As with every line of work, the earlier you start practising, the better. For Oscar-chasers out there who dream big but feel they may be too young to get behind the camera, here’s a list of some of the biggest names in film history who didn’t wait around to get started.
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1. Alice Guy-Blache (aged 23)
Guy-Blache was the film-making pioneer you never heard about. She made over a 1,000 films between 1896 and 1907, experimented with sound syncing, special effects, interracial casting and color tinting long before many others, and even created one of the first ever narrative fiction films. Her talents and innovations were sharper than most of her peers during that era, and they found a calling surprisingly early on.
In 1886, after witnessing a private screening of footage shot on a new 35mm camera at the still-photography company where she worked, Guy-Blanche asked her boss if she could use it to make her own film. What came next, ‘The Cabbage Fairy’, was written, produced and directed entirely by her in the patio of her workplace. She was only 23, and the experience inspired her to make hundreds of short films from thereon.
2. Orson Welles (aged 19)
Welles not only defied the stereotype of elderly directors but tore it to shreds, hitting an extraordinary peak at merely 26 years-old after directing and starring in what many critics consider to be the greatest film ever made, ‘Citizen Kane’. Yet although this renowned tale of power and corruption was his first feature-length film, it was not the first time he sat behind the lense.
Seven years earlier at the age of 19, Welles had directed an eight-minute short with college friend William Vance at Woodstock, Illinois. The elusively named ‘Hearts of Age’ was a silent movie in which a visit from Death – smartly dressed as a dandy-like gentleman – to an elderly woman’s house prompts her servant to hang himself and results in her lying dead inside a grand piano. Not the cheeriest film ever made, but the surrealism he experimented with would have helped lay the tracks for the groundbreaking innovations he later made when shooting the rise and fall of fictional newspaper tycoon Charles Foster Kane.
3. Peter Jackson (aged 16)
His bushy beard and scruffy hair were as much a part of Middle-Earth as the orcs and elves that inhabited it. But even before Jackson had read the famous Tolkien trilogy, his work had already begun making it onto the screen (although admittedly smaller ones).
Using the Super 8 movie camera his parents had bought him after being inspired by the original ‘King Kong’, he shot a 20-minute action thriller ‘The Valley’ which later aired on New Zealand children’s television show ‘Spot On’. The short yet action-filled thriller saw four wanderers have to contend with harpies and cyclops’ after passing through a rift in the space-time continuum. In hindsight, we can look back with a wry smile at a film about an apocalyptic land ruled by mythical beasts and wonder how useful that experience was for his later career.
4. Lena Dunham (aged 23)
The daughter of a painter and a designer was always likely to have creative genes, but Dunham went way beyond all expectations. Best known for her Golden Globe and BAFTA-winning TV sitcom ‘Girls’, she has also produced a string of feature-length films in what is still the early days of her career.
She may have won a Palme d’or at 26 and directed her first feature-length film ‘Creative Nonfiction’ at 23, yet even before then she’d been dabbling in screenwriting years before her education had even finished. Not only did she produce several short films during her time at Oberlin College, but she set about breaking social taboos and conventions with many, whose sexual enlightenment themes gained her an early following on YouTube.
5. Tim Burton (aged 13)
Jackson wasn’t the only major director of today to start out with a Super 8 camera. Known for his gothic approach to storytelling, it won’t come as a shock to many Burton fans that his debut foray into film-making at the tender age of 13 involved the dark and twisted approach to reality his later work so famously continued.
Based on the 1896 H. G. Wells novel ‘The Island of Doctor Moreau’, Burton’s reimagined film – swapping the name Moreau for ‘Igor’ – followed the disturbing and philosophical journey of Edward Prendick who, shipwrecked and rescued by a passing boat, is taken to an island by a doctor who creates human-like hybrids from animals via vivisection. For any other 13 year-old this would be a cause for great concern, but with Burton anything remotely lighter would have been a surprise.
6. Haifaa al-Mansour (aged 29)
Al-Mansour’s age might not look like that impressive a starting point when compared to the rest of the list above, but it’s all about context. Whereas the other five grew up in countries where theaters and cinemas were commons, Al-Mansour grew up surrounded by none.
Born into one of the most patriarchal societies in the world, Saudi Arabia, she was only able to experience films through the videos shown to her by her father. It proved to be enough inspiration, as following her studies in Cairo she went on to attend film school in Sydney, Australia. It was in 2003 that she began her film-making career with ‘Who?’, setting a brave and dangerous standard by becoming the first ever female Saudi film-maker.
Death threats and hate mail were sent her way, yet they didn’t slowed her pace at all. Her feature film debut in 2012 ‘Wadjda’ was the first to be shot entirely in Saudi Arabia, setting another landmark first. So impressive has her work been, that the film was the first to ever be submitted by the country for consideration for an Oscar – an astonishing achievement given the barriers women face in the Kingdom even today.