Aspiring directors now have equipment on their phones they would’ve had to pay an indie film budget’s worth of tuition to access only a decade or two ago. Just as important as having an 8-megapixel camera or editing software in their pocket, though, is having a YouTube app. Would-be Ava DuVernays will need that for watching the exhaustive series of videos on RocketJump Film School.
Since its launch in the summer of 2015, RocketJump Film School has released over 100 videos online. Some are video essays, the most popular of which explains why people think CGI sucks, but many are easily digestible tutorials on every single aspect of filmmaking. The channel currently has over 243K subscribers, over 11 million views, and it just may be the future of how people learn the nuts and bolts of an art form.
When Lauren Haroutunian was first hired at the production company, RocketJump, in 2012, she was in charge of shooting and editing behind-the-scenes content for the web series, Video Game High School. Views on these videos quickly exceeded expectations, and the approach started to evolve. Pretty soon, it became clear from YouTube comments and emails that many fans were themselves young aspiring filmmakers, looking to siphon off whatever ounces of insight RocketJump had to spare.
"I came to Freddie [Wong, founder of RocketJump] about an educational series initially because I wanted to start camera and cinematography tutorials for this audience that was hungry for more detailed videos," Haroutunian says. "It was important to me that young filmmakers saw women working behind the camera—RocketJump was very dude-heavy at the time—and to also provide a more in-depth understanding of cinematic language that our fanbase was eagerly seeking."
The team went through a lot of ideas on what this series would look like before landing on a simple solution. As a working production company, RocketJump was constantly engaged in one element of filmmaking or another; they could simply isolate and document each individual part of the process. They decided the best way to package the project was with a "school" concept, which conveyed the soup-to-nuts breadth they had in mind. RocketJump Film School was officially born in 2014.
Over the course of a year, Haroutunian helped put together a team, and RJFS officially launched on May 1, 2015, with an over-the-top announcement video on the main RocketJump channel, and 16 introductory videos on its own page. Since then, the channel has put out two videos a week, including an integration with RocketJump’s recent show on Hulu, RocketJump: The Show. One of the most interesting aspects of the video channel is how its scope includes tutorials for total beginners and intermediates, along with occasional dips into the prosumer level and beyond.
"We’re very much focused on accessibility, on making the world and language of film less intimidating to those who might feel it is unattainable," Haroutunian says. "The idea of ‘breaking in’ is a really strong deterrent for many who believe or are told they don’t fit into the Hollywood mold. That core tenet has shaped much of what we cover, and even more importantly, how we cover it. A tutorial about how to use a very specialized and expensive piece of equipment will only benefit a small percentage of people who presumably already have access to a lot of resources. A tutorial on why you might use that equipment, and what it can accomplish cinematically— that will benefit almost anyone who wants to learn more about visual language."
The team figures out how to make which video and when partially by doing something a lot of people putting videos online should never do: reading the comments. In less than a year, RJFS cultivated an avid fanbase whose comments nudge the creators toward what they’d like to see covered and at what level. (Fans are also encouraged to write on the forums as well.) While some ideas come from genuine excitement on the part of staff, quite a few are the result of RJFS’s curricula intermingling. Each kind of career in film has its own trajectory, and different concepts along the way—and whenever those trajectories intersect, there’s usually an opportunity for a new video.
Every time RJFS has a new concept to do a video around, they evaluate how best to demonstrate it. After Haroutunian does a basic round of research, the team reaches out to friends and professional contacts, and they brainstorm. Sometimes they end up writing, producing, and shooting an entire original short just to base a tutorial on that short’s production. Some shoots can take a few days to film; others can be shot in a few hours inside the office. Editing can range from a couple days to a couple weeks. Then there’s a color pass, a sound pass, and the generation of any related materials. Keep in mind RJFS is doing all this for two videos every week.
The effort is definitely making an impact, though. Not only is it showing people how to pursue their passion, it’s bringing them together.
"My proudest moment since we started RJFS is when our viewers began to connect, support, and collaborate with each other," Haroutunian says.
Pretty soon, they’ll be connecting even more. RJFS’s latest effort has been getting into the live-streaming space through Twitch. During a two-hour stream every Thursday at 3 p.m. PST, fans can reach out and talk to the team directly, watch them put on workshops and equipment demonstrations, and see whatever else is going on. It sure beats waiting for a film professor's office hours.
At this point, it's starting to seem like it'd be harder to find some aspect about making a movie that RocketJump Film School hasn't covered than it would be to make a movie. If you're coming up with an excuse for why you haven't committed your idea to video yet, you're going to have to get creative.