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SANDCAST: Mark Bucknam and the making of AVP Uncovered docuseries

HERMOSA BEACH, Calif. — The idea for AVP Uncovered, a five-part docuseries being released on Thursday evening on YouTube, is not a new one. It is, in fact, one of the most tired and exhausted ideas in the sport of beach volleyball: Somebody — anybody — should document the lives of these players.

All of them, from the up and comers to the established pros.

The issue wasn’t the idea. It’s fantastic, truly, as beach volleyball offers one of the most unique lifestyles of any professional sport. Few athletic endeavors, for example, offer the potential of chasing an Olympic gold medal while also hustling as a bartender at the Century Club. The dichotomy, and the lifestyle that comes with it, brings immense intrigue: How in the world do these players do it? And why?

The problem lay in the execution. There is, to borrow a phrase Mark Bucknam has come to espouse, a lot of dreamers, folks who knew the idea was every bit as sound as the rocket ship that became F1: Drive to Survive. But the execution? The physical taking of the risk? The actual doing of said dream? That was absent.

“There’s a quote: ‘The world needs dreamers and the world needs doers, but what the world needs most are dreamers that do.’ It’s one of my favorite quotes ever,” Bucknam said on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “I was sitting there one day thinking I’d love to make this thing happen, and I’m one of the few people in the world that loves beach volleyball and video production. There’s not many that could step in and do something. I pitched it to my buddies and they were all about it.”

Alas, then, the dream — to document the lives of beach volleyball players, both on and off the court — had a trio of doers in Bucknam, Howard Yang, and Bruce Bendheim, a group who had been best friends since elementary school and founded a fledgling video production company, BYB Pictures, after college. But the details — the how, the who, the when — remained, at best, murky.

When it was founded, BYB was every bit the ragtag operation you’d expect from a group of 20-somethings. They lived and operated out of Yang’s basement. Cold-called recently engaged couples who were in search of wedding photographers and asked if they’d like a video instead. Filmed and produced six episodes of something called Eat Play Stay: Boston, which is now on Apple TV and Roku. Cobbled together a few short films on surfing and climbing. But to design, film, direct, produce, and distribute a full-on docuseries, with funding coming out of their own pockets?

It was no small leap.

“It was right before Atlanta, and we said ‘Are we really doing this? Are we about to buy plane tickets for a whole month on the road?’” Bucknam said. “Let’s dive in and make it happen. Now we’re getting ready to launch it. It’s kind of crazy.”

Zana Muno-AVP Uncovered
Zana Muno is one of the featured players in the AVP Uncovered docuseries/Mark Bucknam photo

There is a gap in any major creative undertaking between how the project is intended to go and what the finished product actually looks like. For Bucknam and BYB, AVP Uncovered looks little to nothing from how it was originally planned. The intent was a three-episode series, with the simple structure of one episode per tournament — Atlanta, Manhattan Beach, Chicago — tracking three players with different standings in the game: a qualifier grinder, someone who’s a professional but has a full-time job, and one of the top-ranked players.

James Shaw was cast as the grinder, and after talks with Casey Patterson fell through, Josh Glazebrook, the AVP’s utility man who does, quite literally, everything, helped connect BYB with Jake Gibb as a more than suitable replacement. Zana Muno doesn’t have a full-time job, but she does bartend, and is unquestionably one of the brightest talents on Tour, with a personality and look that goes well with any camera.

But then, less than two weeks before Atlanta, Shaw, who has since returned to indoor, underwent surgery on a chronically-injured ankle, leaving Bucknam and BYB scrambling just days before filming. Who could they find with an interesting story, legitimate potential, and was willing to film?

One FaceTime later, BYB struck gold: Kristen Nuss and Taryn Kloth were on board.

“We thought it was going to be James Shaw, Casey Patterson, and someone with a full-time job,” Bucknam said. “It wound up being Zana, Jake Gibb, and the best new team since Misty [May-Treanor] and Kerri [Walsh Jennings].”

Kristen Nuss-Taryn Kloth-AVP Uncovered
Kristen Nuss and Taryn Kloth, the perfect last-minute replacement team for AVP Uncovered/Mark Bucknam photo

So good did their content wind up being — Nuss and Kloth would win Atlanta coming out of the qualifier; Gibb allowed them to film him at his home and coaching soccer practice; Muno taught them the finer points of gardening — that the series expanded, from three episodes to five, all in the 22-24-minute viewership sweet spot.

“We had a lot of different ways we could do it. We originally thought it would be three episodes: An Atlanta episode, a Manhattan episode, and a Chicago episode. We stayed truish to that but because of what we were able to see in their personal lives and the way the events went, we had to pick and choose what’s going to go where and how are we going to make this coherent?” Bucknam said.

“A lot of the ways we learned how to do that was watching surfing documentaries or whatever, and obviously ours is on a micro scale, but we just did it the best we could in terms of how are we going to go back and forth from the event to their home life? For us, it’s way micro-scale. How are we going to keep the audience engaged for 24 minutes when it’s not just beach volleyball? Beach volleyball has proven itself to not be the best at engaging a giant audience but human stories are really good at that.”

Above all, that is what AVP Uncovered accomplished: They went beyond the sand and into the homes of four of the best beach volleyball players in the United States. Which is exactly what Bucknam and BYB intended to do when they hit the road for five weeks in 2021: They wanted to make the show they wanted to watch — the show so many have pitched, yet nobody, until now, has actually done.

“Definitely got a window into what real life looks like. It’s something fans want to see across every sport, and that’s something we thought of when we were talking about why we wanted to do it: Impact is the word we kept going back to. This could have an impact. This show could have a positive impact on this small little world and we’re in a position to do that and hopefully it does that. Now it’s time to find out. It’s super exciting. I’ve watched it a bunch, and it’s the show I want to watch.

“It’s a pretty real depiction of what each of their seasons looked like, and that’s pretty intentional: We won’t want to influence it a ton and I don’t want that to sound pretentious but I think the stories are cool enough without us messing with them.

“It’s significantly different from a content perspective but in terms of format, we made what we wanted to make. We wanted to make this so we could demonstrate to other companies that we could do it again. I think we accomplished that.”

Jake Gibb-AVP Uncovered
Viewers will get a deep look into Jake Gibb’s life, on and off the sand/Mark Bucknam photo