"How did you do it so FAST?"

A few people asked me this at New Wine, where I was providing the live visuals for the youth worship meetings. During the talks, I would listen out for key phrases, and throw these up mixed with a suitable images or video clips. I usually had little idea of the talk's detailed content beforehand. I've shown an example here, from a talk about refreshing your prayer life.

So how do we provide "fresh" visuals in worship? That's what we're going to explore in this article.

Studio vs. Live
Some definitions first:

  • Studio - visuals (e.g. video clip) are created somewhere else, and simply displayed in worship. Most of the visuals in church fall into this category.
  • Live - some or all of the visuals are created or mixed together in the moment.

Of course it's usually some mixture of the two, and pre-prepared visuals are very important. At New Wine, I would ask about the topic of the talk beforehand, and would then download some suitable stock images. But how these were used in the moment could not be prepared in advance.

The issue is that without live creativity, you're stuck with what you've brought, and if something changes, what do you do? How much more dynamic would the worship experience be if we had the capacity to create, remix, or get hold of new visuals as worship proceeds? Well, the good news is that we do. The second half of this article will explore this in detail.

Two key aspects of live creativity are spontaneity and responsiveness.

  • Spontaneity - creativity that occurs in the moment. It's the difference between "here's one I created earlier" and "here's one I created as you were watching."
  • Responsiveness - creativity that flows from what is happening around you, enabling you to mirror back, follow, and lead in partnership with the Spirit.

Our goal is to facilitate spontaneous and responsive visuals in the flow of worship and prayer.

Art and Heart
That's the art - what about the heart? The more live the creative process becomes, the greater the need for sensitivity and servant-heartedness. Part of you is focused on the immediate practicalities - watching the room, following the song, cueing up the next clip and so on, but another part is asking "Lord, what are you doing right now?" and WHAT DOES IT LOOK LIKE? How can we best express in visuals what you are saying to us right now? And how can we express visually what we want to say to you, Lord, in worship, adoration, confession, petition, intercession, joy and pleasure, play, lament, and so on.

And again, the technology can become the driving force. So in the mix of your thoughts and focus needs to be a self-checking ... am I serving the purpose of God, or am I just amusing myself, or drawing attention to myself and away from God? Good to ask God to help you keep on track throughout.

What You Need
OK, down to some practical things now. What are the building blocks of a live visual rig? Here are a few things from my own experience so far:

  • A Resource Bank: ready-to-go resources. Video clips, stock photography (e.g. the excellent www.sxc.hu), Flash animations etc. Build up a stock of general-purpose resources e.g. images of the Cross, or fire. Keep an eye open for things you could use. Make sure the copyright allows you to take it for live use.
  • A good working knowledge of what's in the resource bank. If you don't know it's there, or if you can't find it, it may as well not be there. Arrange your resources into a directory structure like a filing cabinet, in logical order, so things can be found.
  • Creative Tools. These allow you to create and edit visual resources on the fly. It's very important to develop a good working knowledge of how to do things quickly. These include Photoshop (or equivalent), video editing tools, Flash animation tools, and so on.
  • Display Tools. These display and blend resources of different formats, and includes video mixing (e.g. Resolume) and song projection software (Easislides in my case).
  • A Fast Computer. Any reasonably new computer will play back video clips and show Powerpoints, but live visuals (such as video mixing or particle effects) need a fast computer, because a lot of visual processing is happening "in real time" (in the moment

Here is a typical live visuals workflow (not including hardware):

How To Develop

So how do we develop in this area? We've already discussed some of the resources you need. Here are some additional things:

1. Optimise Your Setup

  • Find a setup that works for you (e.g. learn the keystrokes, window arrangements on screen etc) and find one that serves your preferred way of working.
  • Learn the fastest way to do things e.g. bring up the next clip, fade to black screen, edit a photo, throw up some text etc. If your display software allows it, try using a MIDI controller like the excellent Korg nanoKontrol.
  • Configure your equipment for live use. This is a whole discussion in itself. Here are a few tips. (1) Put important icons where you can get them quickly (Desktop, toolbar etc) (2) Fine tune your computer for speed e.g. disable your virus checker (temporarily, during live visuals) and other background scanning like Google Desktop. Uninstall things if necessary! Sacrifices sometimes have to be made to prepare a computer for live use.
  • As mentioned before, organise your files and name them in a logical way so you can find them quickly.

2. Gather and Create Resources

  • Already mentioned stock photographyvideo clips.
  • Get a digital cameravideo camera and create your own!
  • Format your resources etc for best performance e.g. If you're VJing (live video mixing), best to reformat your resources to be the same resolution as your output screen, and use fast video codecs.
  • Create Flash or other animations and such things, using tools like SwishMax. If you can afford Adobe tools, try AfterEffects and Photoshop.
  • Learn how to manipulate photos and images using Photoshop, Paint Shop Pro or equivalent, and to do it as quickly as you can.

3. Practice. Practice. Practice

  • Get your "bedroom studio" going. Try things, experiment. Learn new skills. Work through tutorials.
  • Start small - maybe your cell group or worship team - great training and necessary preparation for doing it in public ... practice being able to worship as well as work the equipment. Get friends together to share ideas and find ways to do things.

4. And Finally...

  • Have fun! If you enjoy it, you'll do it better, and also persevere through the frustrations (which can be many when computers are involved). You'll also want to learn new skills and get better.

But above all, ask God for more of his presence in you and through you. Ask for a greater sensitivity and yieldedness to his Spirit in the depths of your heart, in your worship and daily life, and in your creativity. Ask for new visuals, press in for inspiration, seek revelation. Ask for anointed creativity that draws people to Him, that breaks strongholds, that speaks truth, that proclaims the Name of our wonderful God to the church and the nations, to the lost, last and least.

I believe firmly that God is stirring up the creative arts in an unprecedented way in these days. I believe that we have not yet seen the half of what is coming, in worship, mission, revival and the broader purposes of God in our day. He is also raising our skill level so we can do well what we are called to do, and then go and train up others.

A Prayer (based on Deut 33:10-11, where Moses gives his blessing to the tribe of Levi, who were charged with ministering before God)

As we lift up our creative offerings before you,
And place our visual sacrifices on your altar,
Bless all our skills, O Lord,
and be pleased with the work of our hands.

I hope this will encourage you to have a go, and to find ways to be creative at the cutting edge, and to see God's Kingdom come as you do. Feel free to contact me here.