By Leif Conti-Groome / May 14th, 2016
Evan Butler, one of Mother to Earth‘s directors and producers, sits across from me at a cafe just off the beaten path. That’s not completely true; he sits behind his tablet at this cafe and I sit in the comfort of my own home. He apologizes from time to time about people in the background or being distracted by a woman giving him a dirty look. Maybe he’s more aware of these things because of his profession. Evan is a PI and he is taking the time in between two cases (one may or may not be a murder) to talk to me due to some time zone confusion earlier. He’s a rare mix someone who tries to be mysterious and humble but gets caught up in his own passion, in this case for Mother to Earth.
I covered their Kickstarter last week and I had a few concerns that I spoke out about. Sometimes it’s awkward doing a video interview (rather than an email one) with someone you’ve openly criticized but those apprehensions soon floated away as we chatted about the documentary, EarthBound Beginnings, being a ‘game expert’, Citizens of Earth, and the outspoken fans for the Mother series. Evan said that he was ‘happy to read’ my criticisms and I was happy to converse with him for just shy of an hour. Below is a pared down transcript of our talk:
Why don’t you tell us about 54&0 Productions. I’m assuming that’s a football reference.
I have literally no idea. [both laugh]
It’s our video guy Christian’s company; it’s his production company. I’ve known him for two years now… I’ve known him even longer since he was always on Nintendo Age posting stuff and he started putting together his own entire video game conventions. He runs this convention called ‘Let’s Play [Gaming] Expo’.
He’s a super big go-getter; does crazy stuff all the freaking time. And it was really great to run into him and talk to him about this project and he got super interested. Honestly that all ties into how this story got started which is a story and a half.
To answer your question [about the name of the company], I have no idea.
Did Christian start 54&0 productions for Mother to Earth or did it exist before?
No [it existed before]. I do know that Christian started it a while ago to do his [own projects]. His father was really into gyrocopters which are privately owned small helicopters. So Christian started the company, I believe, to make a film; like an actual to goodness sakes, real documentary about gyrocopters and these crazy people that owned tiny helicopters… I don’t know if that’s out yet but he actually did film that and that’s actually a professional grade documentary. A lot of the stuff you do see on his Vimeo [doesn’t include these projects].
Let’s talk about EarthBound Beginnings: What’s your interest in the project? What’s your background with EarthBound Beginnings and the community? What drew you to this whole project?
Honestly what drew me to it at the beginning… when I was back in middle one of the older kids gave me a CD-rom that had an emulator and some roms on it and I thought it was the coolest thing in the universe. One of the games that was on it was EarthBound and that was among Killer Instinct and Shadow Run. And it really stuck out because in all of the edgy teen games there was Earthbound which was super cutesy. It was really adorable. So I started googling it on the old dial up internet… and what I really liked were the clay figures. The clay figures were really cute. I was super into Wallace and Gromit; I don’t know why.
When I graduated college, and I was thinking about going to grad school and I didn’t have a whole lot of money, and I wasn’t very talented: I had a degree in biology and I couldn’t get a job in it because no one was hiring anyone straight out of college. I decided to try my hand at writing… I got really into writing about video games. I started my own website and I started writing articles for other websites as well, one of them being videogamepricecharting.com (which is the go to website for anyone who wants to buy or resell a game because it’s like a price guide).
I ended up getting my masters in forensics which was pretty helpful for researching everything that was involved in this project as well. Because there’s, honest-to-goodness, so many forensic components of it. There’s a point where were looking at these prototypes and looking up where the chips on the boards actually came from [to determine] if somebody were to make a fake. We found a professionally made fake EarthBound Zero cartridge out there and it nearly fooled us. We had to image comparisons and look at all these things to find out [the truth] and it turned out it was fake. It’s such a crazy story.
What are the interesting things you’ve come across in researching for this documentary? Are you doing the research for this project?
Yeah. Me and Joshua Bone-Christian [director and producer]. He’s doing a lot of the research as well. He gets a lot of credit. He’s the one that found a lot of the people… That’s how all this started out; both of us doing research for personal reasons and we were going to write a blog post, [do] a YouTube video. And then 2 years later it turned into the YouTube video from hell because we had so much freaking information on it.
In regards to the fact that you’ve been working on the project for 2 years, does that just include research and tracking down the cartridges or have you started compiling the interviews? How far are you guys?
We did a preliminary interview about 2 years ago with Phil Sandhop [translator and localizer for the English version of the original Mother]. It’s like an hour and a half-two hour long interview where we asked him a ton of stuff and he is just filled to the brim with crazy, unpublished information that you’d never find anywhere. He was from that Nintendo heyday of the 90s where they did crazy stuff…
That was going to be one of my questions: what has it been like dealing with fans as passionate as EarthBound/Mother aficionados?
[Y]ou can’t say anything bad about EarthBound or they’ll crucify you.
Which is one of the problems… [that] Citizens of Earth [had]… I’ve talked to Ryan [Vandendyck] a few times who I think is the owner of the that company [Eden Industries] and they met a whole bunch freaking of resistance because they were pretty much making EarthBound lite and EarthBound fans did not buy into it. They either whole heartedly buy into something or they just panic: ‘Eeeeeeeeee! Normies! Get out!’ and just ruin your stuff. They crapped all over Citizens of Earth which is why it did not do good on its Kickstarter.
Luckily we have a lot of good ties with people in the EarthBound community and [our interactions with them] have been really positive. I think there’s still more EarthBound fans out there that we can reach and I’ve been trying really hard to reach them and it’s just part of Twitter outreach [which is] standard protocol. It’s going well. The reaction from fans is fantastic. It’s really cool.
You were talking about these communities that we don’t see a lot in gaming media: rom hacking, prototype auctioneering, the grey market of game collecting (especially with retro games). What’s it been like delving deeper into those fields and shedding some light on the people and communities that take part in these practices?
Scary. [We both laugh]
Legitimately scary. I think I’ve had one person overtly threaten to sue me so far. Which is stupid in my opinion. It’s weird: some people really want to talk about it and other people are like, “No. You’re ruining game collecting. You’re going to make it mainstream. You’re going to expose us.” Because a lot of what they deal with is ill-gotten goods [like] the smuggled out dev kits. There’s a huge market for that. You can buy: PS3, PS4, GameCube [dev kits]. And sometimes you can find Super Nintendo dev kits online and people can use them to homebrew, and of course do other nefarious stuff too like make pirated copies of games and sell them. That’s a huge problem right now: reproductions.
… [Y]ou can go online and import, I think it’s $2 for 10 copies, the Game Boy Advance Pokemon games… Then you turn around and sell those on Ebay for like 30 bucks. Somebody needs to do something. That’s what’s ruining game collection.
… that isn’t your 400 dollar fake iPhones. Course it’s going under the radar [of the Securities and Exchange Commission]. That and there’s no real experts that can point out what’s a fake, what’s not.
Sounds like you’re becoming [an expert].
I know. It’s stupid. Ars Technica quoted me one time and called me a ‘video game expert’ and I was just like, “No. Stop it. Get out. This is a problem.”
Have you heard anything from Nintendo? Is there any worry of them shutting the documentary down? Would they have any grounds to do that?
There’s nothing illegal here. We will make money off of presenting an educational film; that’s what documentaries are. We’re no going to presenting opinions just the raw facts.
… I’d like to point out that Nintendo never shut down the Mother 3 translation. Nintendo never shut down the Mother 4 fan game. Nintendo is giving a lot of leeway to entire Mother IP series.
Going back to EarthBound Beginnings, do you have a favorite part of the game?
Honestly, for EarthBound Beginnings it was the end. Like when you face off with Giegue and you’re just like, “Crap. What the heck is going on?” It really puts the scale [on display]. I always though that was a really good ending.
How much more do you know about localization and translation after being part of this documentary? Has it expanded your knowledge of how it all works, or in some cases, doesn’t work?
Yes. It really has. We’ve talked to the localizer Phil Sandhop. He’s the guy; he was in charge of all that. It was very eye opening because it really showed to that importing a game from any region to any other region is not simply translate the words. You have to go in depth; you have to change sometimes the way [Japanese] characters are printed on the screen because… Japanese is fixed width; you can’t have that exact same layout in an American game. It just looks ugly and you can’t have direct translations sometimes because it’s vaguely controversial or there’s these cultural differences. Jokes don’t over well sometimes. [My experience with the documentary] has shown me a whole lot of really cool stuff.
Speaking of censorship or regional changes, that’s become a hot topic again with Nintendo changing elements of Bravely Second and Fire Emblem Fates (which caused a lot of controversy). What are your thoughts on the parallels between what happened with EarthBound Beginnings and what’s happening now? Do you think there’s a reason to worry about this censorship or do you think it’s part of the process?
As video games are growing nowadays it’s slowly moving from company’s calling all the shots and it’s slowly becoming more of a conversation with the fans. It’s amazing how much fans are honestly able to lobby for and get changes or allowances within official releases of games nowadays. Back in the 90s that was unheard of. Nintendo was like, “Ha. Sorry. Try your luck again next week.”
Yeah. “We may read your letters to Nintendo Power.”
[laughs] “The ones that say really good things, we’ll just publish those. Everything else? No. Good day sir.”
But it is becoming an ongoing conversation though as fans get louder and louder and louder because they’re able to exert control over the publishers. I don’t know if that’s a good thing. It’s a thing. It’s going to change.
Games are always going to go through a little localization because certain jokes just don’t work in English as they do in Japan. Idioms, cultural sayings just don’t fly [while being localized].
It’s just interesting. It’s not a good thing; it’s not a bad thing. It’s a thing that’s changing.
You didn’t really mention a lot on the Kickstarter campaign page on how the documentary is going to be structured. Can you give an idea of what the narrative of the movie is going to look like?
Yeah, I can. We didn’t really want to go too much into on the Kickstarter because we just didn’t think anyone would care. [laughs] We were just like, “Ah, video games, we’re just going to talk about this stuff [Earthbound Beginnings rather than the documentary]” It’s going to be us going on a journey to find out the story [of the localization]… The super secondary story is just us getting from place to place and how we found these people. That’s not important at all. That will literally be snips here and there of us occasionally taking an escalator or doing something funny in a hotel room.
When we’re doing these actual interviews it’s going to be people that we’re interviewing just talking. Their going to tell their story. We’re not going to coach them but we’re going to ask them a question and then we’re going to get them to rephrase the question and then answer it themselves. A lot of the meat and potatoes of the film is going to be these people talking and it’s going to show how this game and how this black market effected [the interviewees] personally and what [it all] means [to gaming as a whole] and where it’s going. It’s an amazing story and these people have played a tiny part in it and we want to show them as being kind of quirky and kind of fun but also incredibly human.
The documentary is mainly going to focus on the English localization of EarthBound Beginnings right? There won’t be any contact with the Japanese team.
No. Getting a hold of Itoi, the creator, is very very difficult. It’s notoriously difficult. And we don’t know any Japanese; we don’t know any Japanese customs. I would go over there and [inadvertently] start a war. It’s not a good time.
We’ve asked around and talked a few people about how we talk to [Itoi]. They’re like, “Don’t even try. He’s legitimately a Japanese celebrity and you’re a schmuck. You are legitimately just a schmuck from DC who goes through people’s trash as a day job but that’s my life.
Can you give me an example of some of the changes with the English localization of EarthBound Beginnings?
Well, one of the more subtle changes that in my opinion is actually pretty big is that for a certain part of the game you have another party member named ‘Teddy’ who’s seen as the fourth quintessential party member. He’s literally just this gruff gang member guy who fights with a knife and a sword and smokes. His favorite brand of cigarettes is ‘Horseshit Cigarettes’. That’s an entire other story.
But in the Japanese version he gets injured by a giant robot towards the end of the game and it’s implied that he dies. But the English version is, “Ah, he’s fine. Don’t worry about him.” I think it’s funny that it’s one of the things they localized, they changed. It’s not that bad to have somebody die in a game where you fight and kill people all the time because it’s an RPG.
I feel like someone at Nintendo was like, “I don’t want him to die,” So they sort of changed it. It’s kind of sweet, kind of innocent. It’s an interesting change.
I do have a harder question to ask you. What is the plan if Mother to Earth doesn’t reach the Kickstarter goal?
[deadpan] Burn all of our file footage and make sure no one can find out the truth.
[laughing] I can’t tell if you’re being serious or not.
[laughs] Honestly, [long pause] no idea.
No, I’m not going to let that happen. That isn’t going to happen. I personally am going to make sure that doesn’t happen. I don’t care if I have to beg my parents to give me ten thousand dollars to make my stupid movie. I’m making sure that doesn’t happen. I will go on twitter every single day for like nine hours just begging people to back this project and join us and be a partner. I’m way too dedicated; I’m way too deep-the entire team is at this point. We can’t let this fail. It’s not going to. I have faith. I really do.
Are you doing any other big events for Mother to Earth?
We’re actually are doing a really big event in Tennessee. It’s Saturday May 14th at 7pm [CT] at the Soda Parlor… it used to be piano factory and this guy named Olan Rogers who’s this really big YouTube star managed to buy the old piano factory and turn it into this crazy soda parlor. So we’re doing this big even there; it’s this big panel where we’re going to show some video and talk to the crowd and sell some stuff and give out some free stuff. There’ll be sodas, floats. It’ll be crazy. We’re super excited about that.
What are you playing these days?
The only thing I’m playing is Hearthstone. [sarcastically] I emotionally checked out of video games back in 1999 when the Dreamcast was announced. I’m just dead on the inside now. Video games don’t catch my attention like the story behind video games does now and that’s why I’m making movies about it. It’s a problem.
A lot of people are actually moving away from playing games to watching people playing games or researching games. Because a) there’s way too much stuff out there to play and b) as you grow up you have less time to do it. You have responsibilities.
Why play Ocarina of Time when I can just watch an 18 minute video of somebody that just wrong-warps into the end.
Oh look, someone beat Super Mario World in under a minute. I don’t have to play it anymore.
Cool. Now I can say I beat it. Nerds will like me now.
I give Evan the floor to say anything he wants before I go off to start transcribing this piece and he goes off to serve some subpoenas; he goes silent for a little bit. The internet connection in the cafe isn’t great which means his video feed hasn’t been working for most of the conversation. He comes back with this statement:
“This isn’t EarthBound USA; this isn’t a story about EarthBound fandoms. This is a documentary, not about the fandom but about the game itself.”
Mother to Earth occupies that strange space in between art mediums; is it gamey enough to be accepted by hardcore gamers or is it filmy enough to be accepted by documentary buffs? What I do know is this a project helmed by a team of professional documentarians that will make movie a about EarthBound Beginnings and that they themselves have enough ‘nerd cred’ for the project to be in good hands.
After listening to Evan’s enthusiasm for the good part of an hour, it was definitely infectious. It’s hard to not get behind the underdog that proudly proclaims that they will not fail. If I lived anywhere close to Tennessee, I’d check out their event tonight. If you still wish to back the project you can do so until .
DocumentaryEarthBoundEarthbound BeginningsFire Emblem FatesMother to EarthNintendo