“The first thing that got kicked off the budget was the flying rig,” says filmmaker Webster Crowell. A contraption that facilitates the illusion that actors are flying would have come in handy on Rocketmen, his retro sci-fi adventure story, but this is a low-budget, seven-episode Web series. So the flying rig went out the window—as did the street pigeon Crowell attempted to enlist in a scene. Turns out it was faster for him to build a fake bird and film it in exacting stop-motion (his specialty) than to get a real pigeon to follow cues.
Written and directed by Crowell, the Rocketmen story concerns the Department of Municipal Rocketry, a vestigial component of the Works Progress Administration jobs program, which outfitted a cadre of men in uniforms, goggles and rocket packs, and instructed them to stand alert on rooftops until peril strikes. In the 1940s, when the Rocketmen were first called into service, peril was presumed to involve communist infiltration or giant robots on the attack. But those enemies never arrived, and the forgotten Rocketmen have been waiting ever since—rocket packs rusting—to save the city. At last, an entirely unexpected emergency arises, and the Rocketmen’s mettle is tested.
“People think it’s easier to do a Web series than a movie,” says Rocketmen producer and longtime local actress Alycia Delmore, noting the current popularity of this bite-size online storytelling genre. “They think they won’t need as much money.” Crowell laughs and adds knowingly, “You can talk yourself into it easier.” But, of course, time and money have a way of adding up. The Rocketmen production team has been working (amid other gigs) on the series since 2012, and in the process has managed to scrape together funding via private donations, city grants, a Kickstarter campaign and a Washington Filmworks Innovation Lab grant (“for filmmakers pushing the boundaries of storytelling”). The Filmworks connection also helped ensure that the actors and crew would be paid—perhaps not handsomely, but still, a bit miraculously for this type of homegrown project.
“This is the first time I’ve been able to pay people at this scale,” Crowell says. “It feels really good.” Delmore adds that when you’re building a world (Rocketmen is contemporary but with quite a few curveballs), “having a skilled crew to do makeup and costumes is instrumental.” Filmed at cafés and on rooftops around Pioneer Square and the International District, the production value is noticeably high, which increases the believability of the loopier elements, including the animated interludes. The dreamlike sequences are readily attributable to the prolonged exposure to condensed hydrogen fumes, Crowell explains, which power the rockets but are alleged to cause hallucinations. “I originally tried to make the film as realistic as possible,” he says. “I’ve always called it a documentary about a real government agency. It begins in reality and then that reality gets bent the further you get into the world.”
Crowell, who won The Stranger Genius Award for film in 2003, has a longstanding love of retro sci-fi (preferably with clunky special effects) and 1930s–’40s serial adventure movies. The seed of Rocketmen was planted in his 2004 film, Borrowing Time, a part live-action, part stop-motion feature about aliens, atomic weapons and a mechanical ant invasion, in which a Rocketman appears as a minor character. But Crowell and his crew noticed something immediately: “How powerful you feel when you put on a uniform and a rocket.” It became a joke, he says, “that if you put a bunch of people in these uniforms with jetpacks they would seem believable.”
Crowell and his friends decided to try it, staging a series of happenings, “kind of a flash mob,” he says, when Rocketmen would show up at events and ask people if they were in peril (with “standard peril response forms” in hand). “People almost never questioned that we existed,” he says. “Reasonable people would back up and make way for us to get on with work.” After a few appearances, characters began to emerge (the guy who wants to be a hero, the guy complaining about head injuries), but mostly, they talked about not having anything to do. “It never had a narrative,” Crowell says. “It was always about something not happening. But you can only ‘Seinfeld it’ so far. At the time, I thought, ‘This is the most aimless fiasco I’ve ever been involved in.’” Then he lost his job.
It was 2007, when the economy tanked. Crowell had to consolidate, and moved the contents of his apartment into his tiny animation studio. “I was sleeping with all those rockets right next to me,” he says, “and it hit me that everyone was having a conversation about work that started during the Great Depression.”
While Rocketmen features animation, scrappy special effects and an endearing sense of humor, the underlying story is a serious one, about government-created jobs and meaningful work. “What is peril in the real world?” Crowell posits. “We aren’t scared of communists anymore, we’re scared of not having work next week.” He sees this as a blue-collar story about the working class—with people who happen to be wearing rocket packs. “It’s about what happens when a rocket is useless in the real world,” he says.
In December, the team was putting final touches on the series—and debating the best online venue on which to release it. “Everyone has spent so much time on this,” says Delmore. “It’s our responsibility to get it out there as widely as possible.” But first, they must address the special-effects matter of pairing moving backgrounds with the green screen shots, and adding smoke and flames spewing from the rockets. In other words, Crowell says, “We need to get people flying.”