Part animation and part documentary, Buddhist Monks and scholars offer vivid descriptions of their dreams which are then brought to life through detailed rotoscope in Martin Ponferrada’s experimental short film, Everything Is Upstream.
Everything Is Upstream is a short animated documentary film about dreams and dreaming. In order to make his film stand out from the crowd, director Ponferrada decided to use one of the oldest forms of animation in existence, rotoscoping. Rotoscoping is a technique in which animators trace over motion picture footage to produce realistic-yet-animated action. Originally, animators would project live-action moving images onto glass panels and then trace over them and it was this projection method that was referred to as rotoscope. Rotoscope’s pioneer was the famous animator Max Fleischer who, before Disney, was the most successful cartoonist in film; his most famous creations where Betty Boop and Popeye but he would also go on to make the first-ever Superman cartoons in the ’40s. Modern uses of Rotoscope in the ’70s and ’80s were seen in Ralph Bakshi’s cult classics Fire and Ice and The Lord Of The Rings. While more recently Richard Linklater used it to excellent effect in feature films like 2001’s Waking Life and his 2006 sci-fi noir A Scanner Darkly.
Despite having nowhere near the budget of these more famous movies, Ponferrada’s use of the technique is very impressive. Using a more modern version of rotoscope with the help of a green screen, it’s the perfect way to highlight the mysterious and often surreal aspect of the dreams people have and the images they remember. Having read studies that suggest Buddhist monks are more adept at separating reality from illusion because they apparently react with a higher level of clarity and ability to control the speed at which information entered their thoughts, Ponferrada interviewed a number of people who either practice or work in and around Buddhism. After recording ten hours of footage, he edited five recollections down into nine minutes and animated the results.
Immediately you are struck with the sparse-yet-bright void of whiteness that surrounds our interviewees, the black and white photography is strikingly realized. What I found clever was how the director chose to change the color scheme when moments in the people’s dreams became darker, and when the sparse flashes of color did appear they tended to highlight the more joyous moments of each memory.
I particularly like the opening story that has a bright white hope of a small child running away from something contrasted with the dark and somber tone of soldiers marching towards something. This opening was very reminiscent of Bakshi’s Lord Of The Rings. We then see the same boy, albeit in a different dream, watching a tragedy unfold at sea in a well-edited passage. While the next story, in my opinion, the best section of the short, concerned a Tibetan Monk who’s dream sees him imprisoned, alone and lost, yet in the end finding hope. The use of color during this sequence is pretty spectacular. Our monk at his lowest ebb sees comets and shooting stars that reinvigorate him as he shoots across the universe, with a slight nod towards Stanley Kubrick’s 2001.
A later story gives us a dark and somewhat shocking image of a disappearing child, but of course in the end we are reassured that they are only dreams.
The music by Alexandre Navarro is magical and melancholic yet always unobtrusive and never distracting from the images we are seeing. Unfortunately, despite the artistry on show Everything Is Upstream suffers from not being as interesting as it should be and, even though some of the imagery is very impressive, not all the stories are that exciting and it’s hard to get involved in them. That said, thanks to Ponferrada’s pacing, we are left with some memorable moments ingrained in our minds and as a piece of experimental art, Everything is Upstream passes with good grades.