Not long ago, the prospect of putting media on the web involved translating traditional sources into postage stamp-sized videos. Over the last few years, several simultaneous revolutions in broadband, YouTube, platform-agnostic codecs and technologies like HTML5 destroyed the barriers between traditional and new media.
Rocket Jump, the creators of the web series Video Game High School hat premiered last year, is a studio formed during that revolution. Rocket Jump's goal is to create programming that rivals the quality of an HBO series.
There is no middleman. It's the content creators delivering their product directly to their audience. Polygon spoke to Video Game High School's creators recently as they were huddled in an editing room, putting the final touches on the first episode of season two.
Having proven that their web series works, they're redoubling their efforts for the series' sophomore year, with longer episodes indistinguishable from its traditional broadcast counterparts and delivering nascent technologies like 48 frames-per-second video wrapped in a custom video player that fully embraces the platform where they've made their name.
Video Game High School was the first volley in Rocket Jump's battle plan. The web series packages action, comedy and drama in video game-themed wrapper. In the show's fiction, video game players are bona fide celebrities. At Video Game High School (VGHS), player-students study video games. Though the pop culture stakes are higher, VHGS students still contend with the trappings of high school life like bullies, cliques, relationships and rivalries — basically, the core components of real-life high school drama and 80s movies.
Video Game High School's first season spanned nine episodes, with a runtime roughly between 10 and 20 minutes per episode. The experiment's success compelled Rocket Jump to Kickstarter, where they hoped to fund the second season of a show about "best friends, first loves, and landing that perfect headshot." On Feb. 12, 2013, the crowdfunding campaign ended with $808,341 of its $636,010 goal from 10,613 backers. Season two was a go, and it premieres today.
As they took a break from post-production to speak with Polygon, their excitement about the new things in season two was palpable.
"The first season was very much a web series," co-writer and co-director Matt Arnold said. "It was 8 to 12 minute episodes. We had the idea that we could combine it to make it like a feature, [and] it more or less became like a low-budget feature. I think what we're excited about this season is that our episodes are TV-length, about 30 minutes. We're excited to compete on that real TV level. It feels like a real TV show."
The funding from Kickstarter and new sponsors like Dodge offer Rocket Jump not only the ability to match their traditional media rivals, but also work to the strengths of Video Game High School's web platform.
"We're excited mainly about two things," editor and producer Desmond Dolly said. "One is we're shooting in 48 frames-per-second for the action sequences — so high frame rate 48, which is what The Hobbit did. The other is the introduction of a bigger VGHS universe. More game modes, more gameplay times, and a look at the inter-school competition."
Alongside the expanded story comes expanded technology, and Rocket Jump worked with Metacafe to create a video player that would allow them to broadcast in 48 fps.
"It was a challenge," Arnold said, "because we wanted to shoot in this high frame rate format and have the frame rate change within each episode, depending on what you were looking at. And the only way we could do that is by basically having our own custom player."
Director Freddie Wong said that all of the action sequences are shot at 48 fps because it evokes the feeling of gaming, which is at the heart of the series.
"It's less of advantage or anything," Wong said. "It's more about an interesting toolset. It's an interesting way of conveying visually the story that we want to tell.
"You know, a lot of the complaints about high frame rates is that it looks too much like a video game. But for us, we're like, 'Great! We need something that looks like a video game. We want something that looks like a video game, because part of the show takes place inside of video games.'"
Despite the tech and the platform, Rocket Jump continues to think of Video Game High School in classical terms because they're filmmakers and storytellers at heart.
"We're all from film school," Arnold said. "We all want to make films. A film's a film, whether it ends up on a theater screen or on a TV or on a computer. That's just where people see it at the end of the day. We didn't ever have this idea that we're just making stuff specifically for the web or change the style of it. We want to tell the best stories we possibly can and make the best films we possibly can.
"Lucky for us, the world that we live in, we have the ability to essentially give it to our audience directly, rather than having to deal with middlemen or other parties and they have different options or different ideas on the stuff we want to make. We wouldn't treat this any differently. It's just a film we want to make."