Shortcut to success: Four little films that could

by Giovanni Fazio

Short films are often regarded as test runs for directors, but that doesn’t mean they have to look shoddy. Here are a few examples of shorts that not only launched careers, but remain as good as anything their creators have made since:

“Vincent” (1982): Working as an animator at Disney in the early 1980s, Tim Burton found he wasn’t exactly a good match with wholesome family fare, but The Mouse was smart enough to let him make the Gothic six-minute short film “Vincent.” (Hard to imagine that happening today.) Told in Dr. Seuss-inspired rhyming couplets, the film follows a sickly-looking young boy who wished he was Vincent Price, and the coup de grace was getting Vincent Price himself to narrate. Burton’s trademark blend of Edward Gorey, Edgar Allen Poe, German Expressionism and Hammer Horror tropes was already fully realized here; note Vincent’s painting of his “ghoulish bride”, which looks almost exactly like the heroine of “Corpse Bride” some two decades later.

“The Grandmother” (1970): David Lynch started out as a painter in art school in Philadelphia in the ’60s, but at a certain point, he got the strange urge that he wanted to see his paintings move. Although desperately broke and married with a child he hadn’t expected, and living in a rough neighborhood where there were murders outside his flat, Lynch taught himself the basics with a 16-mm camera, and wound up winning a grant from the American Film Institute. That funded “The Grandmother” (1970), an eerie 34-minute mix of live action and animation, dense with shadows and with a nightmarish ambience that gave the world warning of what was to come. His next film was the cult hit “Eraserhead”, and one film later he would earn an Oscar-nomination for “The Elephant Man.”

“A Grand Day Out” (1989): The first chapter in the much-loved “Wallace and Gromit” series began as animator Nick Park’s National Film School graduation project. Stop-motion animation is always time-intensive, but this 23-minute short wound up taking Park six years to finish. He almost gave up many times, but Park has said how “I hadn’t seen anything like it before, and I just felt I had to do it.” His instincts were right; the film was a leftfield hit, and Park was soon hard at work at Aardman Animation studios in Bristol, England, where his “Creature Comforts” short picked up an Oscar. Park has gone on to make four more Wallace and Gromit movies, as well as the Steven Spielberg-produced project “Chicken Run”. He remains one of the few traditional animators able to hold his own in the era of CGI.

“Doodlebug” (1997): Christopher Nolan’s third short film, “Doodlebug,” was shot for next to nothing while he was a student in London. This is pretty much a textbook example: one good idea, executed in just under three minutes, and with a sting in its tail. A man races around his apartment with a shoe in his hand, trying to squash a scuttling bug. Doesn’t sound like much, but throw in the precise, black-and-white cinematography which, shot-by-shot, demonstrates an advanced knowledge of Alfred Hitchcock and classic suspense, and the magician’s technique of concealing something crucial until the final reveal, and this does not seem far removed at all from “Inception” or “Memento”.