Everyone has to start somewhere, and for many directors, that start was in short student films. Let's dive way back into the catalogue of science fiction, fantasy, and horror directors and see the films that they made when they first sat in the director's chair.
Student films often contain seeds of directors' future careers. Michael Bay's student film at Wesleyan prominently featured his yellow Porsche, while his classmate Joss Whedon made a student film about a girl whose prom date turns out to be a vampire. (For the record, Whedon has said Bay's film was the better of the two and that he destroyed the negative of his own.) Sometimes, they include surprise guest stars—as in Bryan Singer's Lion's Den, which stars Singer's childhood friend Ethan Hawke. And sometimes, they offer a very different view of the director than we're used to seeing, as with M. Night Shyamalan's semi-autbiographical Praying with Anger, which he made while at NYU.
Most of the films and film fragments below are student films in the classic sense, made while the director was in college—or in some cases earlier. A few are slight cheats, very early works that give us an idea of where the directors were at that time of life. Also, if anyone knows where I can find Paul Verhoeven's student films, drop me a note; those things sound fascinating.
When David Cronenberg originally matriculated at the University of Toronto, his key interests were studying botany and lepidopterology. However, in 1966, he watched his classmate David Secter's film Winter Kept Us Warm, which sparked an interest in making films of his own. He made at least two films while at the University of Toronto: Transfer and From the Drain. From the Drain, which has made its way online, centers on two men sitting in a bathtub and in many ways feels like a stereotypical student film—but it ends on a very Cronenberg note:
University wasn't the last time Cronenberg would make short films; he'd continue with more famous shorter-than-feature-length films, such as Crimes of the Future:
Guillermo del Toro
According to Film School Rejects, Guillermo del Toro made about ten short films by the age of 21, although only the latter two have been made available to the public. Doña Lupe, which is available on the compilation World Short Films: Cinema 16, is a 30-minute horror film about a widow who takes in two shady policemen as boarders. Geometria, which is available online, is based in part on Frederic Brown's story Naturally and stars del Toro's mother, Guadalupe del Toro. It quite appropriately features a demon summoning and teaches us that a proper understanding of math is vital to dealing with dark powers:
Even before making his more famous short film Vincent, Tim Burton was animating his own shorts at the California Institute of the Arts. Although only fragments remain of these early shorts, the quirky horror that would become a hallmark of Burton's films is already there in the dental misadventure Stalk of the Celery Monster:
And King and Octopus:
While attending the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, David Lynch made his first surreal short film, Six Men Getting Sick (Six Times), a moving painting that Lynch described as "57 seconds of growth and fire, and three seconds of vomit":
Classmate H. Barton Wasserman was so impressed by the film that he paid Lynch $1000 to make a similar film installation for his home. However, when Lynch had the film developed, there was nothing on the print. Wasserman told Lynch to keep the money and make something else instead. Inspired by a dream his wife Peggy had had, Lynch mad The Alphabet, which resembles a nightmare version of a Sesame Street segment:
The man who would go on to make Blade Runner and Alien wrote and directed his first short film in 1962, while studying photography at the Royal College of Art. Boy and Bicycle stars Ridley Scott's brother, the late Tony Scott, as a teenage boy playing hooky from school who rides around a coastal village, reflecting on his life:
George Lucas made a handful of short films while studying at USC Film School. His first film, Look at Life, is a one-minute montage of photographs shown while drums play and a narrator shouts the text of Proverbs 10:12. Freiheit, which he made in 1966, feels more indicative of Lucas' eventual career as an action filmmaker, depicting the flight of a student from East Germany as he attempts to cross the Berlin border:
Then there is Lucas' famous student film, Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB, which he wrote and directed in 1967. The film won first prize for a dramatic film at the National Student Film Festival, which is how fellow director Steven Spielberg first became aware of Lucas' work. Lucas would eventually rework the short as the feature film THX 1138.
James Cameron: Xenogenesis
James Cameron didn't attend film school; he dropped out of Fullerton College in 1974 after deciding not to pursue a degree in either physics or English. But in the following years, he became a student of film all the same, spending much of his free time in the USC library studying special effects techniques. The result of that study (and his delight in watching Star Wars in 1977) was Xenogenesis, a 12-minute short film he co-wrote and co-directed with Randall Frakes. Watching it, it's no surprise that Cameron would make a career of special effects-heavy films.
Evil Dead 2 is famously a reworking of Evil Dead, but Sam Raimi—with the help of Robert Tapert and Bruce Campbell—first made the cabin-in-the-woods horror film Within the Woods in 1978, while in college. The 32-minute film was always meant to be a prototype, a calling card film to interest potential investors:
It was hardly Raimi's first foray into horror. Earlier that year, he had directed Clockwork, a short film about a wealthy woman being stalked by a serial killer in her home:
And in 1977, he had co-written and directed the comic mystery it's murder, which, like Within the Woods, includes an early performance from Bruce Campbell:
It's murder part 1 by william-sayers2
Peter Jackson got his start in films early, spending much of his teenage years teaching himself stop-motion animation. Jackson is a particular fan of visual effects wizard Ray Harryhausen, and one of Jackson's early projects was The Valley, a short film that combined live action with a stop-motion cyclops straight out of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. You can see a few clips from that early film in a segment from a Harryhausen tribute below:
Steven Spielberg: Escape to Nowhere, Firelight, Amblin'
Like Jackson, Steven Spielberg was already making films as a teenager. He was just 13 when he made his 40-minute war film Escape to Nowhere with a group of friends playing soldiers in the Sonoran Desert. He used flour to simulate explosions and Spielberg's parents and other adults handled the driving of the Jeeps. Apparently, the filming caused a bit of a stir; when passersby saw figures in German helmets wielding what appeared to be guns, they alerted the state police. Once highway patrol realized what was going on, the officers stayed around the set to watch.
You can watch a fragment below:
Another teen Spielberg film that exists only in fragments now is his science fiction story Firelight, which many see as a predecessor to Close Encounters of the Third Kind:
Perhaps the least Spielbergian of Spielberg's early films is Amblin', which he made in 1968 (the same year he dropped out of California State University, Long Beach) while interning for Universal Studios. Denis C. Hoffman, an aspiring producer, provided $10,000 for the film about a pair of hitchhikers, which Spielberg hoped to use as a calling card. Although Amblin' would provide the name for Spielber's Amblin Entertainment, he wasn't happy with the film, later deeming it too slick and commercial.
In 1956, State Institute of Cinematography student Andrei Tarkovsky, who would go on to direct Solaris, adapted Ernest Hemingway's short "The Killers," a Prohibition-era tale of gangsters in Chicago:
Then in 1959, he co-wrote and co-directed There Will be No Leave Today with Aleksandr Gordon, a film about an army unit attempting to dispose of unexploded WWII bombs discovered in a small Russian town:
Doodlebug by Christopher Nolan
Sadly, Tarantella and Larceny, the films Christopher Nolan made while reading English literature at University College London, aren't available online, but his third short film, Doodlebug, which he made in 1997, gives us some insight into Nolan's mind. It's about a man trying to catch the titular doodlebug, and it's about as head-trippy as you'd expect:
Another USC alum, Robert Zemeckis directed his student film The Lift in 1972, a short that pits a man against a temperamental cage elevator:
The Lift and A Field of Honor
But it was his 1973 film, A Field of Honor, that would earn Zemeckis a Student Academy Award:
There are definitely shades of early Pixar in these fragments of John Lasseter's animated student films. After all, there's Lady and the Lamp, which involves and anthropomorphic (and accidentally drunk) lighting fixture:
And Nitemare, which, like Monsters Inc., involves a child and the monsters who haunt his bedroom:
Another Pixarian, Pete Docter won a Student Academy Award for Next Door, which plays with visuals and perspective while celebrating a child's imagination:
Mr. Petrified Forrest, about a man having a near-death experience, was Cloverfield and Let Me In director Matt Reeves' student film at USC:
But it was hardly his first foray into student film. Reeves famously came to the attention of Steven Spielberg when, as a teenager, he submitted his short film Stiletto to a Super 8 film festival. J.J. Abrams competed in the same festival with his offering High Voltage.
In order to graduate from Hochschule für Fernsehen und Film München in 1981, Roland Emmerich needed to create a final thesis film. Never one to do something by half-measures, instead of making a short film, Emmerich raised 1,200,000 DM to make the 100-minute science fiction movie Das Arche Noah Prinzip (The Noah's Ark Principle). Although the full film isn't available online, you can get a sense of its striking visual effects from this clip:
The Looper director obviously had great fun when he and his high school friends made their own short film Ninja Ko, The Origami Master:
While at USC, he made a black-and-white short film Evil Demon Golfball from Hell!!!, which had its own silliness to it. It's inspired by Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart," but instead of a beating heart, its protagonist is tormented by a bouncing golf ball:
Alex Proyas earned acclaim for his 1980 film Groping, which he made at the age of 17 while studying at the Australian Film, Television, and Radio School. Inspired by the Kitty Genovese murder, Groping uses a low frame rate to creepy effect. (Warning: Rape, violence):
Then came Strange Residues, about a man possessed by a mysterious force through his dreams:
John Carpenter: The Resurrection of Broncho Billy
Few people can say that a film they worked on while in school won an Academy Award, but 1970's The Resurrection of Broncho Billy earned the prize for Best Short Subject. John Carpenter didn't direct the film (the director was James Rokos), but he did co-write and edit the film—and composed the music. John Carpenter did direct his own student film while at USC, the 8-minute horror film Captain Voyeur, which he made in 1969. The short (which has early shades of Halloween) was rediscovered by USC in 2011 and the school plans to restore the film.