- Katie Bell
Upstate Story - 2018
Updated: Apr 26, 2020
After watching Upstate Story I have a lot of thoughts, but first, I have to ask a question, and not just from myself, but from the whole Inconceivable! Reviews team! Was this done on purpose?
Anywhos, a lot of thought has gone into this film and it was completed on a micro-budget of just $500, which is no mean feat. The stand-out element is certainly the sound design. For the majority of the feature, there is no on-screen dialogue. Ellis' (Shaun Rose) story is mostly delivered through narration. On the odd occasion when he is having a conversation with someone on-screen, the character often has his back turned to the camera or music is used to mask the dialogue. This makes for an interesting aesthetic and helps to create a personal tone; it feels as though Ellis is speaking directly to audience members. Additionally, sound effects are used well. The recurring sound of the alarm clock is jarring to the ears, causing viewers to better understand the feelings it represents for Ellis. Furthermore, great care has been taken in juxtaposing scenes. At one point, Ellis discusses the dangers presented by falling over in the shower. This is quickly followed by the sound of something being thrown in a bin. The noise isn't exactly the same as that of falling in a shower, but it's enough to build the tension and cause audience members to jump slightly in their seats.
Rose also attempts to use subject isolation throughout his film, by purposefully discarding the rule of thirds; essentially positioning Ellis in the centre of the frame for effect. Unfortunately, though an insightful idea, it isn't always executed to perfection. Done well, this should have highlighted the protagonist's feelings of depression and loneliness throughout the working week. It's clear that, as a filmmaker, this is what Rose has set out to do and he almost achieves this, but is ultimately hindered by his production design. Often times, in these shots attempting subject isolation, props and set pieces behind the main character are either off-centre, or lack symmetry, which completely undermines the purpose of the shots. Essentially, the background is too distracting for the audience's focus to rest solely on Ellis in his isolation. A cleaner/more symmetrical frame would have helped to communciate the main message with greater ease (at times this could simply be done with camera placement or by removing objects from the frame).
Additionally, although a micro-budget film, I wish more time had been applied to dressing the set. A lot can be done on a minimal budget, not only to make a set look good, but also to make one room look like multiple locations. This does not necessarily mean going out and buying a heap of new furniture. Sometimes, rearranging furniture/changing up furnishings is a great way to make one location look like one or more locations. There's a Brisbane short film, directed by Shane Anderson, that does this, called 3 Beds. One bed, in the same room, but dressed differently three times = three beds in three separate rooms (also Charnstar has a part, so I'd recommend you track it down).
THIS PARAGRAPH CONTAINS SPOILERS
This film explores the monotony of adult life, but more importantly, it explores Ellis' struggles with mental health. This is done really nicely, through the use of colour - or lack thereof. The movie plays out over the span of a week. We start with Sunday evening, and until Friday evening, everything (apart from flashbacks) appear in black and white. Flashbacks are played out in a sepia tone, and represent a happier time for the protagonist. Whilst watching, I couldn't help but pine for colour in these moments...until we arrived at Friday evening. At this point, Ellis finishes his working week and picks up his young children. There is a moment where the black and white fades to colour and it is truly very powerful. However, I wish the film ended here. This moment takes place at roughly the 43 minute mark. But this film runs for over 60 minutes. There is lots of footage over Ellis' weekend with his children, which appears in colour. Then the film finishes with a return to black and white and the recommencement of the working week. This is incredibly unnecessary. For those first 43 minutes, in narration, Ellis discusses his hatred for his job at length. He discusses his unhappiness, his need for new employment opportunities, his constant rejections, his anxiety that returns every Sunday evening and more! We also watch his week unfold day by day. At the end of his working hours on Friday, we are well aware that this is a repetitive cycle. The colour acts as a beautiful surprise and obviously symbolises the happiness Ellis feels around his kids. However, there was no point throughout these moments of colour, that I wasn't aware of the fact that this happiness (and colour) would go away again at 6pm on Sunday evening. I wish the film ended when the colour faded in. The credits could easily have rolled over the top of the footage of the children. The meaning would have been clear, and the cycle required no reinforcement. Rose communicates this clearly enough, without having to explicitly return to black and white, when his kids return to the other parent.
Finally, although I loved the surprise of fading to colour (it had a Wizard of Oz-like effect), I wish again, the production design was considered with greater care. As the colour fades in, Ellis stands in the foreground, and what's behind him? A wall that is undergoing some kind of paint change/testing. Rose's colourful reveal could have occurred as Ellis steps out of his car to pick up his kids/bring his kids home/arrives home with the kids. This would have allowed for a scenic background with a greater Wizard of Oz flair (trees/grass/plants etc). More prod design = more magic.
Rose has created an interesting feature, with an interesting message. When watching, it is clear that he has a knowledge of cinema and has attempted to apply that knowledge to his film, in order to make the communication of his themes even more powerful. Unfortunately, the techniques used aren't always executed well, and this has an adverse effect on his final production. We at Inconceivable! Reviews all agree, that Upstate Story makes for an okay feature film, but may have been brilliant as a short.
Should you wish to view Shaun Rose's Upstate Story (2018), it is available on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_klJBcnORZo&t=1255s