“RocketJump: The Show” is a bit like a DVD with the movie where the bonus features should be and vice versa. The eight-episode series, which debuts its first two installments (“High Plains Drifter” and “Fan Friction”) on Hulu today, is presented in two sections: a short film and a documentary about how that short was made — and the making-of documentary comes first.
“That was a huge debate,” admitted RocketJump co-founder Freddie Wong. “We talked about that for awhile until we settled on this format.”
By putting the documentary first, “you might catch little in-jokes or see how the happy accidents happen on set that then turn into major story points in the show itself,” added series showrunner Ben M. Waller. Also, “[viewers] think they know what the story is, and then have those expectations met or totally reversed when they watch the short.”
In the first episode, the behind-the-scenes doc presents a condensed history of RocketJump from the initial spark between Wong and fellow co-founder Matt Arnold in a special effects class at the USC School of Cinematic Arts through their success on YouTube all the way to the preproduction and shooting of “High Plains Drifter.”
“We realize there are going to be a lot of people coming to this who have no idea who we are, and we almost needed to have a primer in terms of what we do,” Wong explained.
Strangely, no mention is made of their VFX-packed action-comedy digital series “Video Game High School,” which ran for three seasons and landed Wong and Arnold guest spots on late night talks shows “Jimmy Kimmel Live” and “Conan.”
“At the end of the day, it came down to telling the story economically,” Wong said. “We wanted to be clear about who we were, but not drag along with details that were unnecessary to the average audience.”
Wong is the public face of RocketJump, acting in many of their productions and handling the bulk of the interviews. But the first episode takes pains to illustrate his sibling-like partnership with Arnold (pictured with Wong, above) and the complementary skills they bring to the work. It also highlights the contributions other members of the RocketJump team, both in the office and on the set, where everyone from series producer Ashim Ahuja to office manager Kristen Klehr doubled as actors and extras.
If anything, Wong seems eager to diffuse the cult of personality that’s built up around him and directors in general, proclaiming in the show that “the biggest lie that Hollywood has trained everyone to believe… is that a movie is the singular vision of a director. The movie doesn’t get made by the will of one person alone.”
In the case of “RocketJump: The Show,” it wasn’t directed by one person, or even two. Wong and Arnold stepped aside from their co-directing roles on several episodes to let others on their team direct, including actor Clinton Jones, writer/actress Ashly Burch and Waller, a move Wong said was the result of a mix of “egalitarianism and laziness.”
The filmmakers had only 20 days of principal photography to shoot the series eight episodes — each of which centers on an elaborate action set piece ranging from a fast and furious Western horse race (“High Plains Drifter”) to a World War 2 bar brawl — with 4 to 5 days added later for pick-up shots.
It was especially tough on first-time director Burch, who lost her second day of shooting on a space ship set when RocketJump was outbid by another production company, forcing her to pare down her planned 120 shots of fighting and making out between Dracula and Sherlock Holmes to a mere 86 and get them all done in one day.
“We managed to get everything. I don’t know how,” Burch said. “I kind of blacked out.”
As tough as it was on Burch, it’s that very by-the-seat-of-their-pants quality that gives “RocketJump: The Show” its dramatic pull.
“We make movies in sort of a weird way,” Wong observed. “It’s not a typical Hollywood production approach. It’s one that’s borne of a very do-it-yourself guerrilla style. Personally, I’ve always been curious about the production process and everything that goes into it, and we’ve always had the desire to be inclusive about what we’re doing and try to tell it like it is as honestly as possible.”
A half-doc, half-action-comedy series doesn’t seem like a pitch that would be an easy sale — especially coming from a bunch of YouTube upstarts — but Wong said that Hulu and RocketJump’s production partner Lionsgate were both supportive and hands-off from beginning to end.
“They said, ‘If that’s how it is, that’s how it is. Go for it,’’’ Wong recalled. “They understood the parameters and how we do things creatively. When you’re lock-step in that sense, it makes for a very easy working relationship.”
Now that RocketJump has conquered Hulu — or at least debuted a show on the streamer — it’s turning its attention back to the platform that served as its launch pad.
“We’re putting together a team of five people to get back into making YouTube shorts,” said Wong, adding that Burch will be part of that team. “The goal is to develop them into a self-sufficient group of directors who can take on larger projects.”