his worth to prospective backers and talent agents. This is invaluable to an aspiring artist in a very competitive field.
Spike Jonze got his start doing music videos. These are arguably one of the most challenging forms of the short film, because a director doesn’t have as much leeway with story and dialog. It’s also a great way for budding talents to work together. The Breeders’ Last Splash Video arguably was the first national attention he commanded. If Spike Jonze hadn’t taken a chance on the Breeders, and they hadn’t given him the opportunity to direct their video, we might never have seen the genius of Being John Malkovich or his brilliant take on Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are.
Short films are not left behind after a director achieves great success, however. If you’d like to see some examples, Short of the Week even has a section dedicated to famous directors’ short films. Many of the greats are still doing amazing work with this medium, long after they’ve made the big time. These shorts can point to upcoming sequels, be something they release to film festivals, or eve
A short film is a great way to explore new modes of expression, as well. Short films are often experimental, instead of traditional, because there is a freedom that comes when the resources are limited. In the age of YouTube, we have seen such popular favorites as Joss Whedon undercut the writer’s strike by doing exactly what he wanted on his own terms with Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, which was released in a series of short segments, teasing his audience into wanting more. He had no one to answer to but his team, his audience, and his own artistic vision. The experiment was a fabulous, overwhelming success in terms of public support. It served to create more opportunities for Whedon and the cast members than they had previously experienced.
Short films have been a versatile and popular expression of the medium throughout the history of cinema. Through a short film, beginners can learn and grow into their talent and niche. Some early films of great talents are surprisingly bad, but it just makes us appreciate more how the short film can help the director to hone his craft. More mature, recognized filmmakers can find the freedom to express themselves artistically and find fulfillment in a way that a big budget motion picture might not afford. Every director should have a short film or two in their portfolio. It’s fun, and it’s a learning experience.