David Lynch, Six Figures Getting Sick (1966)
David Lynch wanted to create an organic, moving version of his paintings while studying at Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. The project grew into his first film, Six Figures Getting Sick — a looped and animated short that incorporated a sculptured screen and projector. The figures are casts of Lynch’s head and were created with the help of friend and Eraserhead star Jack Fisk. The director’s fire, vomit, and body horror experiment eventually transformed into the quieter kind of terror we know today.
Peter Jackson, The Valley (1976)
Before Peter Jackson was making more money than the entire universe with his Lord of the Rings franchise, he was a 15-year-old film geek gawking at King Kong and dreaming about creating his own opus for the big screen, while experimenting with a Super 8 camera. Jackson was influenced by FX genius Ray Harryhausen when he came up with The Valley . The time travel tale found Jackson in his own movie, starring as one of four prospectors who battles for their lives in a post-apocalyptic world overrun by mythical beasts. You can catch a glimpse of Jackson’s first film in the documentary The Sci-Fi Boys (currently available on Netflix Instant Watch). The above photo shows Jackson holding the original model of The Valley‘s cyclopean film star.
Roman Polanski, Rower (The Bicycle) (1955)
Roman Polanski attended Poland’s Lodz film school and made his directorial debut with a short called Rower (The Bicycle) in 1955. It was based on a frightening, real-life experience the director had when he was attacked by a wanted murderer. Polanski attempted to purchase a bicycle from a criminal — unbeknownst to the filmmaker — was robbed, and then beaten until his skull was fractured. The guy was eventually arrested, and Polanski was left with a wild story to tell. The film, however, is believed to be lost.
Wes Anderson, Bottle Rocket (1994)
Wes Anderson’s film career has been closely tied to actor Owen Wilson. The Royal Tenenbaums‘ star has collaborated with the director on numerous projects, but it was Anderson’s 13 minute short Bottle Rocket that marked their first co-writing venture. Shot in 1992 and released two years later, the black and white film shows two petty criminals bantering about and was the foundation for Anderson’s feature version of the same name, released in 1996. The short’s quirky, naturalistic performances are absolute Anderson — including the opening conversation about Starsky and Hutch.
George Lucas, Look at Life (1965)
While studying at USC, Star Wars god George Lucas created several 16 mm cinéma vérité shorts. Look at Life was his first and combines photos of the 1960’s cultural landscape, with a doomsday ending. The animation course Lucas created the project for required that the film run one minute long. Snapshots of intense imagery — including pics of Martin Luther King Jr., the Ku Klux Klan, and war-torn soldiers — helped the young director make a grand entrance in a successful career.
Francis Ford Coppola, Battle Beyond the Sun (1962)
Before Francis Ford Coppola was rubbing elbows with Vito Corleone, he was dubbing and re-editing a Soviet space movie about a race to colonize Mars. The young filmmaker was working for legendary producer Roger Corman at the time, who was aiming to release the film to U.S. audiences. Coppola’s early experience with creature features probably came in handy when transforming Gary Oldman into Dracula in 1992, but it must have been a frustrating project for such an ambitious filmmaker.
Martin Scorsese, Vesuvius VI (1959)
The early works of Martin Scorsese contain a similar pacing and energy to his feature films. We’d love to be able to say the same about his very first movie, but the short doesn’t seem to be available online for confirmation. The famed director made the movie during his time at New York University’s film school. IMDb describes it as “a miniature epic set in Ancient Rome and ‘inspired’ by the then popular television series 77 Sunset Strip.” The show — which ran from the late ’50s to early ’60s — featured two wisecracking Los Angeles detectives with a love for the ladies. Sounds like the perfect framework for Scorsese’s future antihero wiseguys. Since Vesuvius isn’t available, we’ve shared two of the filmmaker’s other student shorts below to get a feel for his early style.
Stanley Kubrick, Flying Padre: An RKO-Pathe Screenliner (1951) / Day of the Fight (1951)
Knowing how meticulous Stanley Kubrick was, he’d probably be cringing right now since we’re sharing his first film — or at least what we think is his first film, considering the number of hidden projects Stanley had stashed away in his archives. (Watch the documentary Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes and you’ll see what we mean.) After Stanley quit Look magazine — where he worked as a staff photographer throughout the 1940s — he became inspired to bring his images to life. Some sources cite a 1951 documentary short for RKO pictures called Flying Padre as Kubrick’s first film. Others say it was his day-in-the-life-of short about a boxer, Day of the Fight , also made that year. We’ve got them both for you below. Flying Padre follows a priest who delivers his sermon with the help of a monoplane. Kubrick’s signature style is better easily seen, however, in his boxing movie. Stanley’s first feature-length movie, Fear and Desire has been in the news lately as the dark war story is being revived on the big screen.
Kevin Smith, Mae Day: The Crumbling of a Documentary (1992)
Kevin Smith’s slacker aesthetic started to take shape during a student documentary project about … a documentary project that didn’t work out for the director. He created Mae Day: The Crumbling of a Documentary with producer collaborator Scott Mosier while attending film school in Vancouver. Instead of a short about a transsexual singer, the filmmaker focused on his own directorial shortcomings — despite the subject apparently being fairly uncooperative. Sounds like a Kevin Smith movie, indeed.
James Cameron, Xenogenesis (1978)
James Cameron was driving a truck before he made his first film, Xenogenesis in 1978. He felt inspired (and frustrated) after watching Star Wars, spent a lot of time reading and learning how to use camera equipment, and his experimental sci-fi short was born. He made the movie with friends, and it eventually helped him get a job with famed producer Roger Corman as an FX specialist. We think it’s safe to say the filmmaker has come a long way in that department given the job he did on the CG-heavy Avatar.