For the past four months, every Sunday sermon has opened with the same short, animated video that draws from the book of Acts. Nathan McDonald, First Free’s communications director, produced that video with local animator Dustin Bankord. We spoke with Nathan about the creative process.
What’s the purpose of an introductory video?
It’s mainly used so that they can change over the stage from the music portion to the preaching portion of the service. But if that’s the only way we look at it, just as the need to fill 45 seconds, we can miss an opportunity. Especially when the video is being shown week to week. I want it to fit within the flow of the service, so it doesn’t feel like too much of an intrusion and so it helps serve to bridge that gap between corporate worship and the preaching.
Sermons can be 25 to 40 minutes long. Typically people walk away with one or two highlights—something significant that stuck out to them. But if there is a song that we do in worship that is tied to the series, you’re going to remember that song really well. And I think the sermon intro video also can serve in that way. It’s a short, simple thing that uses visuals and music. So you can walk away remembering parts of that short video. And hopefully it’s helping you recall something from the corporate worship, and some of the actual meat from what was being preached and taught that day.
When you are presented with the need for an introductory video for the Acts sermon series, where do you start?
For this one in particular, we looked at The Bible Project and their approach to animation. Since this series was going to take four months, it seemed to make sense that we would approach the introduction video as a narrative as opposed to just a theme.
So for me, the first part was looking at some of the highlights in the narrative of Acts. You take certain chapters and kind of lump them together and say this is one part of the narrative, and then here is the next part. I had to start broadly and then work my way down to specific scenes. Oh, and we are shooting for the whole video to only be 45 seconds to a minute long.
So you identify the stories or scenes you want to highlight. What then?
For this type of video, I start with pencil sketches. Not literally — I’m actually drawing digitally on my iPad using an app called Procreate. That allows me to move really quickly with the illustrations. Then I take them into Adobe Illustrator on my laptop where I turn them into vector drawings. That’s the format the animator will need.
So you are basically taking a pencil sketch and digitally animating it without having to draw every single frame of the animation, right? How many illustrations did you give to the animator?
Seven or eight.
The animation process sounds Hollywoodish, but artists here in Rockford are doing this kind of thing. What happens?
I just give him the illustrations and my notes. I trust Dustin Bankord, the animator I have worked with for a couple of years. As long as I can give him the stuff in the way he needs it, I can leave some things open for him because I trust he will make really good decisions. And for this one, he went above and beyond my expectations.
We are talking about a process that a generation or two ago would have taken months. That’s amazing.
I started the pencil sketches on a Wednesday afternoon, and the final video was done by Saturday morning. It had to be. There were some things holding up our timeline that month.
You mentioned The Bible Project. How did their work influence you on this video in particular?
I love what The Bible Project is doing, and it’s not just because it’s about the Bible. They are pulling some of the most talented illustrators and animators in the world to work for that organization. I appreciate that the work stands alone, whether in church culture or outside it. I’m attracted to their ability to pull stories together in a memorable and accessible way.
At the level of a local church, what motivates you to take the work to a different level like that?
My dad was an art educator and a printmaker and he’s a very talented illustrator. In the last several years he’s been doing some incredible painting. Being raised in my family with the type of vocation that he had, instilled that in me. And then I have my mom, who is a ballet dancer and ballet teacher and ran her own school for a while. So I grew up in an arts family.
And then that is all in the context of wanting to honor the Lord. If we have a certain skill or talent, we are going to take the time to learn how to do it the best that we can, whatever that craft or skill is.
There is a portion of the Acts video, near the end, that I know you guys put a lot of thought into. Maybe not everyone has noticed it. What should we watch for and what does it mean?
That last scene starts with Paul looking out on Rome. And then it flips upside down, and you see Paul in chains, sitting at a table, and there is the ascended Christ on his throne. The idea was to quickly make an inference to the upside-down kingdom. Pastors Luke and Josh have used that phrase a lot. So it was kind of neat to do something that would visually represent that idea.
That’s quite a deep thought packed into about four seconds.
What we are seeing take place in this world is not what is taking place in the heavenly kingdom. These two are at work simultaneously. So here is Paul in chains. And in everyone’s eyes, they think this is a loss. Paul is under house arrest and not able to travel any more. The story’s over. The movement is done. But actually that’s how God works in the world. Paul is identifying with Jesus being arrested and then on the cross, and that changed everything. If we are just looking with earthly eyes at our circumstances, we’re going to miss what is actually taking place in the spiritual realm.
Any communications director is in a bit of an assembly line environment, too. How do you balance the need to produce multiple and varied projects versus spending the time and thought you would like to on every single one of them?
I don’t think I figured it out yet (laughs). I’m always having to make decisions to not go a certain direction or take something to a certain level because you just don’t have the time. I’ve always appreciated when my canvas is well defined. People sometimes think of creativity as this open-ended expanse with unending possibilities. Actually, we do better work if we can define the limits of the canvas more clearly.
And then you think about resources. I have a certain amount of time and there’s a specific goal in mind. Creativity means taking those limited resources and coming up with the best possible solution with what you have. I actually find that more fun. I get overwhelmed when there are too many possibilities. That’s also why I like collaborating with people. For me, it helps narrow down where we want to go.