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Church Tech Weekly Episode 181: Eh, It's Live to Me

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This week we talk about visual silence, multi screen environments, visual worship and a host of other topics related to immersive worship environments. Plus, some great new products in the news!

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Christmas Eve 2013

Several people have asked if I was going to write up our set and program from Christmas Eve. Since that’s pretty much what I do, here you go! This Christmas Eve was a lot like the past two, at least from a programming perspective. The look has been similar but different each time. In 2011, we stopped doing our big Christmas production and instead did Simply Christmas; four services on Christmas Eve. I joked at the time that I was glad we didn’t do Complicated Christmas, because from a production standpoint, it was anything but simple. But we made it work.

The Ghosts of Christmas Past

The look for that year was designed to be warm and inviting, simple and down to earth. My design principle was to put together something some kids would build if they were in a barn in the country putting on a Christmas service. We used a lot of OSB, hanging antique lights and an old piece of muslin for a screen. 

Last year, we kept the hanging lights, but cleaned up the look a bit. Instead of OSB, we build luan panels and the block wall. It was still warm and inviting but a little more sophisticated. 

Similar, but Different

This year, we changed it up some more. Instead of the giant, artificial Christmas tree we’ve used in the past, we build a 16’ tall one out of pallets (and a few smaller ones). Instead of hanging the bulbs, we made the CMA lights. And we repurposed some old PAR cans from a student room and created our version of the Dewey. 

In past years, we’ve never been able to do much with lights, because, well, we just didn’t have that much to work with. This year, as part of our end of life equipment replacement fund, we picked up a dozen Elation Impression 90s, and another eighteen FlatPars. This gave us an incredible amount of color to work with. The past two years have been a lot more about the sets, this year, it was a lot more about the lighting. 

Our older Studio Colors are now in the house and give us options there, while we kept the Martin 518 RoboScans as a cool beam light upstage. 

Rentals that Almost Didn’t Happen

Due to a rare accounting glitch, we found ourselves with no budget for Christmas this year. I had planned on renting six VL2500s and three snow machines from our usual supplier, but when the price came back, we couldn’t do it. Even after they lowered it, it was still out of reach. Then I talked with a new CTA sponsor and local rental house, Pacific Coast Entertainment. They put together a package of six Elation Platinum Spot 5r Pros and three Antari snow machines at a price low enough for me to move some money around in my operating budget. So we were able to make it snow again for Christmas. 

The Platinum Spots, while not nearly as bright as the VLs, were certainly good enough, and the Antari snow machines were actually much better than the ones we’ve been renting. You can see the Platinum Spots on the upstage poles, surrounded by Color Blasts.

A New, Brighter Look

With all the new lighting we have to work with, the service was much brighter than in years past. We’ve completely re-hung our front light this year, and that’s driven a lot of the new look. Of course, having two dozen moving heads on stage gave us a lot to work with as well. I have to give a lot of credit to my LD, Thomas Pendergrass. He did an amazing job not only with the lighting design, but programming as well. And of course, the rest of the team pitched in and helped make the set possible. 

Overall, I was very happy with the way the service looked this year. About the only thing I didn’t like is how cluttered the stage looked. We added three musicians this year, which meant more cables, more M-48s and more mic stands—not to mention keyboards, music stands and all the cabling. It just looked cluttered to me; not sure how we’ll address that in future years, but it’s something I want to look at. 

So that’s a little bit about the set. Later this week, I’ll talk about mixing it, and talk about a calculated risk I took that didn’t really pay off. In the meantime, if you want to see the service, here it is on Vimeo.

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A Pallet-Shaped Christmas Tree

Or is it a Christmas Tree-shaped pallet?

This is a back view of my drawing in Sketchup. I decided to eliminate the fourth course of spacers.

This is a back view of my drawing in Sketchup. I decided to eliminate the fourth course of spacers.

Continuing our theme of the Christmas set, today we’ll talk Christmas trees. In past years, we’ve set up a giant, 20’ artificial tree on stage. It looks good enough, and is pre-lit, so it’s not really that hard to set up (after we finally got all 9 sections labeled properly…). But this year, we wanted something different. I had been looking through ChruchStageDesignIdeas.com and saw this set from Grace Church in Camus, WA. I liked the look of it, and it fit in with our “vintage” look that we’ve been going for. But we had a few challenges.

Where do you find pallets?

Pallets proved to be harder than we thought to acquire. My ATD Jon spent a few days calling around and we eventually spent a morning with a trailer behind his truck picking up pallets in various states of disrepair. I have to admit to being really nervous about how much would we could harvest from the pallets, thinking we wouldn’t have enough. Our big tree is 16’ tall and required over 30 courses of wood to complete. That seemed like a lot of wood, so we collected over 20 pallets (and I didn’t think it would be enough). 

As it turned out, we were fine. I think we broke down about a dozen pallets and had more than enough wood to build the 16’ tree and three 8’ ones. Now we have to get rid of the extra pallets…

A good structure is needed.

I’m not really a set carpenter; I’m a residential/commercial carpenter. For that reason, it’s possible I tend to overbuild things. My dad and I used to joke that if we ever started a residential building company, we’d call it Sessler & Sons General Contracting and our motto would be, “If it ain’t overbuilt, we didn’t build it.”

My big fear with a 16’ tall tree made of pallet slats was racking. I knew we would be using two slats per course on the bottom half, and that would mean we would need at least three points of connection per course. I designed a basic box frame with a 16’ tall center pole, two 10’ tall outer poles, all tied together with 18” spacers. I planned four courses of spacers, but one of my volunteers talked me out of one of them (it probably was overkill…).

I used 2x8 for the frame for two reasons. First, I knew it would be more than strong enough to stand up straight without racking. Second, we had a bunch of 2x8x16’s laying around from another project. I had some of our teen volunteers paint them black a few weeks ago, so we would be ready come build day. 

Breaking down pallets is surprisingly hard.

Those things are built to last, and they don’t come apart easily. We used a Sawzall with a metal cutting blade to cut the nails off behind the slats. Once we had a good collection of slats, I sorted them by length and width. I started by laying out the outline of the tree on the floor with tie line. A basic triangle with an 8’ wide base, a 1’ wide top and 16’ tall. Once I had a general spacing layout to work with, we built the frame. 

We cut some 2” spacers from scrap to keep our course spacing consistent. It took a while but eventually we got into a good rhythm of selecting boards, laying them up, marking the length, getting them cut and screwing them in place. Once we moved to the actual frame, we screwed down the bottom and top courses and stretched some tie line very tightly between them to define the side shape. 

Once all the courses were in, we stood it up and used another 2x8x16 as a diagonal brace. We thought we would need to sandbag it, but there’s enough weight back there that it doesn’t need it. 

Smaller copies complete the layout.

We also made three 8’ versions. These were much faster to put together; the big one took us about 3 hours, while the small ones took about 30 minutes each. The small ones are made from a single 8’ 2x8 with a 40” piece of 2x4 screwed to the back of the 2x8. The 2x8 is wide enough that a few sandbags on the 2x4 give us plenty of tip resistance, so we didn’t diagonally brace them. 

Lighting really makes them sing.

While the trees look good on their own, we are going to use ETC Parnells to light them up from the ground. The warm light of the Parnells makes them glow wonderfully, and accentuates the rustic nature of the wood. 

So there you go. That’s our version of the pallet tree!

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The "CMA Light"

Last time, I talked about some of the places I use to come up with ideas for stage designs. Today, I’ll share with you one of my adaptations. We called these “CMA Lights” because I saw something like them on the CMA Awards show a few months ago. This video shows Little Big Town doing one of their songs out the audience surrounded by these cool, vintage-y looking lights on poles. I liked the look instantly, and as we’ve been doing vintage lights for Christmas Eve the last few years, figured I’d adapt the design.

First, The Easy Parts

The bulbs are easy. My go-to spot for vintage bulbs is 1000 Bulbs.com. Not only do they have many different styles, they have lots of other useful parts. For this design, I needed a keyless socket to mount the bulbs in. I wanted keyless because I don’t need a switch to turn the bulb on and off. I found this at 1000 Bulbs, and because it’s nickel in color, it works perfectly with my plan. Once I had the top figured out, I needed to develop a plan for the pole mount.

Plastic Pipe is Cheap & Easy

I don’t know what they used at the CMA’s to build these, but it occurred to me almost immediately that 3/4” Schedule 40 plastic pipe would be perfect. I mounted a coupler on top to give me a little larger diameter hole to glue the socket to. Clear silicone is more than enough to hold the socket in place. 

So now, the bulb is in the socket, the socket is on the pipe, but how do we keep the pipe pointing upright? There are probably a dozen ways to do it, but this is what I came up with. 

Wooden Bases Fit The Bill

My plan was to use 12” square plywood or OSB bases. Those are easy to make, and cheap, and as we’re only making these about 3’ tall, will have plenty of tip resistance. The tricky bit was figuring out how to mount the pipe to the wooden base. 

I had already devised a plan to use a two-part base system for another project. Basically, we drill a 1 1/2” hole in the center of the base, then cover that up with a 4” square piece of plywood, glued and screwed down. This provides a clearance for the rod and nut and keeps the bottom of the base flush. But how to bolt the PVC pipe down?

I wandered Lowes for a good 30 minutes before I stumbled upon this solution. A 3/4” threaded adapter has a perfect little shelf inside of it for a 1” diameter washer. When bolted to the base with a 3/8” in bolt, voila! It’s all good to go. Because these are light-duty light poles, I don’t need a ton of lateral strength. All I need is for them to stay upright, which they do quite well. The bases are small enough that we can put them almost anywhere, and we’ll be spreading ours out across the stage. A small hole near the base of the pipe gives us access for the electrical cord, which is just 18 gauge lamp cord.

If I were doing something like they did at the CMA’s, I would probably use a bunch of PVC T’s and a PVC base. That would enable higher densities and nice long rows of lights.

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