There’s no single way to break into the film industry, but there is one method that has worked for many filmmakers over the years — making a short film. With a band of passionate friends, you can create a tangible piece of art that you can display to the world. Who knows who might see it, and what opportunities may come from it?
Let’s take a look at some heavy-hitting filmmakers who got their start making short films to prove that it’s not only possible but a viable option for you.
Nia DaCosta is a perfect example of a filmmaker who leveled up every step of the way. Like traversing a six-floor walk-up in the middle of the summer, she reached each floor of her career in stride, ready to take on the next flight with a collected air of confidence.
Born in Brooklyn and raised in Harlem, DaCosta attended the New York University Tisch School of the Arts. During that time, she wrote, directed, and produced short films. After graduating, she worked as a production assistant and gained firsthand experience on film sets. There’s really no better education than being in the thick of production.
In 2014, DaCosta began to develop what would later become LITTLE WOODS. The script was chosen amongst eleven others for the 2015 Sundance Screenwriters and Directors Lab. In 2016, she crowdfunded a short film version of the story through Kickstarter.
The short film was developed into a feature, and LITTLE WOODS premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2018, bringing her passion for storytelling back home to New York City. She was then tapped to write and direct her spiritual sequel to CANDYMAN, but due to the pandemic, the release was unfortunately postponed. Luckily for horror fans everywhere, the film is set to hit the theaters in August. I thought I was going to have to say his name five times in the mirror.
She’s currently working on THE MARVELS, and like Carol Danvers, she’s reaching heights that are out of this world.
Michel Gondry started making his first short films in 1986 at the age of 23. Not long after, he created music videos for his band Oui Oui, for which he was the drummer.
From a few local videos, he was soon working with recording artists such as Daft Punk, Lenny Kravitz, Radiohead, and Beck. He was even nominated for two Grammys in the same year for two different music videos, one of which was Sinéad O’Connor’s Fire On Babylon. During this time, he was also creating television commercials.
In 2001 he released his feature directorial debut, and in 2004 he hit pay dirt with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which he co-wrote with the legendary Charlie Kaufman. Michel is one of the few writers/directors on this list who still make short films between features. He’s made a few short films in recent years with his brother Olivier Gondry.
Lynne Ramsay came out of the National Film & Television School in the United Kingdom. She developed the short film Small Deaths in 1996 for her graduating film project and it went on to win the 1996 Cannes Prix de Jury.
She wrote and directed two more shorts, both of which received critical acclaim. She went on to write and direct her debut feature Ratcatcher in 1999. Her second feature, Morvern Callar was then released in 2002.
From there, she was hired to adapt The Lovely Bones but fell into a bit of development hell before leaving the project because of creative differences. It wouldn’t be until 2011 when she’d get the chance to revitalize the thriller genre with her signature style with We Need to Talk About Kevin. I’m particularly fond of that title.
Terence Nance got his start in the burgeoning independent filmmaking scene in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. While attending the NYU Tisch School of the Arts, where he completed the short film titled How Would You Feel? as his graduating film.
While he developed that short film into his debut feature, An Oversimplification of Her Beauty, Terence wrote and directed music videos and short films for artists such as Blitz the Ambassador, Pharoahe Monch & Jill Scott, and more. He’s talked in the past about the importance of creative output, and how the best way to reach the next phase of your career is by simply being productive. He was always thinking, “What’s next?”
In 2012, An Oversimplification of Her Beauty premiered at Sundance and earned him a spot in the coveted New Directors/New Films Festival. You can find his show, Random Acts of Flyness on HBO, and he also received a writing credit on the upcoming Space Jam: A New Legacy.
While attending college at Wesleyan University, Ben Zeitlin and his friends took over an unused squash court to shoot films and hang out. This band of friends would become Court 13, a collective of filmmakers made up of family and friends that have worked together throughout the years.
After college, he traveled down to New Orleans to look for locations to shoot a short film. He fell in love with the culture and his heart has been there ever since. This love is evident in his soulful ode to the region, Glory at Sea, a short film that would largely inform and inspire his feature debut Beasts of the Southern Wild.
Leigh Whannell began his career working as a reporter and film critic for Australian television. While attending film school, he met director James Wan and they quickly formed a friendship that would turn into a lasting professional relationship.
They co-wrote a feature script for what would become Saw, and in 2003 they created a short film as a proof of concept to sell to production companies. It got picked up and Saw drove a rise in demand for ultra low budget, single location, and minimal character horror films. It also went on to become a juggernaut franchise series in its own right.
Whannell is currently revitalizing the Universal Monster Universe after his turn writing, directing, and producing The Invisible Man. The film turned the monster flick on its head by focusing on the real invisible scars left by an abusive ex-lover and how their presence lingers.
Sometimes, you can’t wait any longer for opportunities to come. You just gotta get things done. As filmmakers have shown time and time again, finishing a short film isn’t the end of it. It’s the beginning. It’s a calling card to open a dialogue. A testament to your willpower. A way of saying, we’re doing this and we don’t need your approval.
Make it for the cast and crew beside you, and together take that giant step up to the next phase of your careers. When the room darkens and the projector starts flickering — it’ll all be worth it.
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