The Meeting House has 23 locations where people meet in movie theatres to hear inspiring words from the teachings of Jesus. For Easter they often run a campaign to invite seekers and believers alike to observe or celebrate Easter. They're very modern, are pacficists, skeptical of nationalism and highly inclusive while—remaining true to the fundamentals of their faith. They're mennonites who love technology. Other branches chose to reject it. They chose instead to redeem it.
The brief within the brief
The client asked for creative direction for thier campaign. Elements would run in social, email, on-stage and opening title contexts. Most churches use stock art templates full of clichés that blend into the other Easter imagery. Classical works didn't fit the personality of the client. I felt we needed a fresh angle on the story to represent it best, to stand out and to resonate with a modern audience.
So I went back and read the primary texts. It's two main parts are the death of Jesus and his rising again. Churches tend to focus on celebration of the latter. But when we examine the emotions of the characters in the story, we find a lot of doubt, confusion and fear. We can all identify with those emotions even if we don't believe. It seemed important to acknowledge them as a starting point instead of giving away the ending from the start.
Failed First passes
It was the time of the Syrian refugee crisis. These were the people who for me represented the greatest sense of loss. Some people of the Meeting House had sponsored about 10 refugee families. So I imagined one of these women playing the mourning woman at the tomb of Jesus. In my mind we'd have her filmed in the rain at an ultra high frame-rate so we could get extreme slow motion. We would have one beautiful painterly shot. Slow motion rain and the silhouette of the woman in black mourning clothes could be the entire :30. It would be a kind of Bill Viola approach.
I spoke with a DP about shooting feasability. Some people felt that the refugee would be muslim and that would somehow be exploitive. For me it was a way of affirming the emotion. It seemed inclusive and empowering to me. If a yazidi or christian refugee was interested instead—that worked for me too. It seemed worth asking.
Technically we would need very high powered lights to capture good frames. In my mind they'd be painterly images like "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" by Julian Schnabel. But in the end, the idea was not approved. I found a Director of Photography with Phantom camera gear. He was interested and had a reasonable rate. But there was a sense that it was not achievable given our time, capacity and budget constraints.
There was also an idea of shooting floating life vests in the dark waters of Lake Ontario standing in for the mediterranean Sea. Both the refugee stories and Easter's Good Friday are about the loss of those we love. So perhaps elements of both could be intercut as a timely meditation? Good intentions but maybe better we didn't attempt it. Live action has a different feeling than my drawings on paper. Images can tend to read less as metaphors and symbols when photographed in real life.
Rebooting the Visual Approach
To restart the conceptual process I went back to the original insight. Focusing on the sense of loss. I started exploring possible headlines and came up with "Easter didn't start Happy." People say "Happy Easter" but the story—most of it is not happy at all. So we take the expected and raise a question about it.
That and some other lines were well received. So I drew some small graphic illustration elements to place. I set the headlines in a humanist typeface which exuded a quiet dignity. It alluded to Roman times as well as the later hand-drawn humanist lettering we might find used by monks. The look was on-trend yet not over used. Our minimal graphic style stood out from the typical Easter images.
Storyboard to Animation Tests
I had a storyboard for how I thought the titles could go. The campaign wrapped. Next we needed to find and animator. But none were available who fit our budget range and quality expectations. We were running out of time. So I thought I'd try making some tests for myself on some of the shots without showing the client. Then I thought I'd try cutting the tests together with my boards on a timeline with some music in Premiere. Wow. It was moving. I showed the client and they asked if I felt ok about continuing on my own. I did.
The music I'd selected was by an Icelandic contemporary classical composer I love called Olafur Arnalds. I got permission and pricing from his management and label. I felt it captured the sorrow of the story. The church approved the budget. But over time there was a feeling that emerged where they felt there might be something else that would work better out there. So I introduced my friend, composer John Poon who had a rare moment of availability. John built the score while I continued on the spot.
On first playback John had a cello playing the lead melody. For me it didn't have the feeling I loved about the sounds in the Olafur song. It sounded artificial. John agreed. He'd used a digital instrument as placeholder. Olafur records everything acoustically with real insturuments. Normally John would play and record the cello part himself (wow!) but he had loaned his cello to someone else and it wouldn't be available in our timeline. We needed a new instrument. I asked how he felt about french horn. John felt it was a good idea. Turns out he had a very advanced digital french horn which he could control with greater precision than the digital cello. It worked.
John and I are both big fans of Hans Zimmer's Interstellar soundtrack. So John put in a Hans Zimmer Audio Easter Egg— Pipe Organs. You'll hear them if you listen closely.
Final Opening Titles
With John's music bringing the optimistic dimension to our story for Easter Sunday it was time to match timing and export the final. Between the title sequence and message there are also bible verses on screen. John extended his composition to include music during those extra minutes while I typeset those using design guidelines I'd created with Marcelo Hong for the Church on another project. We'd shift out of the voice of the campaign into the voice of the church and to the biblical text itself.
So we ended up delivering a bespoke product: intentional, differentiated and unique. I learned a lot about motion design. John and I and watched our final work screened for a large community in a big movie theatre screen during the Easter Sunday service. It was so moving and affirming to see my work at that size after working on it for so long and so intensely. It's a privilege to try to honor content that is so meaningful and evocative to the 2.2 billion people globally who identify as christian.