From film school to film fests
PETER LIVINGSTON’S yet-to-be-named documentary explores the video game culture that surrounds the annual Evolution tournament.
Peter Livingston, 25, was just a sophomore at Sonoma Valley High School when the Media Arts program launched, but it managed to change the course of his life.
“I was very gung-ho about this new video production class,” he recalled. “We were small then, maybe 15 kids.”
Through the program, and the tutelage of its director, Peter Hansen, Livingston learned how to tell stories with a script and a camera. Not only did he love it, he was good at it. After graduating in 2004, he headed south to Cal State Fullerton, where he studied film, television and radio with an emphasis on writing. One of the scripts he wrote as a student was even purchased by Sweeting Independent Films, which is making it into an animated movie for the Internet. But it was the dismissive comments of one of his professors that launched his latest and most ambitious project to date.
Along with three friends, Livingston is working on a feature-length documentary about Evolution, which is sort of an annual World Cup tournament for players of the 1987 video game “Street Fighter,” and the odd international community that thrives around the outdated electronic program.
“Arcades are dead. This (culture) should have died out too, but there were all these hardcore players who kept it going,” he said. “I want to show people this really unique social group that shouldn’t exist.”
Using the popular fundraising website Kickstarter.com, Livingston is hoping to raise $11,000 by Friday, March 23. Donors are invited to give anywhere from $1 to $10,000, with various prizes promised as incentives to donate. Livingston said the funds raised would exclusively go toward covering the cost of travel to conduct interviews with players and attending Evolution this July in Las Vegas.
“It sounds like a lot of money to some people, but it’s really nothing in filmmaking,” he said, explaining that even independent movies often have multimillion-dollar budgets. “You have to be a little crazy to want to make films. You have to really believe in yourself and your project, and I firmly do.”
Livingston is working with Sonoma natives JD Parisi, who serves as camera operator, and Ben Casias as the cinematographer. San Francisco State University student Ben London is the project’s sound technician.
While he’s waiting for the resources to finish the film, Livingston is back in the Valley and working for the Sonoma International Film Festival, the same organization that funds the Media Arts program at the high school. He’s also coaching basketball and football at his former school.
“It’s always been important for me to be involved and keep giving to the community,” he said, adding that he hopes the town will take an ownership role in his film. “I want the community to be able to say, ‘Hey, we helped make this movie.’”
The idea to focus on this underground video game culture came to Livingston when he was still in college. In a documentary class, he was asked to pitch a film as an assignment.
“I basically pitched this same documentary,” he said. He got a C-minus from his teacher. “He wrote on my paper that no one would want to see a documentary on video games.”
Livingston vehemently disagreed. He set out to prove that teacher wrong, and make a movie that celebrates the unbridled passion and dedication rampant in this unusual subculture. He is already well into the filmmaking process, all at his own expense, after he and his filmmaking partners attended Evolution last year. It might have produced a better grade for his documentary pitch if the professor had known that the annual tournament attracts more than 2,000 players, who have all competed in regional events to make the final battle, and that the event is broadcast online to an audience of more than 2 million viewers.
“It’s kind of turning into this World Series of Poker type event. It’s totally crazy when you see everyone in there with all the screens and lights,” Livingston said. “In the film, we’ll follow players from last year into this year.”
He also, on his own dime, flew to Japan in September to attend the final regional tournament, which determined who would go on to compete at Evolution in Las Vegas. Livingston said it was just the cultural shock he, and the film, needed.
“There was all this pageantry and light shows, it was very over the top,” he said. “You see these business men sitting there in suits, chain-smoking and playing this game.”
And it is precisely the characters caught up in this game Livingston hopes to explore with his documentary. When arcades began to disappear, fans of “Street Fighter” found a new way to connect and battle on the Internet, leading to the first Evolution in 1996 in San Francisco. Despite its antiquated graphics, compared to modern standards, the visceral love of this early video game continues to grow in a new generation, with children participating in the annual tournament.
One of the players Livingston is following is Sonoma resident Harrison Young, who will be competing in this year’s Evolution. “He’s pretty new. He’s the underdog story, we’ll see how it turns out,” Livingston said.
He added that, regardless of how the Kickstarter.com campaign goes, he will finish the documentary in some way, hoping to have it done by early next year so he can send it to film festivals for consideration. “I’ve come this far, I have to finish,” he said. “I just want the movie to be seen. But without donations and support, it’s really going to be difficult.”
To find out more about the project, or to give to his campaign, visit tinyurl.com/kickstartpete.