Nov 6 2013

VBS 2013 Development Diary: #14: Digital Content Creation & Management

As I have previously mentioned, the first skits we started doing were entirely written by me an hour before we performed them. There was a single Microsoft Word document with all of that week’s skits–that was it.

As the years have progressed, we have strived to do better, and as a result we have created more content each year. Here are some of the tools and services we use:

Postcards & Signage

We make signage in the form of banners for external display and small signs that we print in-house and laminate for the bathrooms, seating, teams, classrooms, etc. I create most all of these in Adobe Illustrator and then save them to PDF so that Sherry can print them. We print our postcards and banners through Vistaprint.com, which actually appears to meet the trifecta of fast, good, and cheap.

Music

Allison records drafts for the theme music on her iPhone or cell phone. Right now she doesn’t actually write the music–it just stays in her head and she plays it for our pastor’s daughters, the violinists at church, who then pick it up and play it, then transcribe their own notes.

Skits

I write the skits in Microsoft Word for Mac, using a custom screenplay template I found online and utilizing the excellent and free Courier Prime font from JohnAugust.com. In the future I plan to switch to Fountain or something similar so that I can start formatting these properly.

Backup Storage and Collaboration

I use a product that just caught my attention earlier this year and has now become invaluable–Dropbox. It’s one of those products that I can’t see getting very much better–it’s almost perfect already. It’s like a folder out on the internet, accessible from all your devices (Mac, Windows, Linux, iOS, Android, Blackberry). One of its killer features is that it allows you to share folders and collaborate with specific people, which definitely beats the old method of emailing back and forth. Plus–it’s free for the first 2GB of storage. Download it here to give me some more space, or just download it from Dropbox.com. The only downside: there are no assignable permissions, so ‘shared’ means ‘everyone sharing the folder has the same permissions as you.’ I did have one of my co-sharers delete two very important folders. Fortunately Dropbox.com has an interface to recover deleted items back to a certain point.

Trailer

We planned a trailer for our VBS, but we ran out of time to execute, and it was one of the darlings that had to be murdered. Allison and I wrote the script for the trailer in Microsoft Word, then printed out storyboard templates we found online. I drew the storyboards, then we scanned them, cleaned them up in Adobe Photoshop, and synced them to the iPhone. Next we pulled them into iMovie for iOS where Allison edited them together. I recorded the voiceover, imported the music and sound effects and edited them in with her images.

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Sep 20 2013

VBS 2013 Development Diary: #13: Experimentation & Doubt

VBS is over now. I hadn’t posted a VBS update in a while simply because we had reached that point in the project where we were in the thick of doing the heavy lifting–building sets, making costumes, creating and acquiring props, and rehearsing. Sometimes that can get kind of hairy, as we don’t often have time to test our concepts before we put them into production. Frequently I am asking people to do a lot of work on what I hope will work, and for some reason they trust me that it will make sense and actually work later. A lot of what I hope will work is based on the countless hours of behind-the-scenes special effects I have watched ever since I was a kid and the formal art training I received.

Every single VBS goes through this phase where it seems like the project is doomed to failure: the special effects aren’t working right, the props can’t be found, the script has a giant flaw, or the rehearsals aren’t going well. Part of the problem is that I write these scripts to be directed by Spielberg with special effects by Industrial Light & Magic, all funded by a James Cameron budget. Then reality sets in and we have to start making do with what we can afford on a small church VBS budget.

Some things didn’t work out as well as I hoped–the bamboo forest, for example, was better than having nothing, but wasn’t this awesome, thick, lush forest of brilliant green; it turns out bamboo begins to brown almost as soon as it is cut, and besides that, it smells like locker room feet as it dries.

But other things worked out brilliantly, like the special effect we built to make it appear that I threw a dagger into a piece of bamboo that held open a deadly trap. Or the breakaway table that shattered when struck by our antagonist’s prop sword. Or the papier-mache rocks that looked like real stone.

The real fact is none of this happens without a lot of work and a lot of manpower (and womanpower), and none of what we accomplish would be possible without the diligent labor of a number of people willing to give this stuff a try. Our volunteers have spent who knows how much time cutting bamboo, drilling 2x4s, painting cups, gluing foam, layering papier-mache, and who knows what else.

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Jun 1 2013

VBS Development Diary #12: Costumes

I spent 2 hours in a fabric store yesterday and it was awesome.

Lemme ‘splain!

We were shopping for fabric for costumes. I don’t know fabric–I have always avoided any kind of textile work because it seems tedious to me–except for that one time I made a Nightcrawler plushie.

So we’re trying to find fabric for six costumes that won’t look cheezy, will be just the right pattern and shade, won’t be too hot for the actor, and won’t be too expensive. I had the opportunity to be that annoying director who doesn’t know what he wants, but will know it when he sees it.

After a few years of running VBS skits I found what every other performer probably already knows, which is that stage/film performance is a collaborative effort. This is the first year that we haven’t just pieced costumes together from what we can find at second hand stores. Mrs. Pastor made the first two costumes–the ones for the heroine and villainess. In my specifications for the villainess’s outfit I specified that I wanted it to be black silk/satin with black embroidered patterns. That fabric wasn’t available, and she tried to send me pictures of what was available, but I couldn’t see them. She just went with her gut and picked a fabric that was black satin with wide-spaced gold patterns.

When I first saw the costume, I thought, “I was expecting black on black.” But I quickly realized that what she had made was actually better than I requested, and did more to convey what I really wanted from the character–that she was a woman who was rather vain and who liked to spend money on nice clothes because she deserved them.

Anyway, we found all of the fabrics that we want to use, and all the fabrics we won’t use because they are crazy expensive ($18/yard). Now we just have to find some more patterns for our male costumes. Apparently there are only three Asian/Oriental costume patters produced in the last 40 years and we already located and purchased two of them (thanks to several hours of googling by Allison).

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Apr 19 2013

VBS Development Diary #11: Act 3

This week marked 4 months since we started working on this year’s VBS. Typically at the 4 month mark we are getting ready to perform, but we haven’t even created any props, sets, or costumes, and haven’t rehearsed a line. In fact, the performers don’t even have the script yet.

The reason is this: despite a good plot and a good first draft, the script wasn’t really that great. It didn’t stink–but when I finished the story, even as the writer, I felt kind of let down. Not quite end-of-a-Michael-Crichton-novel kind of let down (I’m looking at you, Sphere), but definitely underwhelmed.

So by mid February I knew the final act needed some work. The problem is, the last night has a lot of action, and I kind of stink at writing action scenes–I’m more of a story-and-dialogue guy. The funny thing is I’ve been listening to a podcast about screenwriting, and both screenwriters on the show mentioned that they hate writing action scenes as well. So I knew it was going to take some focused time and attention, which is always hard to come by.

Then the last two weeks of February blizzards hit mid-Missouri and I got three free snow days from work. Now, how to do this? Thankfully, I still have about a bazillion action figures–some I’ve had since I was a kid. Allison and I busted out the WWE wrestling ring playset, assorted G.I. Joe, Star Wars, Total Justice, and Lord of the Rings figures, as well as a tub of Jenga blocks.

We set up the Jenga blocks to roughly simulate the set for the last night’s action scenes, then placed the figures roughly where they would start. Then we basically played with action figures until we worked out the placement of the actors and how they would interact, then performed the scene while describing what was going on and filmed it with the iPhone. Within probably 90 minutes we had solved our last night’s plot problems and worked out all of the action scenes.

It was a good thing we filmed them, too. When I finally sat down last week to transcribe the voice notes from those video storyboards, I realized that I had forgotten almost everything we had recorded–I guess my brain didn’t feel the need to remember since we had filmed them. I wrote the first of three action scenes the other day.

The reason I am spending all of this time when I already had a finished script in hand is that there is no fix for a bad script. You’ve probably seen movies that tried to compensate for a bad script with special effects, sex, or explosions, and in the end, it was just a sexed-up, impressive-looking, explosion-filled bad story.

There’s no fix for bad writing other than good writing. Hopefully the extra effort will in fact prove to be an improvement.

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Mar 7 2013

VBS 2013 Development Diary: #10: Gospel vs. Blues

Both gospel and blues are musical traditions rooted in the American South, both are based in tragedy, pain, and misery. But the difference between gospel and blues is that the gospel offers hope. The very nature of the blues is that there is no hope. Your heart is broke, you’re probably going to die from it–and then things will get worse. Don’t matter whether it’s deserved or not, the point is that it stinks–and there’s nothing you can do about it.

It is completely true–I totally borrowed a plot element from a major motion picture for my VBS. The key difference is that the motion picture is a blues song. The character in the movie never changes–she begins selfish, everything she does is selfish, and the very last thing she does–committing suicide–is still selfish. There is no hope. To quote an oft-forwarded email, “The Blues are not about choice. You stuck in a ditch, you stuck in a ditch; ain’t no way out.”

In my story there is hope–and change. Our protagonist does change–certainly beginning selfish, but becoming different. The funny thing is that for years I wanted to write an Iron Man kind of story–a selfish jerk goes through some really bad things and comes out on the other side different–better different–than he was before. But I never could seem to get it right; the scripts ended up morphing into something else. But this year I have inadvertently written that story.

From a storytelling perspective you want to see that change. If the character is the same in the first act as he is in the third act, then what was the point of this story? If Tony Stark is the same after becoming Iron Man as he was before he became Iron Man, the movie would be a failure (I’m looking at you, Jumper).

From a teaching standpoint you want to communicate that there is hope. If I fail to communicate that, then why did I write this VBS? If my only success is as a storyteller, then I have failed, because I missed the point of telling the story.

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Feb 12 2013

VBS 2013 Development Diary: #9: Chinese Language

As part of my ankle-deep immersion for his VBS I have been learning Chinese. I am using a number of apps, but mostly I am listening to podcasts from ChineseClass101.com. The podcasts are great for picking up the language and they have lots of notes about the culture, but they will email you incessantly, and you should really be careful about what paid options you are actually paying for and/or what options they will auto-renew your account for without telling you.

Contrary to what I expected, Chinese is pretty easy to learn so far–especially compared to Welsh, in my opinion.

The sentence structure, at least for the simple sentences I have learned is similar to English–subject, verb, object. Declarative statements become interrogative questions with the addition of a particle at the end of the sentence. The greatest thing–no conjugating verbs–verbs have only one form.

I can’t read a single character (besides the one for ‘middle’, but I can hear, identify, and speak several words and make a few simple sentences.

The hardest part? Probably learning the tones. According to the instructors there are only about 400 sound combinations in Chinese. However, there are 4 or 5 tones, and changing the tone changes the word, whereas in English changing the tone gives some auditory cues as to the intended meaning, or maybe whether the word or sentence is meant as a statement of a question.

I’m enjoying it a lot, and maybe eventually (after smatterings of French, Spanish, Welsh, Hebrew, and Greek) I could attain bilingual status.

Right now, I still just know enough to get me in trouble.

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Jan 27 2013

VBS 2013 Development Diary: #8: Logo


This is a pretty graphic-heavy post.

When I first start working on a logo, I trial several fonts in Linotype FontExplorer, then I try them out  in Illustrator to see which ones I like best, looking for things like readability, tone, and flavor. This lets me see which fonts I might want:

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—as well as ones I absolutely don’t want—specifically fonts that have that cheezy, clichéd ‘rikki tikki’ Chinese feel to them:

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Once I have selected a few possibilities, I make a text box with the title in Adobe Illustrator and then copy it about a dozen times, then apply the different fonts to the text.

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My first logo concept, like almost all first logo concepts, stunk. It looked like a very boring book:

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Going back to the desk I decided on my favorite font: KingThings Conundrum. It looks amazing, just like it was drawn with a Chinese calligraphy brush.

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However, it has a major problem: it’s not very readable. First I converted the font to outlines so that Illustrator sees it as a series of objects instead of type. My next step was to clean it up, getting rid of most of the ornaments:

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And here is the font all cleaned up. Notice something, however: the kerning. My friend Brenton taught me to use Illustrator. Back when I was first learning to use it, one of the first things he taught me was one of those tricks that separates the noobs from the pros–-kerning.

Kerning is the horizontal space between the letters. Notice how the spacing between the letters is uneven and crummy looking. The vertical space between the lines of letters called leading (pronounced LED-ing), is pretty bad too.

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Now you can see the comparison between the cleaned up version and the original unkerned, unleaded, unreadable font.

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I have applied a stroke effect to the letters to look for any problems. Notice on the crook of the L part of the stroke has not applied, meaning I have a break in the shape of the letter.

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When I apply the stroke, I actually group the entire logo, copy it, and then past it behind, then apply the stroke to the behind-most copy. Below you can see how it looks when composited, next you can see the unstroked copy, and then the copy with the stroke applied.

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There are still some tweaks to do. As you can see below, the default corner type looks kind of lame on certain points. You can adjust them to be sharper or more blunt, but in the end I just went with a rounded corner.

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I wanted to go with a gradient for this logo (I usually don’t) to give it more of an action/adventure feel. However, it still looks kind of flat, so I applied a thin, bright stroke to the front-most objects, which really made it pop out more:

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Next I made a  drop shadow behind the logo by making a copy, pasting it behind the original, filling it with black, and shrinking it by ~2%.

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I decided to bring back my kind of Chinese brushstroke mantis from my early design, to give kind kind of an ominous shadow to our heroic logo.

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I also wanted to incorporate some sword iconography, since it’s the story’s MacGuffin.

The mantis and the sword are just lines with a brush effect applied. You can see them below, as well as a box with a few more brush-effect lines added.

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And here is the completed logo with bonus background (OK, so it’s not totally complete–the Chinese inside the green ribbons is just placeholder text):

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Jan 15 2013

VBS 2013 Development Diary: #7: Title

It can be tough picking a good title. You want something that communicates the overall theme of your production, and it needs to be able to reach kids who have only been reading for a year. Plus, while you, as the writer and director, have been steeping yourself in Chinese food, language, culture, and movies, your audience likely has not. You might think the title Enter the Legend of the Savage Iron Monkey Fist is hilarious—and it is—but the kids, their parents, and even your fellow workers aren’t going to get it.

It also needs to communicate the right tone. Enter the Dragon has quite a different tone than Kung Fu Hustle. When I first started on this year’s VBS I liked the title Curse of the Black Mantis. However, the focus was all wrong in what it told the audience. I made a list of words in every kung fu movie title, and tried them out against words and names in my VBS:

Shadow
Saga
Wind
Mantis
Legend
Drunken
Fist
Sword
Fierce
Savage
Death
Dragon
Bamboo
Jade Wind, Black Mantis
Shadow/Legend of the Jade Wind
Wrath/Fury of the Black Mantis
Shadow of the Black Mantis

I eventually settled on Legend of the Jade Wind, which I felt said everything I wanted to about the skit.

Once you have a title, you can proceed to logo design.

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Jan 13 2013

VBS 2013 Development Diary: #6: Sound

Starting in 2009 with The Quest for the Lost City of Gold we started incorporating a digital soundboard into our VBS skit. I downloaded a program for my Mac called Sound Byte that lets you set up virtual racks of sounds, customize options for each sound, and assign them to keyboard commands. I needed someone to run the sound board, which I had just trialed and tested myself.

I chose Rahne, my then 12 year old. She was fairly tech savvy, and I didn’t know who else to hand it to. She has run the sound board every year since then, except last year when she had a part in the skit. After the skit she told me she wanted her sound board back.

Anyway when we get close to time to begin rehearsals I search around online for sounds to download. There are several sites that have royalty-free sounds free for download, and you can find sound effects CDs at pretty much any decent music store. Then you take a sound, drag it onto a button, and then assign options for it–looping, volume, when to start or stop the sound, whether or not to play it over the top of other sounds vs. being stopped by other sounds. This was incredibly handy when we had to have an ancient Mayan temple set collapse; we layered three different sounds—a low rumble, a stone-scraping-on-stone sound, and a second rumble—to give us a really colossal crash.

We also use sound effects to help pull off some of our special effects—but that’s another post.

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Jan 11 2013

VBS 2013 Development Diary: #5: Music

For the past two years Rahne has composed the theme music. For Law of the West, our wild west VBS, I was looking for music that would fit in with a John Ford / John Wayne / Roy Rogers good guy kind of western—not a spaghetti western. When she was working on it, we listened to a lot of music from classic westerns—both what I wanted and what I didn’t want.

The best example of what I didn’t want for our VBS, despite my love for the music, was the theme from For a Few Dollars More. Ennio Morricone’s haunting theme really conveyed the grit and dirt and decay and moral landscape from the movie perfectly—it just didn’t suit the tone of our Bible school skit.

We listened to a number of good pieces, including Red River and Silverado, but the best example of what we did want was Elmer Bernstein’s The Magnificent Seven. It wasn’t that I wanted, ‘Hey, can you rip of The Magnificent Seven, without sounding like you ripped off The Magnificent Seven? What I did want was something that, like The Magnificent Seven, conveyed a sense of good, morality, heroism, and triumph.  A wild west where men are men, women are women, and good guys wear white hats and never cheat or shoot anyone in the back.

And I think she nailed it. When she composed her first theme song in 2011 for Adventure on the High Seas, our pirate themed VBS, her music definitely sounded nice and piratey, but the overall composition was fairly rudimentary. Last year’s theme was more of an overture with four distinct movements, with the fourth movement a variation of the first.

Again, we have spent a lot of time listening to music. We have found some decent traditional music, as well as a lot of stuff that sounds more suited for a Chinese restaurant. One shining star however is Tan Dun, composer for Hero and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

A couple of weeks ago Rahne, Elsa, and I had kind of a jam session–both of the girls on piano and me on djembe drum and pennywhistle. Last Wednesday Rahne and Amelia got together to go over it some more with Rahne on piano and Amelia on violin.

We aren’t there yet, but the music is getting there. I am looking into buying an erhu, aka Chinese fiddle, so that we can get a more authentic sound once composition is complete.

 

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