The first time I encountered Freddie Wong’s work a blogger who linked to one of his YouTube videos. This was probably almost 10 years ago, and he was making some rather impressive short action sequences and posting them online. What impressed me the most about his work was not the quality, which was exceptional considering this was YouTube at a time before YouTube regularly featured professional content. No, what impressed me most was he would often include a second, behind-the-scenes video that talked up technical details and the process involved in the making of the primary sequences.
One of them still stands out in my mind. It was a shootout sequence, typical of his work at the time, involving a bunch of running and gunning between two heavily-armed opposing teams. In the technical video, he spoke about how a director can use camera angles and cutting to keep the audience on top of the who is who and who is where, particularly as the action jumps between one side and the other or as the actors move between physical locations. He explains that there is many a top-budget film that fail to do this adequately; where fight scenes devolve into a bunch of running around such that it is impossible to discern any kind of tactics. Perhaps the creators do not care. If they figure that the audience is going to pay money to see their favorite big-name actor (reprising the role of their favorite character) bash up hordes of baddies, any “realism” in the surrounding battle scene is largely irrelevant. By contrast, Freddie’s video was easy to follow the action. It was also easy to see how, if he were making something more serious than a 1-minute shootout, he could convey a much more complex interaction than most films offer.
From that point on, I reviewed the archives of his past work and eagerly viewed his new creations as they came out; at least for a while. At some point, I just ran out of the time to periodically watch for and then watch what he was doing. Eventually I kind of forgot that I ever did such a thing on a regular basis.
Before that happened, though, he had put together a production of a web series called Video Game High School. This folded his action shots into a coherent, more or less, story with a narrative that spans multiple episodes and, eventually, multiple seasons. The format was a spoof of the standard teen drama, with the fact that it took place at a “video game” school being the hook for his special effects. I do remember watching it and I remember planning on watching more. However, at some point I just stopped watching. Was it because I had to wait for new episodes to be released and I lost track? Did I just not find it convenient to set aside time to watch on the computer? Who knows.
Enter Netflix. Season 1 came out as web-episodes in the summer of 2012. The original episodes fit the YouTube format of 10-20 minute lengths (each one being a little different). In 2013, Season 2 was filmed and released. When the second season was in production, Netflix negotiated a deal to be the exclusive distributor of Video Game High School outside of Freddie’s own YouTube channel, paying something estimated to be in the tens of millions for the privilege. Netflix made the episodes available on their stream services once the season was completely released on YouTube. The 9 episodes from YouTube were re-released as 5 standard, TV-length episodes for Netflix. Around the same time, the Season 1 was repackaged as a single “movie” and made available on DVD (although, on Netflix, it was repackaged as 30-minute episodes).
But what Netflix giveth, Netflix taketh away.
By 2019, all three season were available on Netflix. As of last month, all three were removed. Presumably because of that exclusivity arrangement, the second and third seasons of the show are not available in other formats. The caveat is that they were never removed from the RocketJump Youtube channel (renamed from freddiew), where all the episodes remain for your viewing pleasure.
Video Game High School is well worth watching and I think the longer episodes make it more digestible. If viewing it with the eye of a critic, though, on what basis does one judge? Comparing it only to other YouTube content, it is pretty outstanding. However, this is no home-made amateur production filmed in somebody’s back yard. These are professionals holding credentials that would be at home in Hollywood’s studios. They just chose not to go that route.
Season 3 didn’t have the same atmosphere as the first two seasons. In fact, it started to feel more like an “audition reel,” using a wider variety of techniques perhaps just for the sake of doing so. That said, the series finale seems to return to form. Throughout, my judgement is suspended about many things I might be bothered with if encountered in a “real” show. Inconsistency is the rule. The actors playing the high school students are in their 20s and the “high school” itself is structured much more like a college, with dorms, R.A.s, and a notable absence of teachers, staff, and adults. Sometimes the story line treats the students as adults; in several cases when the sophomores (?) are facing ejection from the school, they consider taking on full-time employment. Yet in other episodes, the special struggles of being 16-years-old are the story line. The humor is often based on references to classic video games, something that might be considered “cheap laugh” territory if done within a top-tier production.
Even with its faults, the show holds its own even relative to the competition from “broadcast” TV. There have been a lot of bad shows put out there over the years, especially in the teen comedy genre. Network TV may not be the highest bar, but it is what it is. This isn’t shoestring-budget stuff, even though it is independently-produced. I read an estimate of $1.2 million for Season 2 production cost. Achieving professional-looking results may still requires a real budget but this demonstrates that you don’t have to be LucasFilms to produce high-quality CGI. You don’t have to be a major studio to secure reasonable acting talent.
This is the reason I have been so enthusiastic about Wong’s work over the years. Like, I assume, Freddie himself, I’ve grown frustrated with the Hollywood formulas that produce largely junk and then overprice it for the consumer market. Technology offers a democratization of the entertainment market. Artists can produce and distribute their art without studios and their billions backing the effort. Decent work can be done for reasonable cost and, as Freddie demonstrates, independents even are capable of raising significant levels of funding through the likes of Kickstarter.
By this point, I expected to see a feature film* coming out of Freddie. Instead, I see that his YouTube channel is about five months since the last update. The world has changed quite a bit in the last 5 years. Netflix has created an alternative to the traditional studios that straddles the movie and TV worlds, confounding the entertainment world’s traditional structures. YouTube is full of independently-produced, top quality music. Freddie’s channel broke ground but can he sustain what he’s doing financially when others are following where he lead? I don’t know whether the hiatus means he is working something else or struggling to keep his model viable.
While we wait, some vintage Freddie Wong
*I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it on this blog before, but I actually think the series is eclipsing the 2-hour movie as the best vehicle for telling many stories. Something like Game of Thrones illustrates how the ideal canvas for telling a complex story may be found in between the traditional mini-series and a full-blown, 24-episodes-a-season major network series. The bias toward feature films probably had as much to do with the studios’ financing system as anything related to the artistry. As producers of TV series (and even YouTube series) gain access to top-tier special effects, editing, and other technologies, they should be able to not only compete with the blockbuster films, but beat them at their own game.