Travis "Samox" Beauchamp Interview Part 1- The Man Behind "The Smash Brothers"
Many artists dream about making an impact on their subject through their work. However, no one, not even Travis "Samox" Beauchamp, could have imagained the influence that his documentary, The Smash Brothers, would have on the competetive Super Smash Bros. scene. Hailed as one of the greatest Esports documentaries of all time, it chronicles the the history of competetive Melee and is seen by many as a significant catalyst in ushering in "The Platinum Age" of Smash. Having announced a new documentary about the scene, we had the opportunity to sit down with the man behind the camera and talk about the documentary, life, motivation, Smash and more.
The man himself, Travis "Samox" Beauchamp alongside the logo of his production company, East Point Pictures.
Hey Samox! Let's start from the beginning: how did you first get involved with the Smash community?
Y'know, I was already sort of lurking around the edges of the smash community before I became a part of it. My brother was the one who got me started in all this. We were living together at the time and we only had one video game which we played constantly - Melee. And he murdered me in it. Through my frustration of losing to a younger sibling, I could tell there was a lot of depth that he was tapping into. He eventually let me in on the secret and showed me YouTube videos of guys like Isai and Ken and Mango and it suddenly dawned on me. I wanted to know more about these guys and the world they lived in so I made that my mission. In the summer of 2011, I shot a scripted pilot episode with my friends pretending to be actual smashers. It was terrible, but the production quality was good enough to get the community's attention. People like Chillin, PPMD and KDJ saw the same potential I did and made it a lot easier for me to gain legitimacy with others. After I kickstarted a small amount of cash, I started traveling to tournaments and interviewing. After ROM 4, I got hooked up with D1 and Prog and from there on out I was "the documentary guy".
That's interesting! So you weren't involved in the scene for years (going to tournaments, interacting online etc.) and then eventually made the documentary? You were only in the scene for a bit before embarking on your documentary journey?
Yeah - I would say the documenting came first. I made sure to release regular video updates on the East Point Pictures YouTube channel to let people know how the project was coming. After a while, the community started to come to me. It was validating and kept me focused on the project.
The title screen of The Smash Brothers.
Yeah, that was something you did very well. Many Esports documentaries suffer from a lack of communication but you started the updates from the beginning. You mentioned that while you were making the updates and the documentary itself, you quit your day job to focus on production and editing. What was it like adapting to that lifestyle/getting your dream job?
Haha. Yeah, the quitting part was pretty awesome. Actually, all of the production time - a year’s worth of traveling to tournaments, getting interviews, etc - I was still doing my day job as well. The Kickstarter money I'd raised just wasn't enough to quit outright. It was serendipitous actually - I was sort of content to both work and edit my way to the finish line, but in March 2013, my appendix exploded. I was essentially on paid leave for that month, so all I did was edit and in doing so, I realized there was absolutely no way I could finish this series and work a day job at the same time. The time commitment I'd need to put into it was far too much to do both at once. Realizing that my vision wouldn't happen otherwise, it was a no brainer. I quit in June and lived off a credit card. I'd get up every morning at 6 or 7am and edit all day until 8 or 9 at night. It was actually my favorite time because I got to see the project start breathing and coming alive. These people became more real to me in those weeks and months and once it was all finished, it was almost sad to no longer be working with them. It's not easy though - there are a lot of doubts that plague you when you do something so drastic. The only reason I did it was because I was convinced if I didn't complete this the way I saw it in my head, a part of me would die. When your soul is at stake, it's a lot easier to decide to take a risk.
That's crazy! I had no idea that your appendix exploded during production. That sounds really rough. Judging from what you've told me, you must have been extremely passionate about this project! However, hearing you see the project come alive makes me intrigued on another aspect of production: What/who are your favorite movies and directors and did they have an influence on you in making the film?
I love all sorts of film styles, but I suppose I'm a sucker for films that play with the 4th wall. Fight Club, Adaptation, etc. I love Charlie Kaufman, Spike Jonze, David Fincher. As a species, we have such a powerful relationship with stories and anything a director or film does to highlight that peculiar relationship is fascinating to me. Although, I'd be hard pressed to say I did anything of the sort in this project. The style has to match the content, and for this project I pulled from my love of Ken Burns' Civil War series. I was obsessed with it as a kid and I knew that if I were to tell a sweeping story of the Smash community, I would have to do it like Ken Burns - through compelling, personal stories.
As a huge fan of film myself, hearing about what you enjoy is an immense pleasure. I am a bit surprised that you didn't mention Werner Herzog being an influence as the documentary did remind me of his style in some ways. I never would have thought Ken Burn's Civil War series would have influenced you but it makes sense now that I think about it. Going into your role as the director, is there a particular shot in the documentary that's your favorite or that you're most proud of?
Haha. Well, I don't think I broke any new ground cinematographically speaking, but there were shots I was proud of. I'm very happy with how the lighting turned out in the Wife interview, especially considering how much he appears in it. It's tough to do the lighting, audio, video and interview all by yourself and come out unscathed and there were definitely interviews that suffered as a result of me acting solo. Frustratingly, the camera I used - though in other ways awesome - has a size limit for each video file. As a result, I had to constantly check to see when it had stopped recording and hit the record button again. Hilariously frustrating. But I think my best shot wasn't an interview. It was when Mango beat Hungry Box at FC Legacy. Both of them were so focused on their play and when Mango won, he rocketed out of his seat in triumph. He basked in the glory of victory while HBox sat dejected, totally motionless as the venue started to clear out. That shot, I think, was my best impromptu work and showed more about smash competition by way of imagery and emotion than anything else I did.
Samox's favorite shot taken from The Smash Brothers.
That's one of my favorite shots in the film! There was so much said in that shot. Now that I've asked you about the visual, I would love to know more about the audio side of things. How did you choose the music for each scene? What was that process like? I found them to almost always fit very well with what you were trying to portray.
The big secret is, after I graduated UCSC with a film degree, I pursued music. That's actually why I was living in Boston playing Melee with my brother - he was going to Berklee school of music and the plan was that we'd collaborate on tracks ala Lennon and McCartney. I had written almost 3 albums worth of music by then and had put a lot of effort into it, but because school took so much of his time, the collaboration just didn't happen. I realized, in the middle of a busking session on Newbury Street, that I didn't actually enjoy playing music for people. I just didn't get the same joy out of it that film gave me. So in that moment, I mentally packed it in and decided to go back to my first love. I bought a camera and a powerful editing computer and set off. But I've still got a certain understanding of what the right music does and with video in the mix I had a fairly good understanding of what was needed. I was surrounded by talent in Boston and in the smash community itself. My brother hooked me up with Jeffrey Felkowski and Luca Buccellati, among others. I met Kevin Kelbach at an APEX things just sort of came naturally from there.
Ahh, now it makes sense. The people you met and your music experience is responsible for making the music so fitting. More and more, it seems like you were really ideal for this project. From what you've told me, the documentary sounds like even more of a challenge than I initially thought. Between your appendix bursting and the doubts in your mind, it certainly wasn't easy. What would you say was the biggest challenge in making the documentary?
Haha. You don't even KNOW. The biggest challenge was not getting AIDS. I had planned to do a lot of shooting at APEX 2012 and had a whole 3 day weekend booked and ready. I was waiting at the Amtrack part of Back Bay station in Boston at 5am when I was approached by this emaciated homeless man looking for money. After I turned him down, he grabbed one of my 3 bags (big mistake - never have more bags than you can reasonably keep control of) and he started backing away from me, saying he had a gun. Now, in that split second I had many thoughts. I was watching him back away with what contained the most expensive (and uninsured) stuff - my audio equipment and the camera. In my head, I was watching him take from me a lot of money and the whole weekend's shoot. In my heart, he was stealing my whole vision and that was something I couldn't let happen. So when he turned his back, I speared him into the wall as hard as I could and rained punches on him wrest away the camera bag. I let him stand back up and look at that, he pulled out a needle and started jabbing it at me while saying "I got AIDS!". Not wanting to get AIDS, I let him take the bag again, but I knew I couldn't let him get away. So I chased him down and, in a moment of clarity, offered him 20 bucks to give me the bag. He counter offered with 40 and I got it back. He ran off, I called the cops and barely made my train in time. Later on, they caught the guy and I ended up being the prosecution's key witness in putting the dick behind bars (he wasn't lying, he really did have AIDS). I got so insanely lucky that I escaped unharmed, it could have been a lot worse.
I remember reading that in one of your reddit AMAs but wow, that's still absolutely insane! That is a great way to end my questions on the production of the documentary. From here, I would like to ask you about the aftermath of the documentary's release. The documentary played a gigantic role in the revival of Super Smash Bros. Melee as a premier Esport, even helping pave the way for direct support from Nintendo. Some have even called it the premier documentary in Esports. Did you expect your vision to receive such acclaim and impact? How did you feel when you started to see everything unfold?
I had hopes, but no real expectations. I hoped it would help preserve the legacy of these players and maybe bring Smash closer to the FGC and eSports, but beyond that I was sort of resigned to the fact that I had no clue what would come of it. Of course, when it became clear people really enjoyed it, I was a bit overwhelmed. Nothing I've created so far has landed so well and it sort of reinforced the idea for me that you have to be relentless in your passions to see results. I'm a long way from my ultimate goals, but it's fantastic to see I'm not off track.
That's a great lesson to take from it all. Since the release of the documentary, you've done a few collaborations with Team Liquid. How did you get involved with them and what was it like working for them?
Victor Goossens had seen the documentary and got really excited about Melee. Working with him and Team Liquid was amazing, especially since the first job I did was the announcement video that KDJ and Ken would become part of Team Liquid. I got hyped just sitting in a quiet room editing - grinning to myself like a moron. It was also an introduction for me to the world of professional StarCraft and DOTA and League - realms I had not yet explored.
Announcement of Team Liquid's signing of Ken Hoang.
I imagine it must have been really hard not tell anyone. I mean, you were one of the only people that knew about the massive bomb that was about to be dropped on the smash community! Anyways, it's good that you mentioned getting exposed to esports as that is something I wanted to ask you about. You've seen the Esports world and even got some offers/requests to make documentaries on other scenes. What do you think of Esports as a whole? Is there any particular Esport community or story that has stood out to you as documentary material?
eSports is funny. I remember playing the original NES and then the Super Nintendo. I played Red Alert and StarCraft and all the Civilization games. I grew up, as many in my generation have, surrounded by electronic challenges. To a lot of older folks, eSports is strange or uninteresting. I can't blame them - they didn't grow up with the understanding that the digital realm is an extension of the physical. To be a champion on a digital battlefield is just as impressive as being a champion on a physical one. In that sense, I find the ever evolving world of eSports in general to be the most fascinating thing. It speaks to our larger relationship with technology and should rightfully start conversations about who we are as humans and competitors. I guarantee we'll see a day when it is as accepted and entrenched as any other mainstream sport - perhaps even more so. As far as any game or community in particular that's deserving of a documentary, honestly - all of them. There are so many stories to be uncovered in any competitive community - look at King of Kong! A brilliant film that I would count as inspiration for my work. At the root of any gaming community is of course the people. And people are endlessly fascinating.
People and the questions that Esports brings up are truly fascinating. Using this way of thinking, I would like to ask you about the "Game Over: The Melee Games" video you made since the documentary's release. It seems like the people and experience of the games was what you were trying to capture. Will you be documenting more events in the future? How important do you think it is to document tournaments/events outside of streams?
I love MattDotZeb. Awesome dude who loves the community and really puts in effort to keep a local scene thriving here in Boston and Game Over is the perfect example of that. Personally, I'll probably be focusing more on narrative work that focuses on a few people rather than covering specific tournaments. I think streams are awesome - I watch them all the time. But they don't give you the same perspective as a "documentary" view does. Context is key and that's where a documentary eye can bring in more people to the scene.
Game Over: The Melee Games
Stay tuned for Part 2 within the next few days!
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