“The worst part is, if I had known film production involved getting up early, I guarantee you I’d be a computer programmer by now,” laughs RocketJump co-founder Freddie Wong, on set for the final day of shooting for his company’s first Hulu show.
Lucky for the world of digital video, Wong is still waking up early and making content: RocketJump: The Show premieres today.
RocketJump, the production company founded in 2011, is deeply and obviously steeped in geek culture: Its name references a video game technique of pointing a rocket launcher at the ground or wall and then combining that firepower with a jump for maximum lift,. With three seasons of the award-winning Video Game High School, a special-effects-heavy series that imagined a high school for elite gamers, RocketJump helped redefine what was possible from YouTube creators, entertaining an audience of 7.6 million on its channel and hosting guest stars from Conan O’Brien to Tony Hawk. Now, the team is seeing if their digital prowess can transfer to a broader audience—and if their audience will follow along if new content lives exclusively on a new platform.
RocketJump’s show isn’t the first attempt for a digital brand to cross over to the more mainstream mechanisms of entertainment. Epic Meal Time brought its over-the-top food to FYI network, earlier this year Grace Helbig helmed her own alternative talk show on E!, and Todrick Hall produced an MTV series on the ins and out of making his viral videos, to name a few. None has been a genre-changing breakout success, but RocketJump may have stacked the deck in its favor for this foray into the mainstream.
RocketJump helped redefine what was possible from YouTube creators.
First, RocketJump stayed close to its digital home: The show will air on Hulu, a comparatively alternative programming choice by mainstream standards. Second, while the company is successful at making straight-up fictional productions for a rabid audience, its first show a hybrid: part scripted series, part real life.
“People have called it reality, people have called it behind the scenes,” explains Ben Waller, RocketJump: The Show’s showrunner. “Ultimately it’s going to be a documentary. It’s not reality because we’re not getting drunk; nobody’s getting fired after the show ends. It’s not a [behind-the-scenes look] because it’s not just, ‘how do you frame a shot,’ because I think the general audience doesn’t want to see that. The audience wants to be told a story. It’s comprised of technical explanations and examples, but ultimately it’s the story of us and the company, and running a digital studio.”
In fact, RocketJump already has a weekly show, This Week at RocketJump, which follows a heightened behind-the-scenes aspect of life at the company, so transitioning to a show for Hulu wasn’t so tough.
“We’ve been very careful from the beginning to try and do things our own way, so to speak,” explained Wong, who built his digital cache with shorts like an action hero cat to Mario Kart IRL. “I think that what we do very much depends on the process itself. The process is something we’ve been very fortunate to be able to hone over the last five years. From a personal perspective it doesn’t feel like a huge jump, but at the same time I think we were very calculated at that.”
The series features eight shorts, and follows the production decisions behind each, illuminating life at RocketJump along the way. Waller said when he was pitching the concept, he took inspiration from HBO’s Hard Knocks and a selection of cooking shows, specifically the Copenhagen episode of Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown.
“It’s so cool because it’s him traveling around Copenhagen with the head chef at Noma, but it’s dreamlike and a tone poem in the way they blend Anthony’s interviews and the interviews of the chef with the footage that they got,” Waller said. “It told a story without having to be on the nose with everything. Chef shows and Hard Knocks I saw as portrayals of people who are really passionate about things doing what they love doing.”
The first episode, which premieres today, jumps directly into one of the company’s most ambitious shoots, a Western stylized in the vein of the Fast and Furious franchise. Their goal was to find a way to make the horses “drift” like a car does when a driver intentionally oversteers. Despite an increased budget from Hulu, money and timeline meant they couldn’t specially train horses to pull off the trick, but they still got horses.
“Horses are weird,” Wong exclaimed. “We had no idea. There’s so many questions you have about horses you just don’t know.”
“That’s Cirque du Soleil levels of coordination.”
They learned that, yes, you can stand on horses, and no, if you put a camera on an remote-controlled car and drive it around the horses’ feet, they won’t freak out, as long as you give them a chance to get used to it. They also learned that the horses figured out that they’d call “3, 2, 1” before “action,” and started to get riled up on “3,” before everyone was ready, so the crew had to change their procedure.
“The horses were just as professional as us,” said Waller, who noted these particular ponies had previously starred on Django Unchained and The Lone Ranger. “We expected that to be terrifying, but it wasn’t.”
On set they’re tight-lipped about the rest of their big ideas, but do offer a sneak peek of another ambitious sketch, Tip Jar. During filming, there’s a great bit with a cigar that may or may not make the final cut, but it had everyone on set cracking up. It’s a one-take fight scene that involves a spy dropping a piece of film with Nazi secrets into a tip jar, and the three-minute one-take fight scene that happens as different hands vie for that piece of info. RocketJump had to take a whole day down from the shooting schedule just for rehearsals.
“That’s Cirque du Soleil levels of coordination,” said Waller. “It’s like a dance.”
Waller wears many hats at RocketJump, from director to writer to sometimes actor (“I only put myself in if we need a Germanic-looking guy walking around,” he joked.) Across the board, one of the biggest adjustments the RocketJump crew had to make for Hulu was being able to step back and focus.
“It’s weird to not have to do a hundred jobs at once,” Waller explained. “We’re only doing 50 jobs at once now.”
Even with a lighter workload, the RocketJump team isn’t slacking off, but they aren’t too nervous about the greater implications of their jump to the mainstream, or the perceptions of a Midwestern mom who clicks on them through her Hulu subscription. For RocketJump, this show is business as usual, just on a potentially bigger screen.
“We’ve always from the get-go focused on ‘how do we make something first and foremost that we enjoy watching,’” said Wong. “That’s the focus. The standard we have set for ourselves is pretty high, and it’s about hitting that. … Now we can concentrate on doing cool stuff.”
Photos by Temma Hankin/RocketJump