For years I’d been mentally tossing around ideas for a Christmas video, using character vignettes and impressionistic environments. It was a fun idea, but I never really thought about producing it until last year…
In 2010, Bridge Community Church held the first annual Come to the Manger event; an art exhibit with hundreds of nativities, nativity ornaments, and nativity themed decorations from around the world. Along with snacks, music, and other fun activities, we needed a video to introduce the Christmas story to visitors. Unfortunately we couldn’t find anything that worked well, and ended up showing a segment of the Charlie Brown Christmas special. Though there wasn’t time to create our own short film in time for the event, I started working on a script using Biblical passages with a blend of Old Testament prophecies and New Testament accounts regarding the birth of Jesus.
While progress was slow, I began working on roughing out each scene in Newtek Lightwave. With previsualisations for every digital and live action shot, I even mocked up the limitations of a 10×20’ greenscreen, splitting larger groups of people into individual pieces that could be put back together in compositing. Knowing that scheduling actors could be problematic, planning from the begining to shoot each character separately simply gave us a lot more flexibility.
Inspirations and references were found in classical paintings and religious artwork from around the world. Christ came for all, and the intention was to encapsulate that thought in every level of the production design. Clothing, architecture, landscapes; all were based in different cultures, periods, and styles from all over the globe.
We kicked things off at church with a massive meeting in July of 2011, where I laid out the vision for the project and showed a rough cut of the film using previs footage and a temporary soundtrack. From there, it took off! Dorothy Glasgow, a costumer who has worked for years in the Detroit theatre scene, agreed to head up costuming, while worship leader Scott Crecelius agreed to head up music. The crew quickly grew as other people from the church joined in, helping out with scripture copyright permission, casting, props, and so much more.
The church balcony was set aside for filming, and I set up a greenscreen stage using equipment purchased on eBay. Arrays of CFL lights ensured the production was environmentally conscious while also keeping heat manageable on set. Props were limited to items characters directly interacted with, and pieces were borrowed from congregation members and another local church. Several props were built by Jim Landback, including a custom manger that was matched with a digital model.
Each character was filmed separately, scheduled over a three week period. The angels were the most dramatic challenge in terms of setup; a custom bike seat was mounted on a wooden pillar covered in green fabric, multiple fans were added, and the camera was mounted on a 10.5’ stand! Other characters were challenging due to the sheer number of scenes needed in the 1 hour time slot we had for most actors. The magi, for example, had three distinct locations with major lighting changes. By God’s grace, it all worked out, and we got the footage needed to put the video together.
Effects and editing
After the shoots were wrapped up, the footage was processed in Adobe After Effects and Red Giant’s Magic Bullet suite. Noise removal, colour correction, rotoscoping (both manual and tracked), chroma keying, and beauty passes were rendered out to flat files for use later in the compositing process. Pre-rendering footage can speed things up considerably, especially when dealing with render intensive effects like grain modification and keying.
Unfortunately, by the time I finally got to creating the environments there was less than a month left until the 2011 Come to the Manger event! Using the temporary sets created during the previs process, I mixed photographic textures and procedural shading to quickly detail the locations. Some modelling updates were made, new pieces built where needed, and environments were fleshed out using matte paintings created in Adobe Photoshop.
Lighting and lens effects were created using Video Copilot’s Optical Flares plugin, and final grading was handled in Magic Bullet Looks. Without Apple’s full Final Cut Studio on my laptop, I ended up editing narration audio in Garage Band and the video in Final Cut Express.
The second annual Come to the Manger event was a huge success and a lot of fun. I’m not sure how many people came through, but the turnout was even better than last year! Groups of all ages enjoyed the exhibits, food, and music; from young families to residents of the local retirement communities. The World Nativity Project was shown in one of the side rooms as visitors finished up the experience.
The video is released online, free for anyone to use in their Church or Christmas event. You can download an HD media file from Vimeo (if you are signed in), or directly from Dropbox. Please remember that copyright notices must remain in place, and the film should not be modified, but otherwise, share and enjoy!
There are still plenty of pieces left to be done. Extras haven’t been added yet (villagers in Bethlehem, field workers in Nazareth), and environments need some work. A number of languages are spoken at Bridge Community Church, and portions of the bulletin are even printed in English, Spanish, Mandarin, Japanese, and Tamil. Right now the soundtrack is only available in English, but we’re planning on expanding to as many languages as we can get permission for and record, along with adding subtitles for the hearing impaired.
Thank you to all – for your help, hard work, encouragement, and support. It’s been an incredible project, and I’m hugely thankful I got to be a part of it!
Merry Christmas to all, and God bless.