They call it Church on the Move and that describes their spiritual and technical missions. Production Manager Andrew Stone describes how he’s helped modernize the Tulsa, Okla., church and build out its production capability with new cameras and an HD infastructure.
SVC: As production manager obviously you’re in charge of production, but what does that entail?
Andrew Stone: Well, it’s crazy. “Production Manager” is a title that I’ve used when I was on the road for all those years. You know, when you’re dealing with a tour everybody knows what a production manager does. Here at a church, it’s a little different. The “technical director” is usually what this position is called, but for what we do here, there’s so much going on. It’s part producer—having a huge hand in the producing of a lot of the things we do live—to actually balancing and managing the technical production aspects of what we do from lights, sound, video—anything that is required in the live arena. And then there’s the event operations of what we do. We have a lot of events here, and we’ve found that it’s very necessary to have the event operations people and the live technical event people combined into the same department. I head that all up and that happens to have a lot of financial resources, so there’s a lot of financial balancing too that this job entails. It’s a big deal. There’s a lot going on here and our church is very much focused on production as an avenue of ministry. We do large events and we’re very concert-oriented. We put a lot of resources, time, and energy into putting those together. It’s a cool job. I tell people that this really is the toughest job I’ve ever loved and that’s a cool statement. So for keeping things going at a breakneck speed—that matches the name of the church, Church on the Move—it does take a pretty qualified team. Sometimes I feel like I’m hanging on for the ride.
Describe Church on the Move. What sort of worship style does it have?
This is non-denominational church. It’s very edgy with music that’s very current—like what you’d hear on any of the radio stations and any of the stuff that’s popular right now. But we’re not afraid to pull out the old hymns and give them a little bit of a refresh. Our congregation is very diverse. We’ve got the 14-year-olds who just want to rock and just seek after God and do their thing all the way up to the senior citizens who have been here since the church started 30 years ago and they wouldn’t dream of being anywhere else. It’s a neat dynamic, and we have really brought them along for the ride. And it’s a great place to be with all the diversity.
You’ve been doing a lot of technical upgrading there. What did the church have as far as broadcast and production capability and what did you need to accomplish with the upgrade?
This church has a strong history in broadcast with the way we evangelize. We started as a kids’ ministry. That’s where our pastor started, where there was no church. He did a show called The Gospel Bill Show; we’re talking 35 years ago they started this. It was set in an Old West town. It was 30-minute episodes, and it was on for several years.
Our pastor, Willie George, as he began to feel God calling him to start a church, was already very much aware of what it was going to take to reach out to people of all ages and he wasn’t afraid to do the broadcast thing. He knew what cameras cost. He knew what switchers cost. He knew what it cost to buy your time for a radio program because he had been doing all of that on his own. As the church came about, that was a pretty big part of what they did. When I came here just a little over 11 years ago, I came right off the road, was very used to big touring and the rock band thing, and it was one of those, “Let’s see what we can do here.”
They were on SD cameras that were from the late ’80s—and this is in 2005, so these things had seen some action and needed some love. They were using terrible boardroomstyle projectors with old screens that were just dirty because they just hadn’t been upgraded in so long. The audio was poor. The church was getting by but it just wasn’t done very well. So we just started upgrading.
We’re not trying to impress anybody. There’s no one around to impress. We just wanted to bring a higher quality and a more excellent product to the people that came in the doors. We feel that if you can put a product together that’s professional and awesome and at the caliber of what you would get at a concert that you paid for, there’s a lot of people that would be interested in being a part of that who may not come to church otherwise. That doesn’t just mean we have good gear and that we were trying to upgrade. It meant that we had to change the way we view the art we put together—the quality of the musicians, the quality of the designs, the quality of the graphics. So it was far more than just upgrading a bunch of gear.
We started doing a major remodel campaign through the whole campus. We sit on 300 acres, so there are a lot of buildings, a lot of stuff to do. We didn’t have the vision to do HD because at the time, this was 2005, that was a very pricey prospect. We actually stayed with SD cameras, but I rented them. We did a full remodel, but we installed HD infrastructure everywhere—fiber, the whole thing—but we rented an SD camera package. It happened to be Hitachi, but it was the old SD cameras.
The Hitachi Z-HD5000s were the crowning touch on this.
Yeah. That was a purchase. We actually remodeled and opened our new spaces in 2009 and we had SD cameras. But we upgraded to Barco LED walls and that looked so fantastic compared to what we had been using—so it wasn’t that obvious that we were in SD. So we rode that out and we saved that money, and it helped us afford some other things as part of our upgrades. As life went on we started realizing that our product was starting to get a lot more popular. We weren’t doing a broadcast any more for local TV—nothing like that. We had gone to Vimeo and live streaming— cheaper avenues. We just get a lot more bang for the buck. A lot more people can watch, a lot more people can participate, and the costs on our end are a fraction of what it would be if we were trying to do a real TV broadcast.
I guess that’s part of the reason you got the Hitachis, because you had already been using Hitachi cameras.
That’s right. I had gone to Hitachi. I had actually called one of the vendors that I had a relationship with for gosh, 25 years now, 30 years, and asked, “Can I rent one of your packages? I just need four cameras, a small engineering station, and a switcher. Can I rent all this stuff? It’s just going to be here for a while.” It ended up being here all the way up until just a year or so ago when we finally upgraded. We weaned ourselves off of that and just upgraded to the nicer, newer Hitachi HD product.
They flew those in at their own expense and did the demo right there in the church. Is that right?
They did. Bob Johnston [Hitachi’s VP of sales and marketing] made it happen. I got in touch with him directly. I didn’t want to go through a middleman. We were at the point with what we do production-wise that I just needed to deal straight with the manufacturers and that’s what we do with most of our big capital purchases. They were great and they were like, “You know what? Let us come to you and bring some stuff. We’ll do some AB between your SD and HDs, so you really have some comparison,” and they did. A couple of them came in and brought the whole camera chain for all that stuff. I had an ulterior motive that I didn’t tell them about until they got here and I convinced them to leave the stuff so we could actually do a weekend with it. So I said, “That’s how we sell it. If we can put it in the room and demonstrate how much of an impact changing cameras is going to have, that will help prove the point.” They were reluctant a little bit, I think, then when they realized we were serious and we had our stuff together, they did it and it was great. I considered all the different brands. Hitachi, for us, was a more robust product for these reasons. It seems to be a camera that can take a beating. In my experience, I had seen a lot of Hitachis on the road. They were getting beat up, getting beat around in trucks all night, and then getting beat around with different local camera operators every day, and they just seemed pretty rugged. I’ve seen them get dropped and they still work. We cringe when that happens, but that says something. And they’re very easy to operate. There are some very nice cameras on the market, but they’re very complex and I needed something simple.
Yes, you’ve probably got a lot of training to do on a continuous basis.
We do, and these are volunteers we’re working with. Our staff all have done this as a career, so they know what’s happening. But almost all of our volunteers have no experience. They’ve never touched a camera before they walked in, so we needed something that made sense—that they’re not trying to figure out. I don’t want them coming here to serve and leaving feeling bad about what they did because they didn’t know how to operate some complex piece of gear. So that mattered. That mattered a lot.
And it’s all going through a Barco FSN- 1400 switcher, I believe. What do you do with that? I guess IMAG is one thing you’re doing with it.
We do everything. That’s become the core of our entire video setup. I was not aware that Barco had a switcher. The FSN-1400 is a mainframe-style switcher and then there is a control surface that’s called the FSN-150. It was just great. We had a relationship with Barco because we bought the LED product. I was told by some associates that work for C-SPAN that Barco had a switcher and C-SPAN had changed and started using Barco switchers in all of their setups. We know C-SPAN is not doing rock shows or big awesome crazy things, but 24 hours a day they are doing something somewhere in the world and their stuff has to work. So I got in touch and Barco said, “Let us ship you one.” I think it was Serial #5 and it never left. We kept it and it was just awesome. It did the things we wanted it to do. We wanted to be able to do a strobe effect, so we’d get a cinema feel on everything. We wanted to do a black and white at just the drop of a hat. Anything we wanted it to do, it handled very, very well. It had a massive amount of native inputs and card slots to change around the different inputs, and it was just the right thing. It’s become the hub of what we do, so it’s mainly live events, but everything that we’re doing is cut through that. When you see anything that we’ve done that’s online or that’s streamed or live or otherwise, it is a live cut so it’s not something that we’ve built in-post. That is our program feed. A lot of people wouldn’t do it that way. We just chose to step the bar up and make it happen for everything and it’s been a real win.
How many of the cameras do you have? Where do you have them located in there?
Right now we have seven of the Z-HD5000 cameras, and they’re positioned all over the place. Three of them are used as handhelds. We do zone defense, so to speak; around our stage there are just three operators and anything in their area is what they’re assigned to shoot as we sculpt out our events. Then there are four stationary cameras in stationary positions. Two of them, though, are on dolly tracks in the room so we can actually get some really nice lateral movement from those shots. And then two of them are centerline cameras with big 55X lenses on them. Those are more of a broadcast- style kind of a sports lens setup because those are all the way back near front-of house, so they’re about 80ft. from the stage. We put big lenses on them in order to make it happen and it’s really cool. In addition to those seven, we do have a high-and-wide shot that is a PTZ, a pan-tilt-zoom, camera that is a Panasonic, I believe. There are a slew of GoPros around the stage. We don’t talk much about them because they don’t look fantastic, but they’re a great, great bailout shot for us and a great way to capture quick little hits with certain musicians and all that. There are 11 cameras as part of just our normal setup, but seven of those are the Hitachi that are manned with operators.
With that many cameras it’s probably hard to miss anything that happens in there.
You’d think that, but the way the stage is, it’s a 170-degree wrap, so it’s a large-thrust stage; a very wide room. It’s amazing how easy it is to miss something. We put a lot of effort into preplanning and doing our blocking before we do a live event.
You’re also using Renewed-Vision’s ProPresenter. There are so many things you can do with that. How many versions of that have you been through so far?
Oh man, we’ve been with them for many years now and we’ve been following them through every version they’ve got. We just started making the rounds of getting Version 6 uploaded on a lot of the different machines. It takes a while. We did a count a while back and there’s something like 72 or 74 different computer systems in place that we utilize ProPresenter on and that’s a lot. That’s in all of our buildings, all of our venues and a couple of different campuses.
We use it for everything. So everything live that you see that has graphic content, and a lot of times just straight audio content, is coming from ProPresenter. That includes our lyrics, our lower third graphics, our entire graphics package that we use for any live event, video rolls, video clips. Sometimes we’ll do our house music from it because it’s just easy to do. It keeps the guys in the audio booth from having to scramble sometimes balancing CD players and all that junk. So if it can do it, we’ll do it. We have the Alpha Keyer Module, so we can do keying on all kinds of different stuff. We do a lot of lower thirds and stuff that have an opaque quality to them—very much like you’d see on an awards show or something. It’s a good product.
What’s the learning curve on ProPresenter?
We can usually put someone in there and get them to observe with a trained operator for a couple of services and then they’re on. It’s just not much. And that’s more of them just learning our format of just how to get around. The program is easy to operate. What takes a little longer is them getting the pacing of how to do lyrics right, how to lead the song, and put the lyrics up just a hair before they’re sung so people can stay with it. But it’s fast. We do live training using ProPresenter, so we’ll record a service and we can play it back on all of our multiviewers and they can hear in the monitors, or in their headset all of our cues that were done simultaneously with whatever we recorded. So they can sit there and we can essentially play back an entire service with all of our communication calls, all the headset chatter, and they can sit at ProPresenter and practice and get really good at it.
It’s been a no-brainer and that’s to the credit of the RenewedVision guys putting this together thinking of the end-user. We’ve used some other products in the past and it just seems like they’re so tech-heavy that it’s not really convenient to put a volunteer into that mix unless they’re an IT person.
What do you have to do to get set up for the services once you have everybody in there?
I’ve got a staff with all the production and operations people combined. It’s about 28 different people plus some interns. That’s everybody that handles all of our live events. The tech side of that is about 12 or 13 people, so during the week they can really work on getting everything set up. Obviously we’re not setting our main venue up from scratch—it all lives here. But when preparing for a service, we are getting all the graphics lined out, getting them developed, figuring out how they’re going to play, getting all the stuff tweaked, mastering the audio, figuring out what the format’s going to be for the event, getting the lyrics straightened out, all that stuff. Once things are loaded, the operators can come in, the volunteers come in, and they are set up to win. They basically have all the stuff in front of them that’s going to happen. Now we’re worried about execution and we’re going to focus on timing and we’re going to focus on feel, transitions, things like that. So it’s really good for them and that’s just something I chose to do. I could leave it all and let them all do it, but I would rather take the time that a volunteer would need to set up and I would rather focus on the training or the repetition of the live event. So by the time we get to the live event they’ve literally been able to run this through five, six, seven times and they’ve got it. And that’s one of the big reasons why we’re able to get the product we get.
How do you record the services?
We are long gone from anything that has DVD written on it. In fact, if you told me to go find a DVD player in our building right now I don’t know if I could do it. So we record everything to hard disk and honestly we have a whole stack of Mac mini recorders. I know that sounds crazy, but we’ve upgraded those with maximum RAM and solid-state drives and all that stuff, and they’re just very convenient because you can gang them together and control them all at once. So we will ISO record every camera so if we have a problem, we have individual ISO recordings of everything and we could effectively rebuild a program if we need to. We have had to do that before. It has been needed because you have glitches. I And then we basically record straight to an Adobe Premiere. We do have a backup, so there are two of those running all the time. We record straight to it and we’re immediately able to polish up the endings and do some light editing if we need to, and export. It’s a very simple way to record.
What’s more challenging in the role of production manager, the people or the gear?
It’s people. I’ll tell you what: I’m not a huge gearhead. I don’t love tech stuff. I know a lot about it just because I’ve had to, because that’s my career path, but the people matter. I could have the fanciest gear. I could have the church buy the most expensive stuff in the universe. If I don’t have the right people and the right mentality and the right situation presented for those people to excel in, we’re nothing. It’s only as good as the team. You know, we’ve heard that my whole life. You’re only as good as your weakest link. It is very, very true. So I would rather focus on the harder part of this, which is the people, and make that a win and then let the gear thing happen as needed. We have a lot of stuff. We do. But we have a huge place. It’s scaled. If it was a very small church I wouldn’t have a lot of gear, but I wouldn’t have as many people. So it’s just scale. The bigger you get the more complex it has to be, but I would rather focus on staffing and how our core group is treated and used and how they feel about what they do when they’re here than worry about all the gear.
What do you do on the audio side? What do you have for a front of house mixer?
Front of house is a pretty elaborate setup. We are running analog right now and we’ve been analog here since I got here. I installed two Midas Heritage 3000 consoles, which is, in my opinion, the nicest analog desk in existence. They’re both hooked together, so it’s about 110 analog inputs at front of house. That has fit the sonic need that we have here and is very organic. Our music is all about the realness of it and the depth of what we can get from the sonic field, so Midas has really been a great way to go. That probably can’t be a forever thing. Analog is slowly getting phased out in this world, but while we have it I’m making great use of training our young engineers on this equipment so they are getting some great experience in what the real art in mixing is. We do all the monitoring from front of house. I know that’s crazy for this big of a situation, but it just makes sense. We don’t have a great location to put a monitor board and it’s easy. It sounds awesome, so there’s no reason to do it any other way and our musicians are very well served and they love it. We rock with it.
How do you handle all of the stage monitoring?
There’s not a wedge in existence. We have a few wedges in our arsenal that are used for other little rooms and little events and stuff. We don’t have any onstage. It’s all wireless in-ear monitors. It fact, we used to have a few wired in-ear monitors and we’ve phased that out. It was just a little cumbersome for the people to wear. So it’s all wireless. It is a massive wireless situation on stage. I’ve got about 200 frequencies in operation tonight in this main room from a lot of stereo ear packs to all of the wireless stuff, to the comms—all the wireless communication devices that are everywhere. It’s a lot of stuff and our frequency coordination is a massive ordeal, so again, we spend a lot of time and effort on making that good for everybody.
What kind of wireless mic system do you have?
They’re all Sennheiser and we use all Sennheiser in-ears at all of our facilities and all of our room and buildings. They approached us a few years ago and wanted me to try their products. I wasn’t opposed to it; I just had always stuck with other product lines. I was so happy with the performance. It just sounded better to me than what we had been using. They really came alongside us and helped us explore some other options that we wouldn’t have had otherwise.
What’s down the road? Do you have more upgrades planned?
Well, there’s always something. Every time you turn around there’s something else happening. We still are upgrading rooms and upgrading systems. This stuff gets a beating and we treat it nice, but some of these systems get used seven days a week, multiple times, and that takes its toll, so we’re very heavy into maintenance and preventive maintenance. We’re always looking, “OK, where’s the new campus that’s going to open? What are we going to put together? What package are we going to need?” And we continue to try to morph our equipment as well. We are not trying to waste money, but we’re trying to make very smart decisions with what we have and how we can serve our people. As the needs change, I may need to change the gear specs for a room. That’s kind of a continual process that’s always happening in the background.