Escape to Nowhere, Dir. Steven Spielberg (1962)
He had already directed a nine-minute Western, The Last Gunfight, but at age 13, a young Steven Spielberg won the first of several filmmaking awards for his next effort, a war film entitled Escape to Nowhere. The 40-minute short was shot on 8 mm color film in the desert around Camelback Mountain in Phoenix, according to Steven Spielberg: A Biography. Spielberg's film was based on a battle in east Africa, and featured children as World War II soldiers—including his sister, Anne Spielberg. Nowhere won first prize at the 1962-63 Canyon Films Junior Film Festival, a statewide amateur film contest, due mainly to its realistic special effects and props. Spielberg would eventually take home his second Best Director Oscar for his 1999 World War II epic, Saving Private Ryan, after winning the 1993 statue for Schindler's List.
Firelight, Dir. Steven Spielberg (1963)
Spielberg followed up his World War II short Escape to Nowhere with Firelight, a 140-minute sci-fi feature shot on 8 mm film about a UFO invading the fictional town of Freeport, Arizona. The film was Spielberg's first with trained actors, who he had recruited from his high school's theater company, and the first based off a screenplay—a 67-page treatment. Thanks to the efforts of friends and family, billboards of the film were plastered all over town, and the film was featured in The Arizona Republic. Firelight would eventually premiere at Spielberg's local cinema, the Phoenix Little Theatre, in Arizona, where it sold about 500 tickets at $1 apiece—recouping the film's $500 budget, according to Steven Spielberg: A Biography. The film would serve as a direct precursor to Spielberg's 1977 UFO film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which would earn Spielberg his first Academy Award nomination for Best Director.
Within the Woods, Dir. Sam Raimi (1978)
Before he directed the blockbuster Spider-Man trilogy, Sam Raimi and a group of his pals—including longtime friend Bruce Campbell—were desperate to gain funding for Raimi's debut directorial feature, Evil Dead. In order to convince prospective financiers of his directorial chops, Raimi made a 30-minute Super 8 mm horror film called Within the Woods. Shot on a budget of just $1,600, the film is about a group of four friends who rent a cabin in the woods, where an evil spirit who possesses them and forces the friends to brutally maim one another. Raimi's film was shown as a double billing with The Rocky Horror Picture Show at some midnight screenings, and was well received, earning Raimi the funding to direct 1981's The Evil Dead—which is now considered a cult classic. Interestingly enough, a young Joel Coen—of Coen Brothers fame—would serve as an assistant editor on Dead.
Stalk of the Celery Monster, Dir. Tim Burton (1979)
Back in 1979, a young Tim Burton was enrolled in an animation program at California Institute of the Arts, along with Pixar co-founder John Lasseter, Brad Bird (Ratatouille), and Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas). At the end of the year, all of the students would have their work reviewed by Disney, with the winner landing an apprenticeship in their animation department. Sure enough, Burton's 1.5-minute animated short, Stalk of the Celery Monster, was picked. Animated entirely in pencil, the film centers on a sadistic dentist named Maxwell Payne who makes bloody experiments of his patients. Monster was shot on 8 mm film and was considered lost until fragments of it started showing up on foreign TV stations. Burton eventually worked on films such as The Fox and the Hound and Tron for Disney, before helming his debut feature, 1985's Pee-Wee's Big Adventure.
Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, Dir. Todd Haynes (1987)
One of the more controversial—and inventive—short films ever made, Todd Haynes' 43-minute mock "behind the music" documentary, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, chronicles his subject's death from anorexia. In lieu of actors, however, the filmmaker used a mix of Barbie dolls, miniature sets, and archival footage, to tell Carpenter's story—gradually whittling down the "Karen" Barbie doll to depict her worsening anorexia. The film also used a bunch of unlicensed Carpenters' music, and implied that Karen's brother Richard was gay, and Mr. Carpenter subsequently sued Haynes and won, resulting in all copies of the film being recalled and destroyed. Thankfully, numerous bootleg copies survived the recall, and Time Out London even ranked the short No. 1 on its list of the 50 Greatest Music Films Ever. Haynes would later go on to helm the critically acclaimed films Far From Heaven, I'm Not There, and the recent HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce.