Thinking and Seeing Outside the Box

In Uncategorizedby tfwm

My kids have grown up in contemporary churches with all the bells and whistles. A few years ago we visited friends at Valparaiso University in Indiana and they gave us a campus tour. When we entered the famous chapel – the largest collegiate chapel in the United States with it’s soaring 98 foot chancel and massive pipe organs — we stood in awe, admiring the light streaming in through stained glass over the altar and the organ pipes over it. My son, who was about six at the time, whispered, “Daddy, what is this place?”

“A church,” I replied.

Confused, he asked, “But then where’s the big TV?”

I love visual imagery – I started out as a photojournalism major in college – so I’ve always been a fan of the impact that video projection brings to worship. It’s such a magnetic medium that in the 1990’s contemporary churches began to be designed around the screens like living rooms began to be arranged around television sets in the 1950’s.

For twenty years the state and cost of church projection technology has created a problem we might call “The Chokepoint:” the visual creativity of worship planners has been channeled through screens that fill only a few degrees of arc within our vision. All those fantastic ideas and images, scripture and lyrics, maps and messages had to live in a 4:3 or 9:16 rectangular box.

Contrast The Chokepoint with other visually rich events people attend: baseball games, outdoor concerts, theme parks, monster truck rallies, whatever. People at those events are surrounded with big, interesting visuals, but if we show video clips in church we think that folks should be overwhelmed. It reminds me of Plato’s “Analogy of the Cave” (for those of you that remember your Philosophy 101 class): A bunch of people are kept underground from birth seeing nothing but silhouette images on a wall. Someone comes down and tells them about the colorful, three-dimensional world topside and they’re unimpressed — after all what could possibly be better than their shadow puppets?

Truth is, there are now better ways to display video content than just on a couple of screens to the side of the stage. Video projection can be a three dimensional, “immersive” experience that reclaims the empty space around us. It can be bigger and more dynamic, surround us peripherally and create new site lines and perspectives.

A few years ago one of my colleagues and I sat down with a pastor to talk about the new worship center he wanted us to help design. He dropped a magazine onto the table, open to a picture of the stage from U2’s Elevation tour. “Build me a room that looks like that,” he said. U2’s Elevation stage thrust out into the audience in a big arc, and it had massive wide-format video screens stretching 360 degrees around the periphery of the room. From any position in the audience you saw the band standing in front of big, dynamic video content that changed the spatial and visual relationship between the artist and the audience.

Today that’s possible in worship center design. Video content can be: 1) on many screens, not just one or two, 2) viewed from many angles, not just over or adjacent to the stage, 3) really, really BIG, and 4) move or be projected onto three dimensional surfaces. Let’s talk about those one at a time.

1) On many screens. Why? Because we can. I remember back in the mid-1990’s when details about Bill Gates’ new house were leaking onto the web. One breathless report said that Bill would have video screens on the walls instead of paintings. That way he could change the décor to suit his mood. I thought that was so cool: Tuesday is French impressionists! Friday is dogs playing poker! Today even regular folks have digital picture frames in their homes. Why not design worship centers the same way? Forget about felt banners: there is more visual content available than ever before and the cost of both projectors and driving those projectors has dropped dramatically. Why can’t we design with more screens showing more content, whether it’s still images, motion animations, or whatever?

2) Viewed from many angles. Like hundreds of thousands of people over the years I used to sit in Willow Creek’s old auditorium and loved it when they raised the blinds on the sidewalls during the message and the pond was visible through the windows. My wife’s parents’ church is high in the Colorado mountains and during services there I love to look out on the peaks through the side windows. Of course not all of us would have a dramatic view even if we had windows in our church (most of us would see a parking lot), but why not create peripheral viewing screens and fill them with images at appropriate moments in the service? And for anyone with a thrust stage why worry about viewing angles to the front screens when you could add screens on the side walls?

3) Edge Blending. Whether it’s my computer monitor, my television in the den or the theater I see the summer blockbuster on, the only thing better than a BIG screen is a BIGGER screen. Edge blending technologies allow us to make the projected images in our worship centers really, really BIG. In the past the laws of physics held us back (as usual) because the further away we moved the projector (to make the image bigger) the more power it took to keep the image bright. Edge blending gets around that by using multiple projectors, each one only projecting on a portion of the screen. Imagine a big screen and four projectors. The screen is divided into four quadrants with a projector assigned to cover each quadrant. The content is processed through hardware/software that divides the image up into the same four quadrants and sends one to each projector. The edge of each of the four projected images is “blended” seamlessly into those around it so that to the viewer it’s just one big image but just as bright as if it were a quarter of the size. Whether the quadrants are arranged 2×2 or 4-across is a design decision and can create dramatic effects.

4) 3D Surfaces and Motion. Unlike the poor inhabitants of Edwin Abbott’s 19th century novel, we don’t have to live in Flatland anymore. New technologies calculate how to warp and twist the content so that it can be projected onto a non-flat surface and look “normal.” Want to hang a giant nylon sphere from the ceiling and project video onto it? No problem. Want to stretch fabric onto a truss frame so that it slopes toward or away from the audience and project onto it? Can do. Want to project video so that it moves across a surface without looking all “keystoned” and funky? Cool idea. (One of the members of our firm, Patrick Dierson, did this a few years ago at Madison Square Garden: as each starting player of the New York Rangers hockey team skated out onto the ice to be introduced, he was in a follow-spot video clip of his game highlights). This shatters The Chokepoint: video content really begins to become part of the space around us.

New tools make all of this possible, and the development curve is so rapid that it’s worth researching various manufacturers most recent offerings. A few years ago there were only a handful of edge blend units available but now every model year more and more projectors include edge blending and warp/twist technologies natively inside the projector. The cutting edge now is in video servers that allow a wide variety of video manipulation and projection techniques like those from Vista Systems, Coolux, Green Hippo, Ltd. and High End Systems.

Screens that are many, big and weirdly shaped create parallel design challenges. How do we keep the loudspeakers out of the way of the screens? What about acoustic treatments on walls? How crowded does the overhead infrastructure become? These and other questions mean that room designers and worship programmers need to work more closely together to create visually interesting spaces.

Many churches will find that these kind of tools can stretch their budgets but then so did the first projection systems in the 1990’s. Scalability and phased development is key. Make sure that you have the space and infrastructure for more and bigger visuals, and then add projectors as budgets allow. As for future-proofing, Moore’s Law says that in digital technologies computing power doubles every 18-24 months. Whenever you buy your projectors or video servers there will always be bigger, faster, brighter ones in another year or two. We should not be afraid to design and build with the best tools available to us at the time but to make sure that our designs (and manufacturers) provide scalable solutions that we can grow with over time.

Even in Hollywood there is recognition that the traditional movie theater needs to be reinvented. Recently uber-director James Cameron got buzz when he suggested that with the rise of inexpensive HD home-entertainment systems and quick DVD releases the local Cineplex will have to embrace things like 3D movies or people will stop coming in and buying the popcorn. We can’t tell ourselves that we’re “relevant” if we keep designing worship centers that look like last-generation movie theaters.

How radical is all of this for the Church? This isn’t a break with the distant past but a break with the recent past when worship spaces were modeled after auditoriums or – even worse – lecture halls. The entire design rested on the premise that the only thing worth looking at was the stage and maybe the screen over it with the lyrics or lecture notes. But the idea of worship occurring in a space immersed with visual images isn’t new at all.

Think of the great cathedrals: the Sophia Hagia, the Sistine Chapel, Notre Dame. Granted, the visuals used to be decorative architecture, frescoes or sunlight illuminating brilliant stained glass. We may now achieve the same effect with digital mediums but why shouldn’t our eyes still be overwhelmed and delighted by color and art during worship?