This is another edition of Short Starts, where we present a weekly short film(s) from the start of a filmmaker or actor’s career.
Years from now (let’s say 2154), Neill Blomkamp’s significance in film history books will be that he was discovered through his short films. Specifically by Peter Jackson. And for a while he became a sort of poster boy for the situation where a young talented and economical filmmaker catches Hollywood’s eyes with a remarkable short film showcasing computer-generated special effects that make it look like it cost a million bucks. He will also be known for being part of the related trend of a new filmmaker turning his calling-card-functioning short into a debut feature. And as it turns out, another short of his is set to be adapted for his third feature. And another was a test for what was supposed to be his first (the famous failure of the Halo movie).
Following film school and a short time working as an effects artist in Vancouver (he’s credited with animation on such things as 3000 Miles to Graceland and Smallville), the South Africa-born director made four notable shorts, one of which is really a commercial, before he moved into the big pictures courtesy of the mentoring Jackson. A fifth short was what originally came about through that partnership. You can watch all five below followed by links to watch six of his exceptional early ad works.
Tetra Vaal (2004)
Less than 90 seconds in length, this first short — a fake ad for a new kind of robo-cop — immediately set the filmmaker up with a signature style: advanced, CG-animated figures/technology mixed in with Third World settings. Here it’s a very realistic-looking robot patrolling the slums of South Africa. For those who’ve seen Elysium, this police droid may remind you of similar machines there. But we’ll actually get an even more direct link to this short with Blomkamp’s next feature, Chappie, which will be a sci-fi comedy starring this very rabbit-eared robot.
This time it’s really an ad. For Adidas. Sometimes listed as the title Adidcolor Yellow (Blomkamp was assigned this color while other directors made ads focused on other shades), the four-minute spot depicts a near-future in which a company (Adidas?) is manufacturing artificial intelligence. But they’ve gotten out of control and need to be stopped. This one is neat, but it probably can’t be made into a feature given that it’ll come off as a rehash of both Blade Runner and I Robot.
The rabbit-eared robot from Tetra Vaal returns — well, not quite. Aside from the “ears,” the droid in this film looks nothing like that one. The fact that you might immediately think it’s the same one could be a joke on the bigoted notion of thinking “all ____ look the same.” Prejudice is a theme here. This is an early departure for Blomkamp in a way because it’s completely set in a corporate world rather than in South African favelas or some other similar backdrop. It’s like Short Circuit 2 meets Office Space. And Wonder Woman — er, Lynda Carter — is in it!
Alive in Joburg (2006)
And finally, of course here is the short that most people have seen as it’s the original mockumentary on aliens in South Africa that spawned Blomkamp’s first feature, District 9. It’s also the debut of Sharlto Copley, in a film by Blomkamp (his old high school friend) or anyone. Shot in December 2004, Joburg does seem to be a kind of pitch for something bigger, yet the director claims he never thought about it being anything more than what it is.
Halo: Landfall (2007)
Technically, this test run for the Halo feature adaptation was originally three short films, which have been compiled to form a single video. The three were separately titled Arms Race, which consists of the montage in the beginning of weapons and such, Combat, which you can see here ends with the title card “Transmission Terminated. End Part 1,” and Last One Standing, which is the final section. As someone who knows nothing about the video game, I got really lost plot-wise with this short. That may have also to do with the hand-held style. But it does all look really good. I particularly like how they’ve depicted the Brutes (the ape-like creatures). As Landfall, the short won the Grand Prix at the 2008 Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity.
Also recommended viewing:
Wikus and Charlize (2010), a comedic spin-off of District 9 starring Copley (who also directed) as his character from the feature now living in Hollywood and attempting to meet Charlize Theron. Watch it here.
The trailer for Crossing the Line (2008), a short set during WW1 that he helped Peter Jackson direct. Watch it here.
“Crab” (2003), a commercial for Nike featuring robotic crabs playing football (soccer). Watch it here.
“Evolution” (2004), another commercial for Nike, this one morphing through different basketball shoes the company has produced. Watch it here.
“Alive With Technology” (2004), an award-winning commercial for the Citroen C4 in which the car is a Transformer that turns into a dancing robot. Watch it here.
“Rain” (2006), a series of commercials in which balls break open to hatch star athletes. Watch the variations with a football/Peyton Manning; a basketball/Kevin Garnett; and a volleyball/Kerri Walsh.