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12 Shorts That Grew Into Feature-Length Films

These big films started small before hitting the cineplexes.
Short Film adaptations To Features
By  · Published on June 16th, 2011

Like the dinosaur blood found inside ancient, tree sap-encased mosquitoes, short films can often be cultivated and grown into something bigger and more rewarding: a feature film (sorry if you were hoping for a T-rex).

Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, there are more and more quality short films popping up every day (and we’ve been trying our darndest to pay them their due around here), many of them hoping to hit it big and make a name for the filmmakers. It’s not an impossible dream — in fact, while you have heard of most of these writers and directors, they weren’t all that famous back when they made their shorts.

Here is a list of twelve notable short films adaptations:

Within the Woods

Grew To Be: Evil Dead

These days, everybody and their brother has the undead bug – who doesn’t love a day of face paint and “GRARARAR” noises? – but before the craze hit the DIY scene, Sam Raimi was out in the woods with his college pal Bruce Campbell hoping to sell his whackadoo horror concept to the masses. Within the Woods has a similar relationship to The Evil Dead that that film has to Evil Dead 2. Essentially, they’re all spiffy remakes of one another. Fine by us, we’re all for hell demons, killer trees, and zipping point-of-view shots.

Alive in Joburg

Grew To Be: District 9

Neill Blomkamp had something to prove with his short Alive in Joburg: that, occasionally, special effect wizards can make films that are equal parts CG and heart. While the short film is dazzling in its use of documentary-style handheld camera work and motion capture effects work, it’s most compelling when it draws close parallels to South African apartheid issues. Fans of District 9 owe a lot to Sharlto Copley – not only did he star in the big-screen version, but he also produced the short.


Grew To Be: 9

Tim Burton must have seen Shane Acker’s short 9 and had visions of Hot Topic merchandise…or maybe just a talented animator. One of those two.

The auteur filmmaker shepherded the five-minute short to a feature-length film, leaving it relatively unscathed in the process. Like the big-screen adaptation, the original features steampunk-esque rag dolls surviving a post-apocalyptic universe. But Burton knew exactly how to improve on the already sound concept: the voice of Elijah Wood!

Bottle Rocket

Grew To Be: Bottle Rocket

Wes Anderson’s short and its full-length counterpart don’t share too much in common with the director’s present-day visual flair or dramatic style, but the seedlings are there. Anderson shot the black & white film on the cheap with his buddies Owen and Luke Wilson and spun the positive Sundance buzz into his debut feature that only Martin Scorsese saw in theaters.

The Tooth Fairy

Grew To Be: Darkness Falls

Usually, a successful short film is a calling card for the director for future gigs behind the camera, but in the case of The Tooth Fairy, it helped Joe Harris land a job penning the feature version for future it-director Jonathan Liebesman. The feature version doesn’t carry over the short’s twisted sense of humor, which is unfortunate, because it’s notably difficult to make a killer Tooth Fairy legitimately terrifying.

The Dirk Diggler Story

Grew 10 Inches To Be: Boogie Nights

When P.T. Anderson was 17, he directed a mockumentary based on the life of Dirk Diggler, a porn star with a loose connection to the song “The Touch” from Transformers: The Movie. He was a kid from the ’80s. It made sense then.

Almost a decade later, Anderson would take his teenage concept, inject it with a little Mark Wahlberg and spit out the classic Boogie Nights. Someone obviously took to the young lad’s filmmaking skills after seeing The Dirk Diggler Story – we’re just glad they weren’t porn producers.


Grew To Be: Napoleon Dynamite

The story goes that director Jared Hess shot Peluca as a quickie project for film school. He shot the film for under $500 in two days, probably never realizing that the exercise in deadpan comedy would spawn a comedy blockbuster, a relentless amount of merchandise (VOTE PEDRO!) and, now, an animated series. Just goes to show that nothing is too boring or monotone for the American public.


Grew To Be: Pariah

Some filmmakers write features that can’t get made, so they do the next best thing: turn them into shorts. That’s the case with “Pariah,” which thankfully works both ways.

Director Dee Rees’s recent Sundance hit may sound like your run-of-the-mill urban indie – a lesbian teenager growing up in New York struggles to live her lifestyle against her fundamentalist parents’ wishes and the anti-gay environment of her school – but those who’ve seen the short version (and helped make it a feature) would tell you otherwise. Even in its 20-minute form, “Pariah” sports three-dimensional characters, a compelling narrative, and the production value to boot, while the feature, hitting later this year, gives it more room to breathe.

La Jetée

Grew To Be: 12 Monkeys

Terry Gilliam has claimed never to have seen Chris Marker’s 1962 short photo-roman, but the WGA credits his film as the source material for Janet and David Webb Peoples’ 12 Monkeys script. Makes sense – the feature is basically the Hollywood version of the short (as Hollywood as the deranged Gilliam is able to produce). The short abstractly tells the tale of a man sent back to the past only to be the victim of a murder he witnessed as a child. Deep stuff. Perfect for Bruce Willis.

Some Folks Call It A Sling Blade

Grew To Be: Sling Blade

If you thought Billy Bob Thorton’s 1996 film Sling Blade was severely lacking in Molly Ringwald (I know I did), then turn to the original short that started it all. Some Folks Call It A Sling Blade was written and stars Thorton as the mentally retarded murderer Karl Childers, while the late George Hickenlooper took directing reigns. The short is like a prequel to the feature, delving into Childers’s backstory through a monologue, while Sling Blade depicts life after his release. Hopefully, Sling Blade 3 brings Ringwald back.

Gowanus, Brooklyn

Grew To Be: Half Nelson

Before directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden inspired 99% of student filmmaking with their slice of drug-addicted-middle-school teacher life drama Half Nelson, they made their own short film. Gowanus, Brooklyn employs the same handheld, minimalist style as its full-length sibling, the only change being the substitution of Ryan Gosling for a guy with a really big afro.


Grew To Be: Saw and 6 more movies

Remember when Saw was an innovative little indie horror film that brought down the house at Sundance? Thanks to countless sequels, few do – but even fewer people realize that the original feature was inspired by a short written and directed by the same team, Leigh Whannell and James Wan.

Oddly, no physicals saws are involved. But I guess if you watch it, you “saw” it. Har har!


Grew To Be: Frankenweenie

Released in 2012, Tim Burton revamped his own short film, adapting his 1984 live-action riff on Frankenstein into a stop-motion animated film in the vein of Nightmare Before Christmas and The Corpse Bride. At the time of this writing, the connections between the two were unknown, but it seemed likely that the simplicity behind the original (boy reanimates dead dog, dog goes on the loose, boy retrieves dog, happily ever after) would make it to the big screen.

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