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Worship Design Studio

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“The Art of Creating a World”

01Jul
  • “The Art of Creating a World”

In this excerpt from my new book, Think Like a Filmmaker, we’re going to look at ways to expand our understanding of the media arts as more than just “a big, electronic bulletin.” You’re invited to use the reflection questions at the end as you consider ways to create immersive experiences for your congregation.

This is an excerpt from Dr. Marcia McFee’s new book [Think Like a Filmmaker © Marcia McFee, 2016]. Find out more HERE.

3D cover no shadowMy own love of creating sensory-rich environments in worship—from the basic to the very complex—is deeply influenced by my time with the internationally-renowned Nikolais Dance Company. Simply using media projection for words alone never crossed my mind. To my thinking, if all we are doing is to project static images and words on a screen, we are just creating a really big bulletin. Yes, it may be informational, but is it artistic and therefore, inspirational? Further, when those who choose images for projection simply pick stock images unrelated to the palette being utilized by the rest of the ritual artists, we can end up with competing art forms that distract, rather than enhance, the main thing… the message.

When Alwin “Nik” Nikolais, the director of my former dance company, created a piece, he paid close attention to how all themedia worked together as one palette. Granted, as an avant-garde artist in the late 20th century, he was not big on telling stories or conveying emotion, but he was adamant about creating a “world” into which the audience would be immersed. I translate that lesson into the question I always ask myself at the beginning of the design process for a worship series: “Based on the main message, what is the world into which we will enter into this spiritual journey?” This question leads me to the discerning process about what the sanctuary will look, sound, and feel like—which is a collaborative conversation with the whole team, especially the visual artists who will work with the tangible visual elements of the space and music artists who are creating a “sonic landscape” that sets an overall “tone” for the series.

The job of media artists is to pay attention to the “palette” of image and color, movement and rhythm, sound quality and sound effect that will best support and convey the message. “Overall, the ‘look’ of a picture can create emotional expectations… the look creates an emotional space that allows for a certain range of emotional response” (Jon Boorstin, Making Movies Work, p. 91). The range of emotional response in Lent will not want to hit the kind of emotional “highs” that we will feel in the Easter season. As the story moves from introspection and wilderness wandering to resurrected hope and joy, like a cinematographer who chooses the lens through which we experience the story, media artists will choose color for series slide templates and lighting choices that create a sense of transformation in the “emotional space” of the congregation.

Environmental projection for "Gifts of the Dark Wood" Lenten worship series.

Environmental projection for “Gifts of the Dark Wood” Lenten worship series.

For a long time, most of our attention has focused on the front of the worship space as the “canvas.” However, like our previous discussion about the visual arts, more immersive communication strategies have invited us to consider the whole of the worship space in our considerations. Tangible visual elements may be repeated along side walls or flown overhead. The entry to the worship space may introduce us to symbols we want people to engage with up-close. Media artists will want to work with the visual artists to highlight these with special lighting to create shadows and contrast or to take photos of the tangible visuals to use on screens or environmental projection.

Besides creating a “world” for the series itself, each moment of the worship experience will be filled with considerations for media artists. Would this segment of prayer-time be aided by dimming the lights as we move to a more intra-personal and meditative experience? With what timing should the slides progress for this song depending on its tempo and feel? Where is the focus of the congregation at this moment and do we need to keep the image on the screen static so we don’t draw attention? Is this an opportunity for the moving imagery on the screen to be the focal point, taking us deeper into the message visually?

These are all questions that require an artist’s craft, intuition, and intention. For too long, audio/visual personnel and volunteers have not been understood as an integral part of the worship team. Projections and word slides and sound board volunteers did their work without the benefit of more participation in the process of design and rehearsal. Their jobs have been considered “technical” and treated differently than the artistry of the choir, band, or preacher. This is changing along with the advances in the aesthetics of the media art form. When “multi-media” began to hit churches in the contemporary worship movement of the late 20th century, graphic art aesthetic was enamored with cartoon-like clip art, and projections served more like enlarged bulletins. Images were static and sparse, especially with overhead projectors being the first step for many of us. And then when video players hit the scene, projecting movie clips for sermon illustrations was all the rage, even if we had to roll in a TV into the sanctuary to do it and cue it up to the right place. Then computers and LCD projectors became more accessible and affordable and we transferred clip art and movie clips to this technology. But we’ve come a long way and so much more is possible now. The aesthetics of graphic art has become much more sophisticated with the ease of transferring photography to presentation software in mere minutes or less. And moving images, synthesized or filmed, have become truly artful and used as backdrops for lyrics, as moving “texture” on screens or directly on walls. Likewise, ritual artists that create video pieces based on scripture and liturgy are transforming the way media functions—becoming not just solely “background” or support for other art forms, but as proclamation of the Word.

The Media Arts corner in the Worship Design Studio.

The Media Arts corner in the Worship Design Studio, complete with vintage “Nik” projection slides.

New terminology for media artists have emerged as media-theologians have begun to influence worship forms. “Visual worship leader,” “curator” of visual experiences and “worship VJ” (visual jockey) are some prominent descriptors of the shift from “techies” to artists. Stephen Proctor, a pioneer in this movement, says,

A visual worship leader takes on a new responsibility: recognizing the powerful impact visual imagery can have on a worshiping congregation, stewarding that awareness well, and being intentional about every visual aspect of your worship gathering. (Stephen Proctor, Guidebook for Visual Worship, download HERE)

Stephen’s message is that just as a musical leader guides the musical experience of the congregation toward the message, so too does the “visual jockey” create an atmosphere and tell a story, especially as worship becomes more sensory-rich, multi-layered, and non-linear (for instance, those times when we invite a congregation to prayer stations and extended times of engaging in ritual action). “More and more, those who are designing, planning, and leading worship are identifying with the title ‘worship curator’ and seeing themselves as ‘makers of context’ rather than simply ‘presenters of content’” (Ibid.) The media arts can help “place” us in the context of the story through a still or moving image. In larger, more contemporary-genre churches, a worship VJ’s responsibilities may be more extensive than that of a smaller church that is just beginning to use projected images. But the identity of those who choose and execute the visual experience is the same no matter how simple or complex—“displaying imagery with a discerning spirit” (Ibid.).

Questions to Ponder:

How do we utilize the media arts in worship currently? How involved is our media arts team in the design process?

What are some new ways in which we could empower our media artists to take on a more integral part on the design team?

Stay tuned for next week’s post, in which we’ll be discussing the last of the five major arts areas: the dramatic arts. If you’d like to learn more about Think Like a Filmmaker, visit the book’s website HERE!

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