Pretending I'm A Superman - A Deep Dive on the New Tony Hawk's Pro Skater Documentary
Post by Steve Farrelly @ 04:42pm 09/09/20 | Comments
We had a chance to see an early screener of the documentary Pretending I'm A Superman about the creation and rise of Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, and also chatted with former Neversoft alumn Ralph D'Amato about working on the original game to being involved in getting this documentary off the ground in an in-depth interview...
I hated Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater.
See, I skated inline as a younger person. I broke my arm so bad it needed a plate on each bone in my forearm. I had over 40 staples and needed two operations. On the way to the hospital with my skates still on in the back of my cousin’s VC Commodore, I was pulling my hand and wrist away from my still functioning elbow section -- effectively separating the broken parts of my arm(s?). Each and every bump he went over, my now disparate arm sections in the newly-formed fore section(s), moved. Independently.
My muscles had never experienced such a thing, nor my gut.
I hated it because I wanted Inline Skating to be bigger than Airborne or Chris Edwards. I wanted people to know how awesome and eccentric Arlo Eisenberg was. How incredible and innovative Tim Ward was and what a freak Matt Salerno was. I mean, Cesar Mora. We weren’t rolling through the park in spandex, lycra or any of that. To this day “frootbooting” is an ugly term thrown my way. And it still comes in, thick and fast. But I love rolling.
"I always loved skateboarding, but skateboarding didn’t love me. It was a one-way street. Either I skated on an emery board or I was less than human..."
I hated Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater because I always loved skateboarding, but skateboarding didn’t love me. It was a one-way street. Either I skated on an emery board or I was less than human. I still remember going to Canberra for the Aussie Titles and having a skateboarder yell at me at Civic because we’d “taken over Tuggeranong” for the weekend and he’d been forced to “ride here”. When I asked “how often do you get it?” he left me alone. I mean, the skateparks in Canberra are ridiculous and EVERYONE has always had access to them. We had shitty Sail Yards, Elwood, Epping, Croydon ramp (with its near unrideable vert) or a near hour-long sojourn to The Shed. We had to make our own spots sing for us.
I’m proud of my ‘frootbooting’ heritage, and I love the underground scene that has emerged as a result of being consistently kickflipped in the face. It’s booming. It’s legitimate and it’s raw -- unearthed, real, loved... passioned. It’s punk rock. Funny then that one of our biggest dissenters had been skateboarders and skateboarding, once in the same vert-shaped boat. I can ride a board. I love watching lines. I legit follow skaters. I showed my eight-year-old kid the other day who Shane O’Neill is and his skating. We both had to scoop up jaws from the ground. I adore Tony Hawk and Nyjha Huston. The disparate worlds have always felt wrong to me -- why can’t we just grind and transition together?
But we do meet in the middle. And that’s why I also love Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater.
I love it because it took what was then also underground and gave it an unfamiliar and unique voice. Loads of people I know have never rolled or ridden, regardless of apparatus, but they’ve played -- and loved -- Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. Most laugh when you explain to them it started as a demo with Bruce Willis from Die Hard on a skateboard on a skyrise rooftop. That’s unexplainably relatable for all the wrong reasons, but it kind of isn’t and that’s one of the things that makes what became, and still is, a phenomenon.
“I'm sort of a documentary nut,” enthuses Ralph D’Amato who worked in-depth on the recently-released documentary “Pretending I’m A Superman” which details the rise of the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater series. “I absorb all different documentaries. It doesn't really matter what the subject matter is. I'm kind of a fan of documentaries.”
"Before going off to work directly for Tony Hawk after forming a bond with the Birdman himself..."
Only in this instance it does matter, because Ralph also worked on the series at developer Neversoft before going off to work directly for Tony Hawk after forming a bond with the Birdman himself. Which without having to even really write any more, tells you this out-of-deep-cover documentary, at the very least, has serious credentials.
“Over the years, just the [Tony Hawk work in general] experience, and just connecting with a lot of the different development team members that I worked with and then actually reconnecting with a couple of them in doing another videogame around 2013... I had been thinking about doing a documentary [around the games] for a bit,” Ralph explains. “And then I just kind of happened upon this YouTube video from a fan, a Tony Hawk fan, a Pro Skater fan,” he adds. “[And] it was the history of the Tony Hawk videogame series on his channel and it was just so much detail and so well done that it kind of hit me to the point that I actually sent it to a couple of guys on the team. And I actually even sent it to Tony (he had already seen the video). And the guy that created it was Ludvig Gür who happens to now be the director of our documentary.”
This is all important -- and poignant -- because the project occurred in an almost similar fashion to the game itself; ad hoc and passion-driven. And what stands out from that through the doco is a love for grassroots and success. Everyone involved by the end credits acknowledges that no one knew what they were doing, or what they had with the first game. But for a pleb like myself and most others who’ll watch this, or grew up playing the game, or are now replaying, or playing it for the first time is that, these cats are all fucking rockstars. But even they don’t really know that, and that comes across perfectly in the documentary.
"And so Ludvig went down and talked to Tony and told Tony about our idea. And I knew Tony was... I'd kind of talked to Rodney [Mullen] and Tony about things so they were on board. And that's kind of how it all started..."
“[Ludvig] came out to California (from Sweden), and that was when... well, he had just graduated high school. He came out to California and he spent a couple of days at my place,” Ralph recalls. “And we started talking about a documentary, and that was when it kind of all started. The next day he was leaving -- he was going down to San Diego and I had hit up Tony and told him: "hey, one of the biggest Tony Hawk fans that exists in the world is in town", if he had some time. And Tony being Tony was, like, "yeah, I'll meet up with him". And so Ludvig went down and talked to Tony and told Tony about our idea. And I knew Tony was... I'd kind of talked to Rodney [Mullen] and Tony about things so they were on board. And that's kind of how it all started. We did tonnes and tonnes of Skype calls and Facebook Messenger stuff, and that's how we got started planning out the documentary.”
The oddity around any and all of this, is that the serendipitous nature of it all was raindrop levels of random that still formed a collective puddle; the doco, the success of Skater XL on PC, the announcement of a new Skate, skateboarding being at an Olympics that should have happened this year and, of course, the release of a modern remake-remaster of the first two games. Skateboarding, like some weird fashion from a bygone era, had gone cyclical in nature. And despite any of those raindrops not being knowledgeable of one another, they’ve managed to pool all at once.
Basically, skateboarding is back in a big way, and so is its cast.
“Yeah, it sort of just happened,” Ralph says. “I mean, we started on this three years ago, three and a half years ago or so, so there was no idea of any of this kind of coinciding at the end. So, yeah, it definitely was one of those things where the clouds aligned and things happened. And it's timing out really nice. It's really cool. I'm stoked for the [THPS] re-release, of course, and obviously being part of that first game... I've been playing the heck out of the demo level -- the Warehouse demo level.
“[And] Rodney and I are pretty good friends, so we've had a relationship. He was actually one of the first that I reached out to. And he was just pretty much a yes from the get-go” Ralph continues. “And then the other people that I contacted one by one, just, I think, from knowing me and knowing that I had kind of taken care of them in the past, and I had a level of... that I kept things at a level of professionalism and so forth, that it was fairly easy to get the folks that we wanted in the interviews.”
"That wound up creating one of the all-time soundtracks to a videogame ever. At least up until that point. But from then on, music, sub-culture and games became besties..."
And it’s not just the skaters that involve themselves in the history lesson. One key factor behind the success of the series was that Activision used some serious pulling power and brought on board a number of artists of varied music genres that wound up creating one of the all-time soundtracks to a videogame ever. At least up until that point. But from then on, music, sub-culture and games became besties, which helped it sing to so many, rewarded in kind with success.
“So there’s a pretty big love of the videogame from the bands that we have [in the film] from Primus, Bad Religion and Goldfinger,” Ralph reveals when I asked if it was hard being independent and still getting these big names to be involved. “So it wasn't... again, as long as we could line up the times and the timing worked, they were gung-ho to participate. So it was getting the initial contacts to the right people and knowing that, "hey, this is a real thing. And we've got a real project going. I used to work on the Tony Hawk videogames series" that kind of pushed through a lot of the... some of the red tape that might've actually existed. But I mean, you're also talking about punk rock bands, how much red tape can exist, really?”
Bad Religion is my all-time favourite band, and almost single handedly tasked me with playing the series, of which I need to wholly admit by now, I love. Like, love to death and back. It transformed my whole world view of action sports in general, and it made me forgive the big brother culture as maybe just beating up on its younger, dorkier brother. And I became expert at it. I now have fond memories of drinking beers in interviews with the Neversoft cats at E3, studio head and lifetime redneck of value, Joel Jewett, included in there. I’m still friends with some of them after meeting them so many times, and as a series, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater was no longer a passion, it was part profession, full-time obsession.
"It transformed my whole world view of action sports in general, and it made me forgive the big brother culture as maybe just beating up on its younger, dorkier brother. And I became expert at it..."
To this end, you need to see this documentary. It’s a raw look at a raw series with real people and real insight into the rodeo that became the phenomenon. Without it there’d have been no Matt Hoffman’s Pro BMX, no Kelly Slater’s Pro Surfer, no Shaun Palmer’s Pro Snowboarder, no SSX, no Skate, no Sean White Skateboarding, no Steep and now, no Skater XL. But more importantly, without it the successes of those representative sports wouldn’t be as big or longstanding. The importance of this series really shouldn’t be understated, and Pretending I’m A Superman goes a long way to legitimising that legacy in a way that takes us all the way back to humble roots, through to its meteoric rise, fall and then re-rise.
“I think it was deemed as sort of a rebel thing, too. I think that helped it along a little bit, Ralph concludes when asked if the highly viewable aspect of skateboarding, versus its steep learning curve gave the game its successful edge out of the gate. “But when we were developing the videogame, we were really trying to figure out a way to kind of cross both of those. I was a huge, huge fan of 720 in the arcade. And I thought that really gave a decent feel for skateboarding back in the day, just kind of the control it had and the scheme and what we were doing.
“So we were trying to create something that captured something new, but also had that arcade-y feel of being able to do combos and string things together -- combination buttons, button presses, and those kind of things -- we were still trying to get the overall feel of snapping a flip trick, or doing a grab and holding it while you're in the air and spinning. We wanted to give all of those things that kind of... the feel. And it got to a point where you had 30-year-olds that were on the development team that had never been on a skateboard before deciding, "hey, I can drop in on this vert ramp or I can drop in on this mini ramp”.
"we were still trying to get the overall feel of snapping a flip trick, or doing a grab and holding it while you're in the air and spinning. We wanted to give all of those things that kind of... the feel..."
“People learned pretty quickly [that] once they took it from the videogame controller to the actual skateboard that it's a bit different.”
And on a hopeful fallout from this documentary and the aforementioned serendipitous nature of skateboarding being a front and centre sport and activity again, Ralph remains humble about expectation, almost as if just getting this here scratched an annoying years-long itch.
“Yeah, I mean, our hope really was always just to be able to tell the story and get the story out there of what the Tony Hawk Pro Skater series did to not only videogames, but skateboarding. And by partnering with Wood Entertainment, being able to bring it to the amount of Video on Demand platforms that we have now, and just really just to push the story out there of how this series was an impact on skateboarding, how skateboarding is a positive activity and sport or art form or however you want to refer to it, and that it's something that is going to keep on progressing. And we'd just like our film to keep... whenever anybody wants to have a sort of a reminisce or be nostalgic or even a learning lesson about skateboarding or Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, they have this as their kind of volume to look back on. That's really all we wanted.”