For an inexperienced filmmaker, the making of a first feature film can be quite the bumpy affair, and starting out in the industry is an often difficult and even scary process. In this situation, short films can be very helpful. Generally, they represent the first and sometimes shaky steps a young writer/director takes on the path towards cinematic growth and greatness.
There are many ways in which short films can help launch a career: showcase shorts for pitching plot points that can turn into a feature film, proof-of-concept shorts for the demonstration of special effects or a particular style, and even shorts that start out as student projects in college or school can end up morphing into something with serious potential. Ultimately, a short film can potentially establish a young filmmaker in the festival-scene, catch the eye of a producer, and pave the way to a first feature-length film. Even if it doesn’t, it is a valuable opportunity to hone one’s filmmaking skills.
Many of today’s most famous and acclaimed directors tried their hand at short films before going for the big screen. Unsurprisingly, some of those shorts were not even especially great, which should give all of us hope for our own projects. Remember: nobody is born a master of their craft (except maybe wunderkinder Mozart and Picasso).
The following list is a compilation of some of the most interesting showcase shorts that were later turned into successful feature films. These films successfully made the transition and one day your short might do the same!
Monster – The Babadook
Admittedly, this example is not your usual “young film student makes a short film and pitches it successfully” story. Before she gained critical acclaim with her first feature film, The Babadook, director Jennifer Kent actually had a career as an Australian TV actress and acting instructor. However, after being deeply impressed by Dancer in the Dark, she wrote to Lars von Trier, asking him if she could learn from him. Following this bold approach, she got to observe and assist von Trier on the set of Dogville. In 2005 she made her first short film Monster. It is a monochrome supernatural horror that features a mother that faces a dark presence which haunts her son and herself. Even down to the final scene which shows her screaming down the creature after it finally manifests Monster shares clear parallels with The Babadook – Kent herself describes the concept of her short as “baby Babadook,” which proves that it is a conceptual predecessor of that story. Kent also used Monster in a 2012 Kickstarter campaign which helped her raise an additional $30.000 for the construction of the Babadook sets.
Even though he already had other writing credits to his name and had released his first musical feature film Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (which later inspired La La Land), Damien Chazelle had his true breakthrough as a director and writer with his second feature, the music-themed drama Whiplash. However, getting this film done turned out to be more difficult than expected regardless of his prior ties to the industry. Though producers initially expressed their interest, Chazelle struggled to secure enough funding to put his screenplay on screen, so he set out and shot one of the scenes from the script with the intention to present it to producers and enter it into short film competitions. This proof of concept short won the Short Film Jury Award at Sundance 2013 and eventually helped Chazelle gain sufficient financial support to shoot the feature-length version of Whiplash which then went on to gain further critical acclaim.
Saw 0.5 – Saw
Developed and shot in 2003 by Australian director James Wan and his college friend, screenwriter Leigh Whannell, this short marks the foundation of one of the most infamous horror franchises of our time. Saw started out as a showcase short that was supposed to demonstrate the intensity of Wan’s “life and death-game” idea in a scene which the two filmmakers then used to successfully pitch their horror feature to Lionsgate studios. Just like Saw, the short stood out because of its terrifying themes and depictions of psychological (and physical) torture. In the short, Whannell also took on a role in front of the camera as Adam Stanheight– a role he revisited in the first feature film and that appears in cameos throughout the other installments. The rest is gory history and has grown into a seven-part franchise while steadily gaining commercial success and a cult following over the past decade.
This British romantic comedy short is a touching story about a young man who goes through a bad breakup, suffers from insomnia, and decides to take over the night-shift at his local Sainsbury’s where he makes bizarre acquaintances and develops a strange time-bending power. It is the first work of writer/director Sean Ellis and was originally created as a short in 2004 which he then adapted into a feature film of the same name in 2006. The cast and the overall concept and feel of the story remained largely unchanged. After deciding that he wanted to turn his idea into a feature, Ellis edited and expanded the Cashback script within a week. The film went into production two months after securing cast, crew and funding. Cashback was nominated for the short film Academy Award in 2006 and went on to earn several other accolades as a feature film.
Alive in Joburg – District 9
This 2006 science fiction short was directed by Neill Blomkamp to showcase his story idea and the special effects which he wanted to use in the feature film-version as proof that everything could be done within a reasonable budget. Based on the success of his short, Neill Blomkamp was offered to direct a live-action adaptation of the Halo video game series that was set to be produced by Peter Jackson. Even though this project never came to fruition, Peter Jackson took over as the producer of District 9 in order to collaborate with Blomkamp after all. Alive in Joburg and its feature-length version, District 9, touch upon the topic of apartheid while using aliens and humans to illustrate the difference between these “races” within a mockumentary approach to storytelling. Based on this unique setting and the short’s convincing special effects, District 9 went on to garner critical acclaim and four Academy Award nominations.
The Customer is Always Right – Sin City
This graphic novel-inspired neo-noir short is the result of a collaboration between the creative energies of Frank Miller, Quentin Tarantino, and Robert Rodriguez. The Customer is Always Right was supposed as a screen test to display the unusual monochromatic visual effects that make up the distinctive visual style of Sin City. The footage of the resulting showcase short was later used as the opening scene of the finished feature film. Interestingly, the short was also used as a lure for potential collaborators, as Rodriguez was hoping to entice Miller to join the project as a producer and Bruce Willis (among others) as a lead by presenting them with a snippet of what was to come. Similar to other green screen-reliant productions like 300 and Skycaptain and the World of Tomorrow, a proof of concept adaptation is often necessary to help visualize the finished project.
Mamá – Mama
Andrés Muschietti’s Spanish-language short was discovered by supernatural horror aficionado and master of creatures and ghosts himself, Guillermo del Toro. The re-released version of this short film was used as part of the promotional campaign of the feature film and includes an introduction and glowing endorsement by del Toro who also ended up producing and backing the feature-length version. Muschietti’s filmic debut features a horrific creature that haunts two little girls and their new adoptive parents– between the short and the feature, the story remained virtually unchanged. This is another good example of a filmmaker showcasing his script and vision using a short film– only giving his audience and prospective collaborators a taste and leaving them craving more.
These are only a few examples of how short films can be used to further a filmmaker’s career and promote his/her talent, ideas, and future projects. They may start out as practice material, but with a bit of luck shorts can open many doors under the right circumstances.