Old Production Takes From an Old Guy

Category: creative director

The Collision of Technology and Creativity Pt. 2

Image courtesy of  Ged Carroll

Image courtesy of Ged Carroll

Last time we started unpacking the conflict that can bubble up when someone on your staff, usually in leadership, has a really cool idea that might be hard to pull off. You know, because the technology to do it doesn’t actually exist. I pointed out that most people really have no idea how we do what we do, nor do they know how movies are made (like we do). Thus, they simply have ideas. And as the technical genius in the room, we need to come up with a way to make it, or something like it, happen. Here’s what I’ve learned about that process.

Find Out What the Real Goal Is

If we accept the premise that simply saying, “No,” or, “Yes, but…” every time is not the best response, what then shall we do? I’ve found the best way to respond to a request like that is to hear them out. I learned to love to start thinking about the possibilities. Usually, they are very excited when telling us about it, so I try to respond with, “Yeah, that would be cool!” After hearing them out—and it’s important to hear them out…all the way—then we can start asking questions. 

Our tendency is to begin telling them all the reasons why that can’t happen. We don’t have enough time/people/budget/talent. The technology doesn’t actually exist. But remember, most people aren’t like us. They don’t want to know why something can’t be done. They want to see their dream realized. 

So try to figure out what they actually want to accomplish. In the aforementioned example, the pastor who wanted Iron Man-style air graphics, really just wanted to be able to put some words up in front of people then add to them. Rather than just saying, “No, that was a movie, it doesn’t actually exist…” my friend added, “…but I can come up with something that will get the point across.”

Find a Solution That Accomplishes the Goal

Again, we have to keep in mind that your pastor doesn’t want to know why something can’t be done. They simply want to get across their idea. If we can help them unpack what it is they are trying to communicate, we can figure out a way to accomplish it without killing ourselves. 

Before telling them all the reasons why we can’t mic a 50-piece orchestra that won’t even fit in our room that only seats 350, and besides it’s only three weeks before Easter and we don’t possibly have enough time to pull this off (deep breath…), find out why they want a 50-piece orchestra in the first place. Maybe they just want a more full, classic sound for Easter. There are ways to make that happen that are possible. 

If your pastor wants an Andy Samberg-style video every weekend, you need to have a conversation about the process that it takes to produce it. Invite them along on a shoot and edit so they can learn how time-intensive it is. Find out what they want to communicate and find a way to accomplish it without killing yourself.

All this advice is based on the idea that we don’t start with, “No,” but that we’re finding a way to have a constructive conversation that ends with everyone feeling like they win, including you. Remember, this is the fun stuff. This is why we do what we do—to pull off the impossible; to make things happen that most only dream about; to create something from nothing. Give the ideas a chance, and work together toward a solution.


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The Collision of Technology and Creativity Pt. 1

Image Courtesy of  Charlie Wollborg

Image Courtesy of Charlie Wollborg

If you’ve been in church production for any length of time, there is a pretty good chance this has happened to you: You’re sitting in a service planning meeting and whoever is in charge starts throwing out crazy ideas of what they want to happen on the weekend. A friend of mine had his pastor ask to be able to have graphics appear in the air, then sweep them away and bring new ones on. You know, like in Iron Man.

My friend had to explain to him that the technology he was referring to doesn’t actually exist. It’s a movie, not real life. The pastor then asked how much it would cost to do something like that. He was serious. 

Grumpy Old Tech Guys

It’s easy to see how tech guys can get the reputation for being grumpy. Someone comes to us with an idea like that and the full expectation that we can pull it off. This weekend. With no budget. Or staff. Our natural reaction is to get upset and start explaining to them how clueless they are and why it can’t work. 

Now, I understand that those kind of requests can be frustrating. But getting upset and telling everyone off won’t help you or the church in the long run. What we have to do is find a way to bridge the gap between expectations and reality, between what our creative directors want and what can actually be accomplished within time and budget constraints. Doing that and making everyone involved feel like they are being listened to and appreciated can be a challenge, but it is possible. There are several things to keep in mind when something like this comes up.

It Happens to All of Us

Many times, we can feel like no one else has to put up with these crazy requests. We’re pretty sure no one has ever asked for two huge crosses on the stage for this weekend. And it’s already Thursday. You might think that no other worship leader has ever asked for a band that includes almost twice as many inputs as we have on the console (they have). 

So take courage in knowing that this crazy stuff comes up in many churches. If nothing else, know that other technical leaders are dealing with the same kinds of weird requests. I find just knowing that makes it more tolerable. 

They Don’t Know How Hard This Is

One of the downsides to what we do is that we often make it look easy. And our church leaders really have no idea how hard and time consuming even a normal weekend is. It doesn’t occur to the average pastor that the technical team working that big conference he went to last month was probably larger than the entire staff at your church. They also had several months to plan and prepare, along with a sizable budget.

But remember, their job is not your job. So when they come up with a crazy-creative idea that would make for an amazing sermon illustration or special service, they aren’t trying to make your life miserable. They really don’t know how hard it is. I say this not as criticism of them, but for your benefit. If we fly off the handle at them for coming up with this idea, it creates unnecessary tension. People tend to think that others are like them. And you may not have noticed this yet, but you are not like other people. We technical types will start working out in our heads all the things that it will take to pull off one of those wild, out-there ideas before we even hear the end. Most people don’t do that. They just have a cool idea.

No one likes being around someone who says, “No,” to everything. My friend Van says we are sometimes categorized as “dream killers” because we are always saying no to our pastor’s dreams. It’s no wonder there tends to be an undercurrent of distrust and tension between the tech team and the rest of the staff. 

So, what is the solution? Stay tuned for the next post…

Today’s post is brought to you by Elite Core Audio. Elite Core Audio features a premium USA built 16 channel personal monitor mixing system built for the rigors of the road. For Personal Mixing Systems, Snakes, and Cases, visit Elite Core Audio.

Why Make it Beautiful?

Image courtesy of  http://kevinashphotography.com

Image courtesy of http://kevinashphotography.com

I recently happened across a discussion that was started by a pastor who was looking at the bland, white walls of their sanctuary with terrible acoustics and struggling with the why of making it look nice. Thankfully, he understood the need to fix the terrible acoustics. But he was legitimately struggling with the why of making the room look better than blank white. 

Now, as a technical artist, you might think my first thought would be to attempt to justify the need for a ton of LED lights, environmental projection and cool stage sets. And while I think there is a place for that, I didn’t go there first. My first thought was the great cathedrals of Europe. Then I thought of what the Temple of David must have looked like. I’ve seen some artist’s renderings of the temple, and it had to be amazing. 

Who Do You Worship?

Looking at those temples and cathedrals, one has to ask, “What is the motivation to create such an awe-inspiring structure?” In the case of the temple, David wanted to create a temple that was as amazing as God himself. That’s probably not possible, but he sure gave it a shot. The great architects and builders of Renaissance tried to build spaces that would put all who entered into a state of awe and wonder. They figured that since we worship a great, awesome and amazing God, the buildings where we worship should be great, awesome and amazing. 

When you enter such a building, or even see pictures of them, you can’t help but be inspired. The longer you spend in them, the more the Gospel story unfolds itself. Those architects were master story tellers and managed to tell a complete story with the building itself. And that doesn’t even begin to consider the artwork and paintings that often filled the space. 

Little White Boxes for You and Me

Fast forward to today and what do we have? White boxes. Instead of creating buildings that inspire wonder and awe, we build the cheapest, most boring church buildings we can. Well, not all of them, but many fit this description. Contrast this to the mall or the Vegas strip. If one were to evaluate what we value based on the time, energy and money we spend on the architecture, one would potentially come to the conclusion that we don’t really value our God much. 

Spend Money on Ministry!

The cry we often hear when it comes to not spending any money on the building is that we should be spending it on ministry instead. While I think spending money on ministry is a good thing, I think that argument is based on a fundamental lack of faith. The great cathedrals of Europe cost a small fortune to build, and often took a century to complete. But look at the results! Hundreds of years later, they’re still wonderful. 

Today, we live in the most prosperous nation in the world, and we scrimp and build our “houses of worship” with the lowest bidder. The Bible says God owns the cattle on a thousand hills, and He’s not really concerned about finances. Yet we pinch every penny and build the most boring, uninspiring building to worship the God who created the entire universe. Does anyone else see the disconnect there? 

Strike a Balance

Now, I understand we live in a different time and place. A $100 Million cathedral might not be the best idea today. However, our buildings don’t have to be ugly and boring. I think it’s more important to be intentional about creating a space for worship than it is to spend a lot of money on it. 

I travel to a lot of different church buildings and I’ve seen the ugly white boxes and I’ve seen buildings that are incredibly cool and welcoming that didn’t cost a fortune. It’s all about creating a space that is inspiring, calming, welcoming or engaging—depending on what you’re going for. It could be as simple as a few thousand dollars worth of ultra short throw projectors on those blank white walls (they’re good for something!). Or it could be a paint and some cool found objects arranged in a way that tells a story. 

Technology is Changing

A few years ago, every church that wanted to be “relevant” (in quotes because it’s been so over used I’m not sure it’s relevant any more) put up a bunch of moving lights, fired up the hazer and tried to do a rock concert every weekend. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, unless you do a terrible job of it. Or it’s not at all the culture of your church. Some of the best worship experiences I’ve had were in very simple, but very intentional rooms. They used technology—lights, haze, video, graphics—but that wasn’t the focus. You don’t have to go crazy. But you can make it beautiful. You should make it beautiful. It should match who you are as a church. And it should reflect the God who created the universe all around us. How’s that for some inspiration!

Creativity Re-Imagined

Photo courtesy of  Sean MacEntee

Photo courtesy of Sean MacEntee

As most of you know, I had the privilege of attending the Seeds Conference at Church on the Move in Tulsa last week. It truly is my favorite conference of the year, and I again came away inspired, challenged, encouraged and humbled. We had the opportunity to meet many of you and I was touched by all the words of thanks and encouragement. 

While COTM does some amazing production work, that is never the focus of the conference (or their services, for that matter). As I found two years ago when I was there, this year, the best content of the week was delivered in the sessions. The speakers talked on a variety of topics, most not directly related to technical production. However, I’m going to translate several of them for you into how we can improve our technical ministries. This will take a few days. But it’s going to be good.

One of the first sessions was led by Whitney George, Executive Pastor of COTM. He was formerly in charge of the creative arts teams, and as you know, did a bang-up job. He spoke on the concept of creativity, and challenged us to think differently about it. 

Creativity Is Not Art; It Is Problem Solving

A lot of people will tell you they are not creative. That’s because we’ve typically defined “creative” as creating art—graphics, paintings, video, music, sculpture or the like. But Whit defines it differently. In his mind—and I tend to agree—creativity is problem solving. And that manifests itself in many ways. 

Most of the best technical directors are incredibly creative. They may not be Photoshop or InDesign wizards, but the way they approach production problems and challenges is amazing. Figuring out how to get the band on in-ears with an extremely limited budget takes creativity. Coming up with a cool set look that enhances the series takes creativity. Helping a volunteer figure out the proper timing for advancing song words takes creativity. 

Technical artists are some of the most creative people I know; that’s why I often refer to them as technical artists not just techs. Elegantly solving the myriad of problems that come up every week takes incredibly creativity. If this is you, take heart, you are a “creative.” 

Creativity is a Discipline, not Magic

I really like what Whit said about this one:

“There is an implication that if the process is magic, then I can’t be held responsible for doing bad work. If they have access to some magic I don’t have access to, I’m off the hook.”

He told the story about Joel Houston who was apparently mugged in New York City. While he was willing to give up his wallet, he hated to lose his phone because he had hundreds of song ideas on it. Whit asked how many of us had “hundreds of ideas” for anything? 

I get asked all the time how I come up with ideas for blog posts, especially 3x a week. My answer is that ideas are everywhere. I have a couple of lists that I maintain with what is probably close to 100 ideas. Many of those ideas will never be written because they’re terrible. But I know I have a few dozen that will work. I have developed the discipline of looking for ideas everywhere I go. I even still keep an Evernote notebook of set ideas even though I’m not creating sets very often anymore. Just do it. 

Creativity is Not the Absence of Limitations, it’s Leveraging Those Limitations

Many of us see our pastor as a limitation to our creativity. If only he would let us use haze, then we could go great lighting work. If only he would let us turn up the volume, then we could deliver great mixes. If only he would let us use motion graphics, then our song words would look cool. 

It’s easy to get large-church envy, especially when you’re in a smaller church. If you only had the PA Andrew Stone does, or the lighting rig Daniel Connell does, then you could do great work. But I know those guys, and I know that while they fully appreciate what they get to do, they have also had to work on some pretty crappy rigs during their careers. But that didn’t keep them from doing great work. 

I’ve had the opportunity to mix three shows on crappy PA’s with crappy mixers over the last few months. Each time, people came up unsolicited and told me they had never heard anything sound so good in those rooms. The lack of a Digico SD5 and an L’Acoustics PA will not keep me from delivering a great mix. This is because I’ve learned the secret to leveraging what I have. 

Don’t let limitations be an excuse. Find ways to make it great regardless. That is when your creativity really shines. 

There was another whole section to his talk, but you’ll have to wait for another post, or for it to appear online to get the goods on that.

Today’s post is brought to you by Elite Core Audio. Elite Core Audio features a premium USA built 16 channel personal monitor mixing system built for the rigors of the road. For Personal Mixing Systems, Snakes, and Cases, visit Elite Core Audio.

Help for Scheduling Volunteers

Scheduling volunteers is probably the least favorite part of my job. It’s not that I don’t like my volunteers, but keeping track of the schedules, and keeping everyone on the same page is a big job. Now that I’ve taken on scheduling the support teams, the list of volunteers I’m responsible for has grown quite a lot.

I’ve tried a lot of ways to keep the schedule straight, and the biggest problem is making sure the volunteers have the dates they need. More than once, I’ve been at church calling a volunteer and asking, “Are you on your way?” Often the response is, “Oh, am I on today?” So in an effort to keep this from happening, here’s what I’ve come up with. The solution for me, so far, has been part product, and part procedure. 

The Product

I have tried using calendars, but I find them cumbersome. I prefer to have the list of dates listed out in a spreadsheet. Originally, I kept the spreadsheet on my laptop. Now, I keep it on Google Docs. Having it hosted on Google Docs gives me the advantage of being able to share the schedule with the team. 

I can edit the sheet from anywhere, and the team can bookmark it and see when they’re on at any time. The spreadsheets in Docs are very similar to Excel or Numbers (and you can upload an existing sheet very easily, if that’s how you already keep your schedule). Sharing the sheet is a simple matter of clicking on the “Share” tab.

We used the hosted app feature of Google Docs for our church, so we can share docs easily with other users in our domain. But it’s also easy to share with others outside the domain. And if you don’t want to host your mail there and use the domain feature, you can set up a single user and do the same thing.

Once you invite people, you can decide if they can edit the sheet, or just view it. I have our schedule set up so that I can edit, as can our Creative Director and volunteer producers. Everyone else just gets to view. You can also publish the sheet as a web page, and you can easily send anyone a link to the page (which is what I do with our support teams). Because one of the pages on our production schedule has everyone’s contact info, I have that set up so people have to be invited to view. The system creates a unique link for everyone that provides some level of security.

click to enlarge

Another nice feature is the ability to send an email to all the collaborators and viewers with a single click. The only limitation is that you can’t select individual viewers, or email a subset of the list.

The Procedure

 That’s how we do it; here’s what we do. I’ll start the scheduling process by asking people to send me dates for the next 3-4 months that they know they are unavailable. I have an “Unavail” column in my sheet, so as those dates come in, I add the names as appropriate. We run our lighting and presentation teams on a 1 week on, 3 weeks off schedule, while sound is 2 on, 2 off. I start by populating the sheet with that pattern, and make adjustments as needed to move around unavailable dates.

Once I’m done and all the slots are filled, I’ll use Google Docs to send an e-mail to everyone and have them check out the schedule. Often people are reminded of a date they can’t work, so end up making a few adjustments. Once we get through that round, the schedule is “fixed.” Any changes from that point on need to be swaps between team members. They then e-mail me of the change, and I adjust the schedule.

Every Tuesday, I send a quick reminder e-mail to the team scheduled for the upcoming weekend. I ask them to ping me back as a confirmation. When they do, I bold them on the schedule. That way, others on staff can see who’s in for the weekend. If I don’t hear back by Thursday or Friday, I try again, or call. The team is used to this now, and normally I know by Wednesday morning that everyone’s good to go.

And that’s it. It takes a few hours to work out the schedule initially, but once it’s done, it takes less than 10 minutes a week to manage. I follow the same basic procedure for the support teams, but because they run on a fixed team-based 3 weeks on, 3 weeks off schedule, the dates are set for the ministry year. I still send out confirmation e-mails weekly, however.

We also use Google Docs for creating our cue sheet for the week. That is shared with the team on Friday when it’s done. I typically create an input list (in Google Docs) on Friday as well, and send that out to the sound team, so they can see what they’re walking into. I live by the motto, more information=good.

While it’s not a perfect solution, it works pretty darn well. And it’s free. As in nada. So if you’re a smaller church that’s looked into those hosted solutions, but just don’t have the budget for it, check Google Docs out.

Another Solution

There is a hosted solution that I do really like, and I think we’ll be transitioning to it in January. It’s called Planning Center Online. It’s built from the ground up to help churches organize their people and their service documents. It offers scheduling, charting, service planning, and even streaming MP3s for the band and tech team. You can share files and even transpose charts. It’s really slick. Best of all, once you build the schedule, the system automatically sends reminders out to the team, and the team clicks back in to confirm. There is a cost, but it’s pretty reasonable.  


click to enlarge

They have a free version (which is limited to 10 people) and other versions have a 30 day trial. Since it costs nothing to try out, give that shot, too. 

So there you go. Two ways to improve your volunteer scheduling. I’ve found this to be a huge boon to my ministry. By communicating well with my volunteers, they feel cared for and valued. And by having a good system in place, I spend less time on this task, and I get a full crew almost every weekend. Give it a shot.

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