case study: CLANkidz 2011

Back blogging after around a year break with a case study about how we did the visuals at CLANkidz this year.  The break was partly because of getting married and having little time do any VJing and certainly very little innovation.  However CLANkidz is a regular commitment and some changes we made this year worked so well that it is worth recording.

The Event:

  • CLANkidz is part of CLAN Gathering, New Wine Scotland’s one week conference in St Andrews.
  • it is for all P1 to P7 children (around 5 to 12 year old I think)
  • we have two sessions each day 9.30am – 1pm  and 6.30pm – 8.15pm
  • this year we had around 330 to 340 children for each session

The Venue:  over the past six years we have had CLANkidz in marques, and college assembly halls.  Each time our space requirement is for a main venue for when all the age groups are together and break out areas for each age group.  The solution this year worked very well by using a ‘big top’ with age group divisions inside the main space.

Technical Setup (non-visuals):  I am only interested here in visuals, so I don’t have much details of lighting or sound.  All PA and front of house video was supplied by SFL and Steve from SFL mixed the sound desk for us all week.  We gave him a single stereo feed from ‘video land’ which was more or less always live.  I’m not sure who the lighting suppliers were, but as lighting is visual we took control of that rather than leaving it on pre-sets.

One more little word about the team on site from SFL – the production values, attention to detail and flexibility was great and they really did give us a fantastic service and were good to work with.

How we wanted to use visuals:  at this event there are several ways we use visuals and I’m not sure any one is more important than any other…

  • build atmosphere: we want the children to enter into and enjoy a vibrant exciting venue, unlike any church they have ever been to.   Especially as they arrive we are playing current music videos, games, as the week goes on we build in some ‘in-jokes’ using photos or video from the week so far to build it into their space.
  • calm atmosphere: similarly we can play calming music and video if needed to calm the kids down or simply turn off the visual stimuli when we want them to focus on someone or something going on in the program.
  • show video clips: for teaching or point making, we use pre-prepared clips from online sources or movies if requested by the speaker.
  • show song words: another obvious need for video is to display the song words during worship, but we also try to mix visuals with the song words not just display words.
  • visual worship: by this I mean the spontaneous mixing of visuals to match the atmosphere of worship or teaching that is going on.
  • video stings and titles: several sections of the program that we had prepared title videos to introduce presenters, make a point or simply to give shape to the program, thus making a difference between what just happened in front of the children and what was on the screens.
  • background: if nothing else was demanded we put animated logos, computer generated graphics or time lapse videos on the screens as a simple backdrop and played background music as and when required.

How we made it happen:  The front of house set up was two 10′ x 8′ screens (I think) suspended from a truss at the back of the stage with a projector for each screen, and three pairs of 26″ flat screen monitors along the front of the stage.  The monitors are needed because the P1 and P2 kids are so small and can’t see the big screens so rely on these monitors to be able to see what is going on.  The left hand screen and the left of each pair of monitors get the same signal and the right had screen and right hand monitor get the other feed so that each pair is make up a single widescreen image.

This photo taken during the setup shows our test image spread across the two screens and front monitors.

All of the video is driven by one mac book pro running Arkaos GrandVJ software to mix the visuals, the signals are then amplified and distributed as required to the screens.  So at the desk end:

  1. Windows laptop running Easy Worship to generate song words and any powerpoint presentations required.
  2. Mac Book Pro running iTunes for background music, sound effects and stings
  3. Small sound desk to mix between iTunes and video sound then send a single output to the PA desk
  4. printed running orders, essential, essential, essential
  5. Epiphan VGA2USB frame grabber, to take the Easy Worship signal into GrandVJ
  6. Maxtor Dual Head2Go, to split the output signal into left and right screen
  7. Mac Book Pro, running Arkaos GrandVJ
  8. Behringer BCF2000 Control Surface to control the 8 layers of video in GrandVJ
  9. Epiphan VGA2USB frame grabber, to take live camera signal into Grand VJ
  10. Coffee and Gaffa Tape, essential

So the signal path for this is fairly self explanatory in that the mac running GrandVJ generates the signal appearing on the screens and everything else either controls GrandVJ or creates an input to it.  GrandVJ itself can play either of the inputs (live camera or Easy Worship) or any video on its own hard drive as well as various text and visual generators within the software.  In addition to the many bespoke videos created for this event we have a library of several hundred videos that can be used as backgrounds or to make specific points.  The ‘artistic’ bit is knowing what we have available and when to play it during worship, meditation, silly games or warmup sessions when nothing specific is called for in the running order.

Just for fun let’s try to price this equipment up:

  1. Windows laptop running Easy Worship :  assuming this can be borrowed for free
  2. Mac Book Pro running iTunes : again assuming this can be borrowed for free
  3. Small sound desk : £100
  4. printed running orders : printer borrowed for free, total cost of printing around £20
  5. Epiphan VGA2USB frame grabber : £185
  6. Maxtor Dual Head2Go£156
  7. Mac Book Pro, running Arkaos GrandVJ : £244 for the software, the mac needs to be top spec in order to run this graphics hungry software and the one we use is a two year old top of the range costing £2000 at time of purchase.
  8. Behringer BCF2000 Control Surface : £140
  9. Epiphan VGA2USB frame grabber, : £185
  10. Coffee : priceless!!

The problem with counting up prices like this is that it is only the hardware that it is easy to put value on, there is no way of adding up the amount of video and audio material purchased, created or stumbled upon over the years, or the cost of depreciation of the machines running all this or man hours involved in putting it all together.

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case study: Michael Trotter gig

26 June 2010
Elim Church Glasgow
Michael Trotter, Scott Alexander & Band and Ranan

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This was a bit of a last minute call two days before the event, from someone I hadn’t worked with before with a musical style I didn’t know and in a venue I hadn’t mixed in before.  This made me think about what I would need to know before VJing for an event like this, so worth writing it up:

1) the venue, I’m putting this first because while it isn’t the most important thing about an event, visually speaking the layout of a venue could drastically limit what is possible.  In this case I knew the church and had only one reservation (they have flags lining the walls which I thought might get in the way but I’m very grateful that these were removed – thanks!)

2) style of event, it is Christian or Secular, is the target audience youth, all ages, retired folk, church-friendly people, seekers, non-churched… etc.  In one sense it doesn’t matter because I have done all of these sorts of events but you do approach them differently and it may affect how you set up.

3) style of music, it helps to know more than just whether you are VJing for a DJ-set or providing ambient visuals for some acoustic-ballads.  Ideally you would be familiar with the band(s), in this case Michael kindly sent me all the lyrics which was good because I could have a think about what visuals to use even though I had no idea of the pace of any music.

Physical Setup:  Elim has a single central screen behind the band and the wall behind the stage has dark paint. The wall also isn’t flat but has some structural elements.  With no access to rear project and not easy to project ‘through’ the musicians – I knew I wouldn’t be able to do a contiguous dual or triple head set up to give one wide image.  However, I decided to take two projectors and off set them wide on either side of the stage – skewing the image at a distorted angle.  I like this sort of ‘wall painting’ where the images don’t have to match.

At the other end, I was using ArKaos Grand VJ with a Matrox TripleHead2Go. I set up the layers as follows (this is a bit techy but I want to note it because the configuration worked well with this setup):

8 (top) only on center screen, with black keyed out, mainly for song words if required
7  center screen only
6  center screen only
5  left screen only
4  right screen only
3-1  across all three screens

Mixing: as mentioned, I had been sent the running orders of the three bands, but only the evening before this event, and other than the odd worship song I didn’t know what they would sound like.  I also made a mistake in copying these from email and mixed them up a bit which didn’t help (don’t rush things before you leave work for the day).  However, I read through them and made some notes, for example one song by Ranan was called ‘Walls’ and had that sort of obvious theme.  I didn’t have anything specific that would fit but did have a high quality still of a brick wall so made a quick scrolling video from that.  Once I heard the song I found it was a bit too fast but I was able to slow it in playback, it didn’t look too cheesy so I went for it and it did seem to have a good impact.

There was another song by Michael Trotter, which brought to mind a video I have in black and white of someone on a swing. It’s down beat, thoughtful, a bit sad and the lyrics were about praying for people so I thought is might work.  If the song had turned out to be fast it wouldn’t have worked but as it was I think it worked well and I put the same video looping on all three projectors (using channels 6, 5 &4) as shown due to the dark walls and distorted position of the side projectors it might not have been able to see what was happening if the same image wasn’t on the center screen.

Another moment when this worked really well was an idea I had on the night just before Michael Trotter went on.  It was to have the word ‘Praise’ animated to appear then fade and zoom toward the viewer, because I saw a song that had the word ‘Praise’ in it allot.  When it came to that song I was able to trigger that animation each time the word was used – it filled the middle screen then expanded off towards the viewer filling both side screens.

Those were a couple of moments that I think worked really well, although I did get a lot of feedback from people there which seemed to indicate that things were working.. in particular adding something to the event and not detracting from what was going on.

Overall:  Whenever I’m involved in visuals for a service and in particular worship VJing a great deal of what I do happens in the moment.  There is a balance to keep between being prepared – in this case reading through the lyrics – and reacting to the flow of what God is doing as it happens.  For this event I am happy that I got the balance right by having some ideas before hand and enough of a ‘pallet’ of videos to get me through the night.  Several things came to me spontaneously, which is when I know God’s in charge, and the feedback at the end of the evening was very positive (in fact there were so many people commenting how much the visuals added I felt very affirmed in this ministry).

Michael Trotter “King of my Heart”

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Summer time

Working mainly in Glasgow, Scotland we have a lot of daylight in the summer months – not necessarily sunshine but daylight.  We also work mainly in traditional church buildings which tend to have been designed to let in as much light as possible and aren’t easy to black out.

Our regular Deeper service is held in St Silas church, where we have never managed to solve the black out problem.  Our latest wide screen solution (which I now realize that I haven’t mentioned on this blog) is some large spandex fabric stretched to give an excellent smooth surface to project onto.  However it is also transparent enough to see the large stained glass window through which makes the projections difficult to see, thus defeating the purpose.

So when the clocks change we have to re-think how to do things.  This month was the first that would be taking place with daylight right up to around 8:30pm (around when the service ends) so we couldn’t use the spandex-screen for dual projector VJing.  So instead left the 8×10 fast-fold screen in place that the church normally uses and used the spandex to create a different visual impact.

The other reason for using the spandex like this is something that should always be at the core of all visual design of a service – don’t just do it because you can or because you have the tech to make something happen – it has to fit the theme!!

The them of these last three Deeper services of the season is Authority and using the verse “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the LORD, “He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.”  Psalm 91:1-2 to look at Biblical Authority and submission to authority in our daily lives.

So taking literally the words ‘shelter of the Most High’ and the theme of being under God’s cover, we set up the spandex sheet over the meeting and used two propped up projectors to put some phrases from the key verse on this sheet.

We still did some VJing onto the 8×10 screen but my point here is that visualists should look at the entire worship environment and don’t just get caught up with what to do on the main screen.

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What is Visual Worship?

I’ve finally put together some videos trying to demonstrate and explain what I do when mixing visuals.  I’ve previously defined what I mean by the term ‘Christian Visualist‘ which is wider than simply the video or other visuals behind or beside song words during sung worship but includes other elements of the physical space, the meeting is taking place in.  However, it does tend to be during the sung worship that there is a freedom to VJ or mix visuals ‘off the cuff’ or as inspired by the Holy Spirit…  that’s what I’m trying to show here:

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Overhead Camera

Here’s an unusual set up from our morning service yesterday.

What you are looking at is a style of service we are working on a lot at the moment called ‘together’ which is designed no just to be ‘all-age’ to include children, but to get people working and interacting together during a service.  Anyway, the concept is good and seems to be working but this little video trick seemed worth blogging.

Above is our ‘shower curtain’ wide-screen (which is performing remarkably well on this bright autumn morning) with two projectors rear projecting two different feeds.  The signal on the left is from our Easy Worship PC while the signal on the right is an overhead ‘bullet cam’ which is hanging in the middle of the photo.

What happened was Jenny, who can be seen leading this bit, gathered the children around the square drawn with masking tape on the floor.  Meanwhile everyone had been asked to text in the answer to “what do non-Christians believe will get them to heaven?”

Then as each answer sent in appeared on the left hand screen (not shown here by the way) a line of masking tape was added to the picture on the floor to indicate if that thing would get the person from left-to-right or from us-to-god (I’m sure you know where this is heading.  Then eventually a red cross was added using electrical tape (if we did this again I don’t think we would use red tape on a red carpet but I think this was because we ran out of masking tape).

As you can see the kids have stayed gathered at the front although one was more concerned that the red tape hadn’t actually made it all the way to heaven… they were then given cards with the full illustration on it and sent back to their groups and everyone was asked to pray and draw where they were or where they wanted to be in this illustration of being away from God or through the cross being with God.

We have used live cameras before in these services so that if close up children’s work is going on everyone else can see it.  But in this case we wanted to look directly down and needed a separate feed of txt responses and teaching points while the live camera was also on – so the dual projectors were set up.

Other lessons learned – we should have used the normal lens on the bullet camera but thought that the wide angle would show more floor space.  A narrower lens would have meant we could have pulled the camera higher so it was less obtrusive.  As always, these sorts of set-ups never go to plan and take at least twice the amount of time you thought they would.

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Mixing during a sermon

After a few months off over summer during which CLANkidz took up a lot of my time (planning, getting there and doing it, running into problems like trying to do visuals in a non-blacked out venue, and all the other bits of tech which isn’t visual that drags me away from the main passion), it was good to get back to the regular Deeper services at church that generates most of the creative drive. When I say it was good to get back it was actually such a trauma that it has taken me two weeks to write much about it.

But it is worth noting this new thing…  mixing visuals, off the cuff, during the sermon.

This was kind of sprung on me in that as we started the service (the set up had been a nightmare of software failures and resets) Jenny – one of the two-up speakers said something like “our powerpoint is only scripture quotes on black background, so if you want to mix behind it feel free..”  I then didn’t get much time to think about it during the first part of the service and suddenly it was the talk.

A good rule of thumb for mixing visuals is “when in doubt do nothing” so I didn’t go panic but left everything as simple white text on black background that was being fed to me form the words operator.  During the talk it became apparent what Jenny had meant because she was using these sorts of verses:

  • “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean”
  • “to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water”
  • “I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you are heart of flesh”

so visual queues came to mind of water, rain, rivers, hands being cleansed, waterfalls, stone, rock, brick, soft fabrics, clouds, trees…

But that was when I ran into the next problem – zero preparation.  While I knew in by video folders I had these sorts of images by the time the quote came on screen and I found it there was too much of a lag.  So I had to go check what was coming up with the words operator and get ready for towards the end of the sermon and those verses weren’t as clear cut to me as the earlier ones. So option one of knowing what was going to go on screen didn’t help, back to basics – praying and listening to the talk and as ever it started to fall into place.

Jenny and Gordon were speaking about some tough subjects related to God renovating our hearts, about surrendering all.  Two images came to mind straight away – one was of a person on a swing in an empty swing park, just sitting thinking; the other is a gradual fade between three pictures of a person’s hands bound by a rope and then being released.  The images were both black and white so I fired them up to fill up the screen.

These were working well and I was able to overlay a sparkling heart shape which worked with what was being said, but then I felt that as these had been up too long it was time to move on and for some reason I started using a loop of a potter molding clay into a jar.  I wasn’t sure why at the time and as Gordon closed the talk with a prayer, he glanced at the screen and worked that image into the prayer.

Later a friend came to tell me that during the last part of the talk she had her eyes closed and got the idea about how when throwing a pot (which she has some experience in) you have to have the clay centered on the wheel – she felt God might be telling her that the church needs to be centered.  Then she opened her eyes and there was an image of a potter making a jug … we take that as confirmation.

So my point.  Even often it is good to follow any thoughts or prompts that come to mind when VJing a service but for a sermon I think there needs to be some preparation.  Also, in our weakness and uncertainty God can still use what we are doing.

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SMS text responses during event

[OK, not really very much to do with visuals, but the use of technology in a Christian Children’s program]

One of the new things we tried out at CLANkidz this year was the use of live txting to get feedback and responses from children during the week.  This worked very well so here is what we did…

1 – get a proper system, don’t try doing this with a spare phone:

We approached Sanctus Media to provide this for us.  Which means that users can send texts to a 5 digit number with a keyword then their message.  These messages were collated on a web site for us so we log onto that, review the responses coming in and output these to either powerpoint or a text file.  Messages can be deleted or archived, additional keywords can be added, etc.  A very easy interface to access and use, by the end of the week we found ourselves using the text file output more than the powerpoint one, and then simply pasting it into a new song in our Easy Worship software.  This presented each text on its own screen at a nice large size making it easy for us at the back to skip around a little if there were lots of answers the same or to stop if it was going on too long – just a bit more flexable.

2 – build it into the program, not waiting for responses as they come in:

Ck09-txt03wWe started with an item in the program where you ask the audience a question, they instantly respond and the speaker waited for the responses to appear on the screen.  The system can can deal with this, you log into the web page (I used a Vodafone pay as you go modem to access because it was the only true pay-as-you-go I could find), look for the responses you are interested in and keep reloading the page, messages will be visible as they arrive.  When you think you have them all (or enough) export to powerpoint, open it and make it live on the screen(s).

So, while this CAN be done quickly there are a number of steps and it does take some time.  Also, while we are all very familiure with texting and expect messages to arrive instantly it doesn’t always work that way especially when everyone is in the same location so using the same mobile cell.  Lastly, especially relevant when used in children’s work, children will want to see their messages on screen and WILL complain if you don’t show it because it came in too late.

So, I think it would be much better to post the question, do something and come back to view the responses at least 5-10 minutes later.  This way everything is still live but there is more flexibility built in if anything slows the process down

3 – ask serious program related questions

OK, we had a week long program to play with so started the week asking things like “what’s the best thing to eat in St Andrews” (it came close between doughnuts and fish and chips), but the advantage of having more serious questions later in the week was that we could use those responces not only live, but also in the video and feedback to other organisers.  It also gave us a very good way of judging what level of understanding people had without having to go around with a roving mic to get responses – and even then there would be less people able to respond and only if they were confident with a mic being presented to them.

4 – non-program usage

Because we had this system available we came up with a couple of other uses for it.  The first was to ask parents for their comments and feedback to the team by adding an additional keyword.  The second was to help with debrief and feedback from team after the event by using another keyword that only team members text to.

5 – be careful about getting people to know the number

Ck09-txt01wWhen Gordon was first introducing the concept of texting the 5digit number at the start of the week he came up with a silly little tune for a jingle.  This got really annoying by only half way through the week but eventually became a joke – put a little more thought than we did into this.  It worked very well for remembering the number by setting it to a tune but have a good tune!


A very useful system to add to any program for adults or children.  It was a good way of communicating for some people and was much better than having say a roaming mic.  It meant more people could be included, added a bit of novelty and technology to the event and was very kid friendly.

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