The nights leading up to major religious holidays are anything but silent. Increasingly, houses of worship use their existing A/V systems, and sometimes augmenting them, in pursuit of more spectacular holiday presentations. They’re looking for novel ways to get the holiday messages across, of course, but these A/V-driven spectacles also serve to convey another kind of message, one that lets people know that this is a technology-forward institution.
What underscores A/V’s importance to enhanced holiday displays is the fact that many churches add to their own complement to achieve the desired effect. At Columbia, Md.-based Bridgeway Community Church, a non-denominational, multicultural church with 3,000 attendees to its three Sunday services, technical director in Derwent “D” Williamson says he adds more lighting fixtures, particularly intelligent fixtures such as moving heads, to the A/V mix for both Christmas and Easter presentations.
“We’ll sit down several months before each holiday and plan out what we want to have happen and estimate what additional A/V we’ll need,” he says. While lighting is what’s most often on the list, in some cases audio pops up, too. “One year we had a very large orchestra on stage and we needed quite a few extra microphones to cover it.”
These rentals are covered in an average budget of between $8,000 and $12,000 per holiday, set at the beginning of each fiscal year. This covers additional A/V equipment rentals as well as content development for projection and related costs, but Williamson says the church tries to fabricate as much of the event’s needs itself as possible, and the extended A/V is operated by the church’s volunteer staff.
In some cases, the A/V media systems have become the focal point of some of the event designs, such as the rented projection and backlighting systems used to set up a dance show by illuminating a scrim in front of the stage that gave way to an elaborate terpsichorean display. Another time, the church put on a modernized adaptation of the traditional Christmas pageant, a musical that Williamson says took the narrative in a “West Side Story” direction. Intelligent lighting and additional sound reinforcement was needed to make this work successfully, but the church’s recent transition to digital RF microphones with a new Shure ULX-D wireless system, at a cost of $30,000 for 14 new channels of wireless audio, will help with future complex audio productions, he says.
Williamson believes the additional A/V costs for seasonal productions shouldn’t be measured solely in dollars. “We don’t try to measure the return on investment of these events,” he says. “If it gets us one more soul, then it’s all worth it.”
At Central Wesleyan Church in Holland, MI, has been relying on environmental projection - an immersive, multi-projector proposition that can be used to turn blank surfaces into nearly anything - for its holiday events. The interior of its 2,600-seat worship center on its 100-acre campus for a congregation that’s grown to over 3,000 has been illuminated with three Sanyo 30K-lumens projectors, rented for Christmas productions. These outshine the church’s two Christie 18K-lumens projectors used to project onto the sanctuary’s two side screens for regular Sunday services. These have transformed the sanctuary from a comfortably generic worship area into a starlit skydome covering an orchestra and large choir or, in one case, into the interior of the Cathedral de Notre Dame in Paris.
“It’s pretty amazing what you can do with environmental projection,” Paul VanDyke, Central Wesleyan’s technical director, marvels. He draws content from a variety of sources, including Google, and pieces them together in Adobe AfterEffects software and then maps them out for projection in 720P HD resolution using Pro Presenter software, creating both static and moving-image maps that lay over the canvas-like foundation of the stage. The projection is often buttressed by additional LED lights for color washes.
VanDyke estimates that these types of holiday productions add about $10,000 annually to the church’s A/V budget. However, he points out, “Renting brighter projectors also saves us from having to spend to rent additional moving light fixtures. The projectors do double duty by providing illumination and movement.”
It also saves untold dollars on scenery, as well as imparting a larger-than-life theatrical effect. For instance, the church’s several-dozen organ pipes are expanded to hundreds in the Notre Dame projection, all seemingly seamlessly interconnected. Moving projections for Easter celebrations have had bare, snow-covered trees morphing into fully bloomed ones, and deserts transforming themselves into seas.
“We’re actively trying to blur the line between reality and projection, to get that theatrical effect,” VanDyke says. “It really works, but it’s important to map the projections out carefully and not try to cover everything - let some of what’s real on stage remain, which is how you get the best effect - and don’t skimp on brightness. The brighter the better.”