Two men gaze out over the city, framed by a bright gray sky. Their matching maroon jackets and dark gray pants suggest civil service; their old-timey goggles, aviation. Who are they? What are they doing on this rooftop? They are Rocketmen, modern leftovers from a long-forgotten public jobs program, protectors of an oblivious American public—and stars of an eponymous new web series by Seattle animator and filmmaker Webster Crowell.
Like many great stories, this one started with a dare.
“I had this prop rocket left from a project, and someone dared me to wear it in public,” Crowell says. The public’s response to a grown man wearing a rocket piqued Crowell’s curiosity: He was taken seriously. That initial joke grew into performance art among friends.
“We had a dozen people in uniforms, we all had business cards and said we worked for the city, and people would get out of our way!” he says. “I had a hard time because I’m not much of a liar.” This “weird little mind game,” as Crowell describes it, went on for about a year and a half. The troupe assembled around the city intermittently, and made official appearances at the Henry Art Gallery and 826 Seattle.
Crowell, a longtime filmmaker and the first recipient of The Stranger’s Genius Award for Film in 2003, was looking for a story to tell—and he found it while listening to the radio. As an argument about employment opportunities unfolded on air, Crowell realized he was sitting on an idea that matched the mood of a recession-weary country: a fictional jobs program.
So Crowell started writing a “deranged serial adventure” about the blue-collar workers in the Department of Municipal Rocketry, a WPA program created to “combat the threats of tomorrow”—Russians, giant robots, etc. Those threats never materialized, and now the forgotten Rocketmen, whose wages haven’t increased since 1943, sit on rooftops, waiting for the phone to ring.
Script in hand, Crowell called the Seattle actors he’d envisioned as Rocketmen while writing: Basil Harris, Conner Marx, Christopher Dietz, Ray Tagavilla, Ian Fraser, Evan Mosher and Ben Laurance. Everyone said yes.
Rocketmen combines live action with stop-motion animation and gets increasingly bizarre throughout seven planned episodes. When an actual emergency arises, things go very badly for a newbie Rocketman, and his compatriots must stay ahead of the Federal Aviation Administration while fighting to clear their name. A sub-narrative ramps up the weirdness throughout the series. The more the Rocketmen fly, the more their propulsive hydrogen affects their brains, so the series becomes ever more surreal and animated
The first episode of Rocketmen is complete, and a successful Kickstarter campaign recently ensured production of the next three. With additional support from 4Culture and Washington Filmworks, these underappreciated public servants will be in flight and in business for the foreseeable future. Giant robots, beware.