To fans of YouTube, Freddie Wong is a household name, standing among the cadre of modern filmmakers who have used the platform to launch 21st-century careers while attracting scores of devoted followers. A former competitive gamer and film-school graduate, Wong parlayed his skills into a high-profile online presence, first through Video Game High School — the immensely popular web series he co-created — and then by co-founding RocketJump, the California based studio where he and his team produce web shorts, TV shows, and video tutorials. This success led to a deal with Hulu that included the 2015 premiere of RocketJump: The Show, a reality show that pairs the studio’s shorts with behind-the-scenes “making of” stories; and that led to Dimension 404, a new scripted program the RocketJump crew is developing, also for Hulu. We caught up with Wong amid all this activity to see how he juggles it all, what advice he has for aspiring filmmakers, and how Pond5 became an essential part of his mix.
Filmmaking Isn’t Magic
“We finished up the first season of Rocketjump: The Show on Hulu at the end of last year, and it’s been a very interesting reaction,” says Wong, reflecting on his TV debut. “I’ll tell you this: there have been a lot of people who found it and are really interested in some of the creative processes that we show off in that show — which is, I think a little less adversarial than some of these other reality shows, or other understandings of how Hollywood works.” He makes a point of addressing this difference, revealing that Hulu was the best partner for the show because of the network’s comfort with not relying on interpersonal drama to drive viewership.
“At the end of the day, it’s us as a bunch of collaborators and friends just trying to make fun stuff and do the best things we can and the best work that we can,” says Wong, who knew that the appeal of the show would be in the way it draws back the curtain on creative process, rather than in scuffles between cast and crew members. “I always believed in being open with what you do because it’s not like we’re magicians,” he says. “It’s not like we’re trying to hide the secrets of magic from the world. I think this is a lot of fun, and the more people that can share it, the more fun it is.”
It was a good bet for both parties, as the show quickly found an audience (not entirely surprising, given that RocketJump’s YouTube channel has nearly eight million subscribers). It also led to another new RocketJump/Hulu series. “We’re going into pre-production on a scripted show called Dimension 404,” says Wong, “which is going to be a mythology/sci-fi series. It’s a little like our take on the Twilight Zone or classic shows like that, and those scripts I’m very excited about. These are scripts that have been around for years that we’ve been working on and baking and tweaking. We’re at a point where I think that it’s some of the best stuff we’ve ever written. We’re going to be shooting that in just a little bit.”
Pond5 in the Media Mix
Wong and his co-creators discovered the endless possibilities of Pond5 media almost as soon as they started producing video. “We use Pond5 sound effects, we use video, and even still images, constantly,” he reveals. “There have been so many times when we have some crazy huge idea and it calls for a very specific thing, and there’s the moment where we’re like, ‘Okay, can we shoot this?’ And the answer is, ‘No we can’t.'” That’s where sourcing pre-shot video becomes huge.
“We’ve used bits of what we’ve got from Pond5 in various capacities throughout the last five years,” says Wong. “A number of our shorts feature a lot of cutaways, where we need a certain piece of footage for a joke, or for something to land, and Pond5 is the first place we go if we don’t feel like we can shoot it ourselves — because the quality of what you have on there is so good. It’s definitely been a lifesaver, and it’s definitely upped the production value for a lot of the stuff we do without us actually having to go around and put in that time and effort to shoot some of the crazy stuff that we have floating around in our heads.”
Given the versatility of the media and the creativity of the RocketJump team, there’s no one way you’ll find Pond5 media used in their productions. “It’s a mix,” says Wong. “Some of it is green-screen stuff, some of it is elements — that was a huge part of Video Game High School, a lot of those titles and graphic-design elements. It’s a very graphical show, and a lot of those came from Pond5. The establishing shots are absolutely helpful, and even just shots unto themselves, because they might fit the story. Our last short, ‘Superhawt,’ has a couple of shots that are just full-on, ‘This is a Pond5 shot’ that we needed, and it works perfectly for this moment that we’re trying to express in the script. We blended two stock-footage shots with one that we shot to cap it off, so that everything feels like it’s all just one thing. And it worked perfectly.”
Above: “Superhawt” by RocketJump. Below: Pond5 clips featured in the video.
Film School, Reinvented
Another big undertaking for RocketJump was the creation of the RocketJump Film School, a free online curriculum that is regularly updated with engaging tutorials on Directing, Visual Effects, Screenwriting, Producing, and more. It’s an amazing resource, and a bit of a labor of love for the team.
“We’ve always had kind of an educational component to what we’ve done, even if it’s just small bits of tutorial, little bits of showing people behind the scenes,” says Wong. “Again, that speaks to the belief that things need to be open, things need to be clear and understood and transparent. But it came around to where we said, ‘You know what? We’ve been doing a lot less of the instructional stuff.’ Partly because I don’t believe very much in certain types of tutorials, and I think that you lose a lot of value when you’re just learning how to do something, rather than why you would do something.
“The film school was our way of saying, ‘Look, let’s try to put stuff up there that can get into a deeper understanding of cinematic and visual language.’ That’s really the goal for all of what we put up there. If people can get a deeper understanding of how and why things work the way that they do, and why you apply certain tools in a certain way, I think that’s the most valuable lesson you can learn — because it’s infinitely flexible across a number of different scenarios. It’s actually a tool that you can apply to your own work, rather than just a small instructional thing that teaches you to do one very specific task.”
Filmmaker, Know Thyself
For aspiring artists seeking to follow in Wong’s footsteps, RocketJump Film School will be a huge boon. But at the same time, the explosion of content online in the years since Wong got his start may also make starting out now seem more daunting than ever. Wong’s advice on that front is simple, and reflects his thoughts on education. It’s not about how, it’s about why. “I think it really starts with asking, what is the story that you want to tell?” he says. “A lot of people make the mistake of looking around and thinking, ‘Oh, what’s popular right now?’ or ‘What’s gonna get me views right now?’ Because that’s always going to change, and you are never going to keep up with that. In every case, for anyone who’s successful, it always starts with understanding what really makes them tick, and understanding themselves in terms of what excites them. Then that excitement is what drives their ability to create. So you have to start with what story you want to tell.”
Don’t get caught up in making sure you have all the right gear or the exact setup you may think you need, either. That’s also a case of focusing on the wrong things, says Wong. “I’d do the analogy in terms of other forms of art, because I don’t see some of them as being that much different,” he comments. “Look at, say, music. If you want to pick up a guitar, there’s two ways you can go about it: You can go and find the guitar that you think works and then just start playing music on it, or you can start researching all the differences between all the guitar brands and all the models, the tone, the pedals.
“I think you have to get over gear obsession and letting the idea of the tools get in the way of what you want to do as a creator,” he concludes. “You just find the guitar that fits your hands and start strumming on it. Find a camera that you can afford, that you can get as soon as possible, and start shooting with it as soon as possible, using whatever software you have access to as soon as possible. Time is more important. It’s getting stuff in your hands.”