Watch the Academy Award-Winning Short by ‘The Maze Runner’ Director Wes Ball

By  · Published on September 17th, 2014

Wes Ball/Florida State Univeristy

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.

Let me start by admitting to a slightly misleading headline. Wes Ball is not an Oscar winner. He has no statuette from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. What he does have is a Bronze Medal with a picture of the Oscar statuette on it. That’s right, he’s a third-place winner at the Student Academy Awards. But don’t let the “student” part of this prize, which like the professional Oscars are given by AMPAS, make it any less significant. A lot of great filmmakers have started their careers with this honor, including Robert Zemeckis, Spike Lee, Shane Acker, Jaco Van Dormael, Cary Fukunaga and John Lasseter (twice!). Also, Bob Saget. Provided that The Maze Runner is any good, we can add Ball to the list.

He won the medal in 2003 for his seven-minute film A Work in Progress, made the year before as his BFA thesis while at Florida State University. It was honored in the animation category, though it features both computer animation and live-action, the former being used to illustrate a story being told in the real world of the latter by a little girl. The plot is familiar, basic children’s book stuff. A lonely bear goes off in search of friends, which he attempts to make by mimicking different animals. Eric Carle, better known for “The Hungry Caterpillar,” wrote a similar story back in 1975 called “The Mixed-Up Chameleon.” Perhaps the live-action girl in Ball’s film was familiar with that classic tale.

In spite of the familiarity, though, it’s a cute film and shows a childlike wonder that the director hopefully brings to his new career as a Hollywood hired gun. Watch it below.

A Work in Progress isn’t Ball’s official short start, whether we’re including student works like this – then it might be the IMDb-listed Jacob: The Movie, which isn’t available online as far as I can tell, apparently because FSU owns it – or if we’re not, which then would mean I’d be re-sharing Ruin (see our post from 2012) and I’d rather not do that since it’s more a proof of concept action scene with no story and meant as a start to something much bigger than it is a film on its own. It has indeed spawned development of a feature version, which I can only imagine is like a remake of Oblivion or a movie version of the TV series Revolution (see the latter connection here). It’s also clear once you see The Maze Runner where parts of Ruin showed Ball was right for that gig.

What I know of Jacob is that it’s about friendship between a boy and a robot, is live-action with CG special effects and apparently way too ambitious for a student production.. The experience inspired Ball to do something much smaller, much simpler for his final. “Of course,” he says about A Work in Progress in the book “Crafting Short Screenplays That Connect,” “because of the way I am, I couldn’t just sit on keeping everything simple. I knew the story needed to be simple, but I wanted to try something new, something challenging, something I or anyone else hadn’t done at the school before.” He’s referring, of course, to the computer animation. There’s more in the book about his sudden decision to add the live-action scene and what software he used for the animation, etc.

Given that it’s been 11 years since Ball received the Student Academy Award, it’s interesting to see where the rest of his class of winners are today. In his animation group, Silver medalist Moonsung Lee worked as an animator at Fox/Blue Sky (Robots; Ice Age: The Meltdown; Horton Hears a Who!) then at Blizzard Entertainment (Warcraft and StarCraft video games). Gold medalist Kimberly Miner is now at Nickelodeon. Narrative winners include Patricia Riggen, who has made a number of features including the hispanic hit Under the Same Moon and is working on a Vivaldi biopic, and Dennis Lee, who adapted his winning short, Jesus Henry Christ, into a fairly successful feature. Their Bronze counterpart are lesser successes Michael Downing and Philip Svoboda, whose winning short, Fine, played on PBS via Independent Lens.

Documentary winners of 2003 include Christof Putzel, who went to work as a correspondent for Current TV’s Vanguard program and is now on Al Jazeera America’s America Tonight, Elizabeth Pollock, who made an episode of Frontline, and Renee Fischer, who produces films for Johns Hopkins University. Alternative category winner Waleen Moursi directed a feature starring Natasha Lyonne called Jelly a few years ago, and foreign honoree Florian Baxmeyer saw his winning film, The Red Jacket, go on to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Live-Action Short. He also helmed the two German-produced adaptations of Robert Arthur’s Three Investigators books (which I loved as a kid yet haven’t seen those films) and much material for television.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.