Considering the financial powerhouse the film industry has become, it can be difficult to remember that some of the biggest names in film started off as students, working with a fraction of the resources and virtually none of the widespread contacts that they are allowed today. Examining the student films of these famous directors is a great insight into the raw power of their imaginations without the interference of the industry. Removed from studio backing, fancy cameras, and production value and size, these student films are forced instead to lean on the talents of the cast and crew both in front of and behind the camera. We searched a trove of student shorts by now-established directors which either won noteworthy achievements or awards, foreshadowed their creator’s later work, or were simply exceptional in quality. This list is by no means exhaustive, but rather a sampling of some truly exceptional early work that helped to launch the careers of their creators.
John Carpenter, “The Resurrection Of Broncho Billy” (1970)
In this early John Carpenter film, a young man living in the city attempts to escape the mundanity of everyday life by dreaming of living in the wild west. Carpenter co-wrote and helped produce this short with director James Rokos, and it won the Academy Award for Best Short Subject in Live Action in 1971, which isn’t a bad start to a career. Honestly, though, I’m not sure how this film won an Oscar. The premise works best in image systems of the old west vs the modern urban jungle, but the short old west sequence at the end comes after twenty minutes of rambling dialogue and meandering plodding pacing.
Martin Scorsese, “The Big Shave” (1968)
A man shaves… and then forgets to stop. It gets bloody. Scorsese was working on his shorts in NYU around the same time his first feature, Who’s That Knocking At My Door, came out in 1967, thus making this short an interesting transition from local student filmmaker to nationally renowned artist. While watching a guy murder his face with a razor for five minutes is less interesting than Scorsese seems to think, it did manage to get a reaction out of me at least, even if that reaction was yuck.
David Cronenberg, “Transfer” (1966)
In true Cronenberg fashion, “Transfer” sees an insane patient track his psychoanalyst into icy wilderness. Cronenberg would later make his name with psychoanalytic monsters, so it’s interesting here to see him literally create comedy about actual Freudian therapy. Its got an original sense of humor and jokes that sometimes manage to be funny, but the pace is all over the place. While the story feels more like a thin veneer over the artistry than an actual narrative, this particular picture is still a great start to what would become a tremendous career.
George Lucas, “Electronic Labyrinth THX 1138 4 EB” (1967)
George Lucas creates a prelude to his later feature, THX 1138, in this short that follows a man as he runs in an attempt to escape from a giant technological facility with a lot of futuristic blinking lights and do-dads. A definite precursor to his future body of work, it’s not a bad result for a short. Lucas’s touch with technology is apparent as he builds visuals with technological wonders and digital displays, all elements coming together to create a unique cinematography. All that being said, it’s just a guy running down a really long hallway for a few minutes. Despite the innovative presentation, it’s hard to feel a deep connection to the subject.
Andrei Tarkovsky, “The Steamroller And The Violin” (1961)
In Tarkovsky’s career-launching short, a child violin student forms an unlikely friendship with a steamroller operator. Tarkovsky finished school in the USSR with this film, starting his feature career with the beautiful Ivan’s Childhood (1962) a year later. This short is indicative of the talent and vision Tarkovsky would display in his future career as globally revered creator. Tarkovsky has a way of capturing the humanity of his characters with their day-to-day behaviors and relationships, and that tendency is on full display in this short. Still, this film appears to be a lot visually flatter and slower than his features that would follow.
Steven Spielberg, “Amblin” (1968)
A young man is hitchhiking to the coast in this early Steven Spielberg picture, where he meets a young woman following a similar path. As their journeys intersect, the two travelers find themselves forming a tight bond. If nothing else, Spielberg named his first major production company after this movie — that’s the logo with ET on the flying bicycle that children of the 90s will forever associate with Animaniacs. The short film showcases tremendous performances by its primary actors, and the conclusion is instantly thought-provoking and emotionally impacting – even the original song that gives the movie its title is catchy. Running at twenty-six minutes, though, the middle tends to drag in the ambitious tactic of utilizing no dialogue, inevitably making for long scenes that seem emptier than they ought to be.
Robert Zemeckis, “A Field Of Honor” (1973)
An unlikely start to an auspicious career, Robert Zemeckis cuts his teeth on this story of Vietnam veteran who finds difficulties adjusting to his normal life. He may be out of the battlefield, but the battlefield is not out of him. This is the film that brought Zemeckis to Steven Spielberg’s attention, causing him to subsequently produce Zemeckis’s early studio efforts, including the Back To The Future trilogy (1985-1990). Zemeckis’ early opus is laced with a darkly original sense of humor, following the primary subject as he builds to a boiling point, culminating as he fires on innocent bystanders, believing they are his long-lost wartime enemies. This film is built with an an amazing and unique voice, but like a lot of student shorts, the acting could’ve been a little sharper to help nail down the clever humor.
Todd Haynes, “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story” (1987)
Karen Carpenter, along with brother Richard, rises to fame as easy listening superstars The Carpenters, but Karen’s issues with anorexia slowly cause her downfall. The story is depicted using Barbie dolls, which sounds silly, but just bear with me here. Haynes made the film to complete his MFA at Brown University, and the uniqueness of the picture must have helped him convince someone to help him with Poison (1991) somehow. Karen Carpenter’s anxieties involving her anorexia are laid out in detail, and the surreal mix of that with The Carpenters back catalog of beautiful music creates a sort of pervasive dread about fame and what it can lead to. All of these elements combine to create a film that is wholly unique, at times bizarre, but entirely and deeply heartfelt and emotional. Haynes’ cinematographic touches with the Barbie dolls are surprisingly amazing, creating complex camera movements and meticulously crafted images of Karen’s Barbie doll in varying degrees of distress. It’s a unique piece of art all around.
Seth MacFarlane, “The Life Of Larry” (1995)
The future Family Guy superstar would begin his career with the story of Larry, an oafish sort of family man, navigating his relationship with his son, his talking dog, and his doting wife amid a series of cultural reference cutaways. A true precursor to Family Guy, Larry is in every way a prototype for Peter Griffin, even down to their wives sharing the name Lois. It’s interesting to see MacFarlane build the archetype of what would become his successful animated television show. The short’s humor, hitting all of its marks and taking the genre by storm, set the perfect stage for the future potential of Family Guy. MacFarlane introduces the short in a bizarre prelude, playing a wealthier version of himself. In true Family Guy fashion, the short even features the same experimental cutaway scenes and general absurdist humor that makes its television series descendant great.
Paul Thomas Anderson, “The Dirk Diggler Story” (1988)
A fictional documentary about Dirk, a phenom porn star with a volatile personality and a taste for drugs, this early Paul Thomas Anderson short introduces protragonist Dirk Diggler and the pornographic underworld he inhabits that would later become central components of Boogie Nights. This student film utilizes an amazing grasp on format, creating a distinct mood in every shot. The video format creates a dark tone as the world of pornography is simultaneously glamorized and demonstrated to be a potential path of destruction. The fake porn movie titles and the scenes of Dirk “acting” have a sharp sting of dark humor, and explorations of Dirk Diggler’s music career and short lived cop television show are over-the-top funny. Anderson gets amazing performances from his actors, talking head narration from characters that want to glamorize the porn industry to be something greater than it is.