Since 2010, Freddie Wong has brought video games to life on the web. When YouTube was just establishing its rep as the place to get funny videos to send to your friends, Freddie Wong and his friends took the special effects knowhow they learned from film school and working on direct-to-DVD films to create shorts that blended real life and games. It wasn’t long before his shorts (like “Real Life Mario Kart”) were getting millions of views.
And that’s when Wong decided to move away from his “freddiew” YouTube channel and, with Desmond Dolly and Matt Arnold, create a production company named RocketJump. Wong then grew the operation, raising $273k on Kickstarter for a web series called Video Game High School. Season two of the show raised $808K, then season 3 raised $898K. The episodes have averaged 5.3 million views on YouTube. Now Wong and RocketJump are making a new show for Hulu that will debut in the last quarter of the year.
RocketJump: The Show will feature a new short film from RocketJump, but also a behind-the-scenes look at the company. “What does it mean to be a media company these days, when there is so much going online? And what does it mean to be a production company when the traditional barriers to global distribution are no longer there anymore?” says Wong. “It’s a mix of cool awesome shorts, that hopefully people find as entertaining as we do, as well as an in-depth look at what it takes to run a media company in this day and age.”
We sat down with Freddie Wong and talked about his career, from shorts to VGHS to Hulu and distilled some of what he’s learned over the years on his path from viral video maker to television producer.
After attending film school at University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts, Wong worked on several low-budget films, which was a good finishing school for his career move to making YouTube videos full time.
Wong says, “Before 2010, my experience was in the world of direct-to-DVD, direct-to-television movies. Which is to say, movies of questionable merit and quality. I spent a couple of years doing that and that was a really good way of learning about the raw process and what goes into the non-artistic side, the producer side of filmmaking. It was a very valuable set of knowledge to get for the YouTube world.”
Wong and company set out to create a home on YouTube to make their videos, keeping complete control and going in whatever direction their creative instincts dictated. They could write their own ticket.
“From the beginning the thought wasn’t, ‘Hey! This is going to get us boatloads of money!’ The thought was, ‘Hey! Here’s a space where we as directors and creative people can do our thing without worrying about the various others concerns of filmmaking,'” says Wong. “The calculations were: we are going to be able sustain ourselves, support ourselves, and be able to do this full time. That’s what was most important, being able to commit to this full time, without a full understanding what lies ahead, but with a knowledge that if you build an audience, that will be helpful, whatever you do in the film world.”
As Wong continued to release videos through the “freddiew” channel, he built a regular audience, sharing content with friends and family (and then a larger circle of friends–the channel has more than two dozen videos with over 10 million views).
“By 2012, we had a process and a timeline of doing one video a week. I look at that as really good practice,” says Wong. “To just be able to go week in and week out and be just experimental with what we were doing. It felt very good to have a 1-to-1 relationship with others, having a chance to try something out and see if it works, see if people respond to it. We weren’t tied down to the idea that we hoped to find an audience. By the end of 2011, we had a pretty good idea what people were looking for, what people want to see.”
After making all of those popular videos and deciding to make something bigger, it was time to evolve into a formal production company that was more than Freddie Wong’s name.
“That’s when the idea of a company named RocketJump began to show up,” Wong says. “That was very much a decision to be able to create an entity that isn’t tied 100% to me personally and my name. The goal of the company was to do series like Video Game High School, but not just one series a year, but many. We were going to need a range of creators and a range of voices to pull off that kind of scale. I can’t imagine a director who does something and puts it on a channel with my name.”
As RocketJump, Wong and his collaborators were poised to move beyond short films to a long-form series. The years of viral videos had prepared them.
“We had learned what we needed to know in terms of production, what we may accomplish at what budget levels, on the visual side and the practical production side. At that point in 2012 we started transitioning into making a sustainable company,” says Wong. “I look around the landscape of YouTube and the prevailing wisdom says that online videos are short, little distractions. But at the same time, you have that contrasted with Netflix. I will sit down and watch House of Cards all the way through. So those are two weirdly opposing views on how online video is consumed. What we found is that what we want to do personally as artists is get to the point where we are talking about longer form, and talking about stories and characters.”
As Wong’s career became about creating the online show Video Game High School, that brought a whole new set of challenges, and more lessons.
“What our time at VGHS did was kick us to another level from a creative, artistic standpoint, looking at a lot of the things that make long form work over short form,” he says. “It’s one thing to say how do you get someone’s eyeball into a video that is a short, fun, two or three-minute long video. It’s another question entirely to say how do you sustain someone’s interest and keep them attentive and keep them coming back over something that ends up being 40 minutes per episode.”
As RocketJump made VGHS, Wong and co found themselves embracing more and more of the traditions from Hollywood.
“A lot of people think that we are in this new world and distribution has changed, and everyone can pick up a camera and make a movie,” says Wong. “It’s very easy and tempting to forget that this is a process and the industry has had 100 years of development in ways to do things that, for the most part, have produced really good movies. It is really easy to, at the height of technological exuberance, to say that we don’t need to worry about the old way of doing things. The old ways of doing things have value because they’ve been honed over the course of many many years and many many organizations,” Wong says.
Wong points to the standard length of television shows, a vestige of decades of television, as something he embraced for VGHS: while season one had shorter episodes, seasons two and three were the length of traditional television episodes.
“At the very beginning we were like, ‘We are an online series. We shouldn’t be held down by the weird rules of television: 22 minutes, or 40 minutes for an hour of television. It seems so foolish because they are dictated by commercial breaks; we can be any length we want.’ What we found as we started hammering through the writing process is that 22 minutes is possibly the right length for this kind of story. And 40 minutes is the right length for having a bunch of side plots and having them develop and complete. Television worked at those time constraints. Maybe they are not really constraints; maybe they are how people are used to seeing stories develop.”
As part of process of going from “freddiew” to RocketJump, the company had to embrace a new self-image.
“A lot of times reputation and that side of things, at least in the entertainment industry, is what you make of it,” says Wong. “If you represent yourself a certain way, people start to treat you a certain way. Hollywood is one of those weird places where no one trusts you to do something until you’ve already done it. That was always a challenge of VGHS. The first season, it was hard to get traction because everyone was like, ‘You’ve only done short things before.’ So we did the first season of VGHS and then we went for a second season. ‘Well, you guys did a web series; it’s not really a television show.’ So second season was more like a TV show. You are constantly in a state of having to prove yourself, before people believe you can do it,” says Wong.
Through the creation of Video Game High School, Wong and RocketJump were striving to create something that had the production values of a Hollywood television show. So they had to go that extra mile in the creation of those episodes.
He says, “For VGHS, one of the growing pains for us, is that it’s very easy to underestimate the amount of effort it takes to take something from 98% to 100%. That last 2% takes a tremendous amount of time and resources just to get that to a level that you are satisfied with. We saw it on VGHS for all three seasons. It’s very easy to look at that and say it’s not worth it, but in the end, it is absolutely worth it. You have to hold yourself to a certain standard. You are not going to get it from anywhere else.”
Part of growing RocketJump was to groom other creators besides Wong. This is also the case with the new Hulu show.
“We started working at talent development,” he says. “For instance, the Hulu show we are going to have my friend Ben Waller, who did the behind the scenes stuff at the YouTube channel back in 2010. Now we are very interested in developing him as someone who can run a larger scale show,” says Wong. “We look at that as part of our stable of directors, we look at that in terms of our writers, and every aspect of creative leads. We look at Pixar as another company that has down well in terms of talent development, building out a roster of people who are creatively engaged, but also competent in their abilities to take on and execute any number of projects. That’s something that is very important to us.”
For Wong, what he has learned is ultimately about making sure you keep learning.
Wong says, “The biggest lessons we’ve learned is that we try to be really good at knowing what we don’t know. That’s the biggest blind spot in any organization. You don’t know what you don’t know. We do our best to constantly assess that. It’s really a process of constantly challenging your assumptions and your institutional knowledge. With the writing process, we constantly look at that: are we doing this right? How do we even know what we are doing is effective? Are we reinventing the wheel here? We pulled a collaborator and friend of ours, Mike Symonds, who was working in the traditional world of story development, to become our head of creative. That’s an example of us constantly challenging ourselves.”