Share

Rocket Man

By Jordan Kushins

The Rocket Movies is a love letter to a very specific form of flight: The up-and-down trajectory of hobby rockets. And not just any rocket—decades before drones were everywhere, enthusiastic amateurs launched cameras into the sky.

In just nine minutes, the short film merges the innocence of a boyhood pastime with the insight of the man­ (now four decades older­) still thrilled with vicarious flight. Hazy memories sync up with grainy photos and vintage Super 8 footage, united by voiceover and score. 

Click to watch The Rocket Movies.

The Rocket Movies is a true passion project­—Carl Weingarten­ compiled, recorded, and edited it—as well as a feat of creative logistics. To complete the film, Weingarten had to digitize and consolidate a trove of analog material from a variety of original formats into a cohesive narrative.

THE EYE IN THE SKY

Weingarten received his first camera when he was a nerdish seven-year-old in St. Louis. “I was immediately fascinated,” he says. “I’d scratch together a few dollars to shoot a roll of film and get it developed on tiny prints. I have envelopes full of pictures of me and my neighborhood friends making ‘trouble’: wrestling, throwing footballs, jumping over fences, or posing like a cool gang.” This desire to document his day-to-day put Weingarten ahead of his time; in the early 1970s, it wasn’t exactly common to record the banal on a consistent basis. 

Weingarten discovered model rockets a few years later, and they allowed him to live out one of his greatest fantasies: To fly. Transcending gravity as a human isn’t easy, but for a projectile—­which he hand-built from a mail-order kit­—it only takes a fuse or electrical wires connected to a small solid-fuel engine, and the sky suddenly becomes a feasible frontier. Empty parking lots and playgrounds around Weingarten’s home became mini-NASA facilities; and when hobby rocket producer Estes introduced the Cineroc, Weingarten’s burgeoning obsessions came together in a glorious way. 

The Cineroc was a small Super 8 movie camera encased in plastic, situated on the nose of a rocket, lens pointed towards the fins. It could record up to 40 seconds of footage per flight. All of a sudden, Weingarten could witness what his rockets experienced as they achieved liftoff, soared towards space, then parachuted back to safety. He calls it the “cosmic zoom”: “You’re six inches off the ground, and within moments you’re thousands of feet in the air, staring straight down.”

Weingarten treated each journey like a serious aeronautic expedition, collecting clips of the missions and developing the film in a makeshift darkroom set up in a basement closet. As he grew into his more experimental teens, he stuck with photography but abandoned regular rocketry practice. Life went on.

A few years ago, Weingarten wrote a nostalgic essay about his rocketeering past, but it didn’t feel finished without a visual accompaniment. He used the essay as a script for a short film, and then recorded the voiceover in his own studio. (In addition to being a web designer by day, he’s also a composer, producer, guitarist, and founder of indie label Multiphase Records.)

After sorting out a loose edit, he had a sense of pacing and general timeline. Now he needed to reacquaint himself with all that old media. It was… a lot to contend with. “I’m a cross between a packrat and an archivist,” Weingarten says. “I had an abundance of material; I had completely forgotten about some stuff.”

Most of the Super 8 footage needed to be digitized. Rather than rely on specialty labs for the conversions, Weingarten­—forever the tinkerer­— did it himself using two machines. The Tobin TVT-8 telecine is a projector with a digital camera installed inside. “You run your film through it,” Weingarten explains, “and the camera captures the surface of the film­—not a projection­—and that’s output to a digital recorder. It’s similar to the result you get from scanning a photograph.” The other machine is a RetroScan Universal HD/2K Movie Scanner, which uses a strobe. “As the film rolls through,” he says, “a camera snaps a picture of every single frame, then compiles those frames together. The quality is a little better than the Tobin, but it doesn’t do sound.” 

To enhance continuity when cutting between moving and still images, Weingarten zoomed in and panned across still photos. The whole thing started to come into focus, with an organic flow between words and pictures. The film score, all by Weingarten, was the glue that held it all together. “Because it was a personal story, I wanted the mood to be very intimate,” he says. 

The Rocket Movies begins and ends with recent drone footage shot, of course, by Weingarten. It’s no surprise that he’s enamored of drones­, the spiritual successors to his model rockets and their uncanny ability to soar. “I still have that obsession with flight; that love has stayed with me through my entire life,” he says. “I can’t explain my behavior; it’s just part of my makeup.” Weingarten is, and forever will be, a guy pursuing the transcendence of a cosmic zoom; thanks to The Rocket Movies, we’re all along for the ride.