As he is arguably the most successful Hollywood director of all time, it should surprise no one that, even as a teenager, Steven Spielberg was a prodigy. Like many kids of his generation, he used a Super 8 camera to make short films; unlike most of them, he had a preternatural knack for filmmaking, and, at the age of 17, wrote and directed a 135-minute sci-fi epic, Firelight. Click below to read the story of Spielberg's first (and extremely indie) foray into feature filmmaking, and watch the surviving footage!
Though one could be forgiven for assuming that he was born on the backlot of Universal Studios, Steven Spielberg spent a typical suburban childhood in Arizona and California. He got his start making backyard Super 8mm short films, like many filmmakers who came of age in the post-war era of relatively cheap, hobbyist-quality home movie equipment. In 2014, we tend to forget just how good we have it when it comes to access to media creation technology; just imagine what today's children will be producing in ten or fifteen years. Or don't. It might be too depressing/disturbing.
In 1964, at the age of 17, Spielberg wrote and directed (and edited) a 135-minute sci-fi epic entitled Firelight, elements of which would later end up in his 1977 sci-fi epic, Close Encounters of The Third Kind, whose $20 million budget was considerably more than Firelight's $500, which is equivalent to $3,771 in today's money:
Most of the money for Firelight was raised from friends and family, and the film was a true indie (and family) affair: the cast came from Spielberg's school, Arcadia High, his sister Nancy had a major part, and Spielberg composed the score himself on clarinet (from which his mother created sheet music, which was then performed by the high school marching band.)
The color film features impressive special effects for such a micro-budget film, and, according to Lost Media:
Firelight centers around a group of scientists (namely, Tony Karcher and Howard Richards, the latter of which identifies as a UFO believer) in the fictional town of Freeport, Arizona. They begin witnessing strange coloured lights in the sky, before a plethora of bizarre disappearances take place (animals, humans and inanimate objects alike). The film contains sub-plots involving...Richards' obsessive quest to prove the existence of aliens to the CIA...Firelight’s twist ending sees three aliens (represented only by shadows) descending on the Earth, revealing their plans to abduct the entire town of Freeport for the purpose of creating a human zoo, back on their home planet of Altaris.
The movie was screened only once, at a local theatre, for an audience of 500. Spielberg counted the profits that night and, according to an interview on Inside the Actor's Studio (with James Lipton!), recounted that, "We charged a dollar a ticket. Five hundred people came to the movie and I think somebody probably paid two dollars, because we made one dollar profit that night, and that was it." So a $500 film was screened for 500 people and ended up making $501. Coincidence? Probably, yes.
Unfortunately, the majority of the film is lost to history: A few years later, Spielberg lent a few reels of the film to a producer as a demonstration of his abilities. When he returned a few days later, the production company had folded and his reels had vanished. The most complete version of the film is only three minutes and fifty seconds long, or roughly 3% of the finished film. Nevertheless, it's enough to give a feel for what a teenage Spielberg accomplished with such a paucity of resources.
In 1964, the information on filmmaking technique available outside of film school (and Spielberg was rejected twice from USC!) was extremely limited: you could haunt local theaters, seeing as many movies as possible, and study the literature on still photography. Today, with websites like, ahem, the one which you're currently reading (and countless others) there is a wealth of information out there on every aspect of filmmaking. With relatively cheap equipment capable of producing images of unprecedented quality, there's no excuse for not shooting that project you've had kicking around in your head for years. In short, nights and weekends, begging, borrowing (but not stealing!) are the stuff of which these films are made.
Spielberg is hardly the first (or last) director to cut his teeth this way, arguably the best method available for learning the basics of filmmaking. As a teenager, P.T. Anderson made, on VHS, an early version of Boogie Nights:
What do you think? Is the talent of Spielberg apparent in Firelight? If you're a director, did you make extremely indie shorts as a kid, and how do think that helped your development as a filmmaker? What lessons do you think a filmmaker can learn by making extremely indie films? Let us know in the comments!
Link: Firelight (Early Steven Spielberg Film; 1964) -- Lost Media
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I made super 16mm films and some basic editing. Problem was I didn't have a sound recorder and the good stuff was prohibitively expensive for me. I also tried with Betamax and VHS Again pretty basic. Things changed about 2001 when computers enabled everyone to make films.
March 21, 2014 at 11:17AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM
I like how he made a feature when he was 17. I'm 31 and haven't even come close to making anything longer than 30 minutes... although I'm way lazier and way less talented than he was when he was 3. So...yeah.
March 21, 2014 at 2:56PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM
And you think debasing yourself is going to help you change this?
March 22, 2014 at 3:38AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM
I see you're familiar with the concept of passive aggressiveness.
March 27, 2014 at 4:37PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM
I grew up shooting shorts and stopmotion on VHS. In high school, I learned about digital editing and video. I shot my first feature when I was 22 and and have since shot two more. Now I'm working on number four. Getting a young start I feel does help!
March 21, 2014 at 3:49PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM
Incorrect about this being the only surviving footage from "Firelight". It was roughly a 140 minute film, and Steven loaned about two reels to a production house when he was hustling for work as a young filmmaker. They were important reels, big effects/setpieces so it's damned unfortunate he lost them, but he has all but those reels in his possession still.
Author, Steven Spielberg and Duel: The Making of a Film Career
March 21, 2014 at 4:59PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM
Thanks, Steven! All the info extant on the net speaks of the disappeared reels.
March 22, 2014 at 12:00AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM
I grew up as a musician and started making my own version of sound tracks and sound FX on the violin and percussions around 7 years old. i later became a sound major and became a sound designer and mixer out of school. started cutting news reel on my spare time, dated a script reviser and got into film. the first camera i first shot is fairly recent on a Canon Mini DV, then ex1 & 3 for tv, then DSLR thru this site when it first launched.
March 22, 2014 at 7:23AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM
That looks an awful lot like Bradley Cooper in the audience at 14:35.
March 22, 2014 at 12:17PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM
It is Bradley Cooper, and it's not his only appearance in the audience of ITAS:
March 23, 2014 at 4:33PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM
So what? Everyone's early work is shit, even mine.
March 22, 2014 at 4:27PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM
I started making films on Super 8 when I was 14, growing up on Naval Station Ford Island in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. My first feature was shot on VHS, an "epic" ninja movie called "Law Of The Ninja". I actually got my high school's AV department to loan me the school's camera to shoot my movie. I cast my sister & brothers and neighborhood kids in the film. Back in 2007 I re-mastered it and released it on YouTube. Man, I wish that today's technology existed way back in the 80s!
March 27, 2014 at 1:33PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM
At the age of twenty , my passion was to become a cinematographer. But unfortnately I didn't admission in fillmIinstitute.through film books and magazines I learnt photography.i took so many black&white experimental photos. So many people appreciated this.it was a turning point of my career.through my super 8m.m.camera I made so many experimental films without a guide. Now im very much satisfied with my works.thing is going on...........
April 6, 2014 at 1:52AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM