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The heartwarming story behind Steven Spielberg's first cinematic success

Many cite Steven Spielberg as the most commercially successful filmmaker in history, responsible for several iconic franchises such as Jurassic Park and Indiana Jones. Although it often takes multiple tries before a talented director can make profitable films, Spielberg’s case was completely different.

Spielberg was interested in cinema as a child and even directed his first home movie at 12, which featured his toy trains. He made several amateur features using his father’s camera and documented his Boy Scout trips. Spielberg also drew attention to his talent by winning a statewide filmmaking competition when he was 13.

According to Spielberg, he made about 15-20 adventure films during his school years after being inspired by an eclectic mixture of sources. From Akira Kurosawa’s masterpieces to Lawrence of Arabia, Spielberg absorbed it all, and those films shaped his cinematic sensibilities as he developed his vision of cinema.

One of the most notable productions from Spielberg’s school years was a sci-fi adventure film called Firelight. Released in 1964, the early work showed Spielberg’s fascination with the genres he would master later in his career. The film revolved around a group of scientists who set out to investigate extraterrestrial phenomena.

While recalling the impact of Firelight on his career, Spielberg revealed details about the production process: “The biggest production of my youth was Firelight, a two-and-a-half-hour science-fiction film. It had tons of effects. The spaceship effect was not meant to be a physical flying saucer, just a fiery blob in the sky.”

The film was 135 minutes long, and it was shot on a budget of $500. Interestingly, Firelight is technically a commercially successful film because five hundred people bought the $1 tickets for the premiere, but there was one person who paid $2, which pushed the total revenue to $501. Spielberg used the subject matter of Firelight to make his hit film Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

“I shot a background plate of rooftops and orange trees, then rewound the film and did a real-time pass of petroleum jelly squidged between thick, clear plastic,” Spielberg commented on his approach to low-budget special effects. “It took on a quality that was alive and moving. It was a very wicked and weird effect.”

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