The best story ideas are often the simple and pure ones. It’s little wonder, then, that so many filmmakers and storytellers start by making short films – after all, if you can tell a good story in just a few minutes, you might be talented enough to make a feature.
Cinema history is full of stories about young filmmakers getting their start by making low-budget shorts. James Cameron famously made Xenogenesis, a sci-fi short which contained lots of things that would appear in his later feature films: a giant robot with big tank tracks, a cyborg, and a heroine at the helm of a hard-hitting mecha.
The short films below vary wildly, from two-minute chillers to 30-minute post-apocalyptic science fiction, but each of them are watchable for their own reasons, and provide a fascinating insight into how a story evolves and changes when a short’s expanded to feature length.
La Jetée (1962)
Became: 12 Monkeys (1995)
Chris Marker’s La Jetée is of the few examples on this list of a short film adapted by a different director. Even today, it’s easy to see why Universal Studios wanted to make it into a Hollywood feature film: there’s something incredibly powerful and bewitching about its time-travel story. Told through a matter-of-fact narrator and Chris Marker’s beautifully-lit still photographs, it’s set in the aftermath of World War III, and sees an unnamed man forced to go into the past to change the course of history.
Adapted by David and Janet Peoples and directed by Terry Gilliam, 12 Monkeys was itself a fantastic film, and surprisingly faithful to many elements of La Jetée. The original short, meanwhile, remains a masterpiece. The video above is only a brief clip; if you can, do try to track down the full 28-minute film.
Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB (1968)
Became: THX 1138 (1971)
The story of how George Lucas got into feature filmmaking – and set off on his path to Star Wars – is an oft-told one, but it’s worth returning to, if only as an excuse to revisit his early work. Lucas made his dystopian short film, the snappily-titled Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB, while he was at the University of Southern California. The result is a gritty and quite spooky: a pessimistic view of a future where humans have lost their identities in a maze of technology. One man – the THX of the title – tries to escape the nightmare of constant surveillance, and fails.
Lucas shot the film in and around the university, and many of his cast and crew were from the US Navy – the future Star Wars director had agreed to teach a class of Navy filmmakers in return for their assistance. THX 1138 was extremely well received, winning first prize in a student film festival and earning the attention of such industry figures as Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola.
Lucas later made THX 1138 into a similarly bleak feature film in 1971, produced by Coppola’s American Zoetrope and starring Robert Duvall and Donald Pleasence. Thereafter, he made American Grafitti, the hit 1973 drama, before heading off to a galaxy far, far away. Looking again at the striking, eerily downbeat imagery in THX 1138 again, we can only wonder what sort of career Lucas might have had if he’d never made Star Wars.
Within The Woods (1978)
Became: The Evil Dead (1981)
The Evil Dead brought Sam Raimi to the world’s attention as a mischievous master of gore and blackly comic mayhem. With its gritty, grungy look and icky special effects, The Evil Dead is still remembered as one of the most infamous horror films of the early 1980s. The film Raimi made before The Evil Dead was, if anything, even more grainy and rough around the edges – which only adds to its appeal.
Keen to secure the funding for a feature film, Sam Raimi got together a few friends, scraped together $1600 and went off in the middle of nowhere to make Within The Woods. Like The Evil Dead, it contains a cabin in the woods, ancient evil, and several actors who’d work with Raimi again in The Evil Dead or his later films: Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, and Scott Spiegel. A rough sketch though it is, Within The Woods contains much of the grim humour and shooting style Raimi would employ in his next few films.
Became: Frankenweenie (2012)
While working for Disney, Tim Burton spent a reported $1m on this 30 minute short film, about a young scientist who brings his dead dog back to life. Irked by Frankenweenie‘s dark humour, Disney fired Burton shortly afterwards, only to see the young filmmaker’s career go into orbit with a string of films including Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, and Batman. Eighteen years later, Burton turned Frankenweenie into an absolutely charming stop-motion feature film, which told the same sweet story about a boy and his dog, while at the same time dressing it up with a string of loving references to classic horror and science fiction. Oh, who ended up producing and distributing the feature film? Walt Disney…
Became: Saw (2004)
The horror hit that spawned a legion sequels, Saw celebrated its 10th anniversary in October. Created by Australians James Wan and Leigh Whannell, Saw was specifically written with a low budget in mind: it has one central location, two central characters, and a dead body in their midst – the prime ingredients for a mystery thriller.
Unable to secure the funding they need in Australia, Wan and Whannell departed for Los Angeles. As a proof-of-concept, they spent about $5,000 on a nine-minute short, which showcased one of the more eye-catching ideas in their script: the now-infamous ‘jaw trap’ device. The short was burned to disc and packed off with Whannell’s screenplay, and the pair finally found the financing they needed through Lions Gate.
Made for a budget of around $1.2m, Saw ended up grossing north of $100m, and spawned a string of annual sequels which appeared annually up until 2010.
Became: The Babadook (2014)
Director Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook was one of our favourite horror films of the year, with its story balancing intelligent drama and primal, creeping fear. About a single mother and a young boy who encounter a strange creature that appears to originate from a pop-up book, it’s unafraid to go to some extremely dark – even taboo – corners of the human psyche.
In 2005, Jennifer Kent made Monster, a short film she later described as “baby Babadook.” It has many of the elements she’d bring to her first feature a few years on: an imaginative child convinced there’s a monster in the house, and a strung-out mother padding around a scruffy Victorian house. Beautifully shot in black and white, it has much of the same tone as The Babadook – not to mention an evil-looking pop-up book – and some genuinely effective scares.
Alive In Joburg (2005)
Became: District 9 (2009)
Director Neill Blomkamp’s a great director of short films, and equally good at expanding them into features. Such is the case with Alive In Joburg, the superb short film he made with his regular collaborator Sharlto Copley. Shot in a convincing documentary style, the film sees a group of alien refugees land in Johannesburg, and explores the fallout their arrival has on the city’s human population. The parallels between Alive In Joburg and apartheid-era South Africa are plain to see.
Blomkamp was originally set to make a film based on the Halo videogame for his first feature, but when that fell through, he returned to the subject matter laid out in Alive In Joburg, and made District 9 instead. The result was a surprise indie hit, and one of the most thought-provoking science fiction films of recent years.
Became: 9 (2009)
For many young filmmakers, being nominated for an Academy Award while still at university would be a dream come true. But that’s exactly what happened to Shane Acker, who won deserved acclaim for 9, the animated short he made while still at the University of California. Although created on a computer, 9 has the hand-crafted feel of stop-motion, with its sack cloth central character clambering around a post-apocalyptic world of rusty, abandoned household objects.
Acker spent four years making the film, and the effort soon paid off: receiving awards and considerable acclaim, 9 came to the attention of Tim Burton, who produced the feature-length adaptation Acker went on to direct in 2009. The film was only a modest success, but showcased the filmmaker’s talent for dark and captivating visuals.
Oculus Chapter 3: “The Man With The Plan” (2006)
Became: Oculus (2014)
Like James Wan and Leigh Whannell’s Saw concept, director Mike Flanagan’s initial idea for Oculus is pared down to its absolute basics. It’s just a man, a plain white room, and a mirror which may or may not be possessed by an evil entity. Unfolding over the course of half an hour, Flanagan’s Oculus short sees a man try to capture the mirror’s entity on film, and driving himself round the bend in the process. Nervily building up to a satisfying climax, Flanagan’s short tells an effective story with the minimum of props or gimmicks.
Oculus was expanded into a feature film in 2013, which knits together two timelines in a quite clever, even mesmerising fashion. But while there are more characters (with some good turns from Karen Gillan, Rory Cochrane, and Katee Sackhoff), a couple more locations and more shocks, it’s interesting to see how Flanagan’s kept the same simple story at Oculus‘s core.
Became: Mama (2013)
In 2008, Argentine filmmaker Andrés Muschietti created Mama, a lean, less-than-three-minute jab of atmospheric horror. That film gained the attention of Guillermo del Toro, who helped Muschietti get a feature adaptation going, and served as its executive producer. Released in 2013, the Mama feature film had a great cast (including Jessica Chastain and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and some really effective moments. But in some ways, the short film has more impact: with an ordinary domestic setting, two frightened protagonists and an unholy monster, it’s a horror story cut down to its purest essentials.
In the works:
Tetra Vaal (2004)
Will become: Chappie (2015)
For his next feature film, Neill Blomkamp’s turning to another of his early features: this one’s Tetra Vaal, which sees a police robot patrolling the streets of a South African city. Chappie looks like Blomkamp’s own take on Short Circuit, with the rabbit eared robot of Tetra Vaal becoming self-aware and hanging around with a family of criminals. If Blomkamp’s other films are anything to go by, it’ll be a tough and blackly funny piece of sci-fi.
Will become: Pixels (2015)
Created by Patrick Jean in 2015, Pixels became something of a sensation when it appeared on YouTube. Technically ingenious, it sees New York City invaded by characters from 80s videogames: Donkey Kong throws barrels down from the Empire State Building, Tetris blocks cause skyscrapers to vanish, and so on. The rights to Pixel were snapped up by Adam Sandler’s Happy Madison Productions, and the resulting feature length film is in theaters now.