art, Bible Study, Culture, Digital, Uncategorized

Animating “Jonah”

In the autumn the church I attend decided to make a pre-recorded “program” for the children to watch with their parents on a Sunday morning. Recently, I was asked if I would like to contribute and produce some artwork to illustrate the story of Jonah. I like having an opportunity to use my skills, and jumped at the chance.

The story was told in three parts over successive Sundays, finishing last weekend. My contribution was a series of still images and short animations. I’ve had a lot of positive feedback on these, and a couple of people have suggested that I do a write-up of the animation process in a blog post, so today I’ll do just that.


Telling the Story – Requirements

Before starting on illustrations, I had a virtual meeting with the church children’s worker to discuss what would be needed. They had adapted the narrative in the Bible into a script; I would do the artwork for the story, another person would record a voiceover, and a final person would edit the video and audio together and add sound effects. So overall four people were involved and it was a real team effort. (Referring to “another person” seems a bit cold and distant! I haven’t used their names on the blog to respect their privacy.)

To tell the story, quite a lot of animations were needed in total. Illustrating/animating is time-consuming, so there was a need to be efficient: to choose art and animation styles that were simple and quick to do, and where possible to re-use the same assets in multiple scenes.

The Sunday morning children’s program is aimed at younger children, with a typical age of something like 1-7 (though adults who’ve seen it have enjoyed it too!). I haven’t much experience of making things for this age group, so I had a think about what the requirements of this audience are and came up with the following:

  • Some of the children are really young, so the artwork needs to be simple to interpret: obvious, somewhat exaggerated facial expressions on characters; keep scenes visually free of clutter.
  • The artwork needs to be attractive to this audience: use bright, bold colours and simple shapes; use humour in animations.
  • Assume that it’s being watched by someone who can’t read: as far as possible tell the story using changes in colour (e.g. from red for bad, to blue for good), changes in shape (e.g. from spikey for bad/wicked/dangerous, to soft and rounded for good/friendly/wholesome), changes in facial expression and so on.

The Final Result

Here’s my contribution to the final result – i.e. the “animation” part, without the voiceover or sound effects. I’ve added in a text overlay to give a broad-brushstrokes description of what is going on in case the story is unfamiliar.

The animation is in a simple 2-D style, it’s bright and colourful, and hopefully the scenes are easy to understand.

Here’s how it was made.


The Technical Bit

I used three programs: Illustrator, Character Animator and After Effects. This diagram shows the basic workflow:

A simple flowchart showing the workflow I used for animating a scene of Jonah.

It looks a little complicated, but it’s really not too bad. I used Illustrator to make all the graphics – character models, props, scenery, and the sky – and Character Animator to animate the human characters (facial expressions, body movements and walking). I used After Effects to do the rest of the animating (waves moving in the sea, the motion of the boat, the worm eating a plant etc), to create special effects (e.g. bubbles coming out of Jonah’s mouth when he’s underwater), and to combine all the different bits together. I then added a bit of camera motion, such as moving the camera in for close-ups of Jonah’s facial expressions. And finally each scene was exported as a video file.

Here’s a bit more detail on two parts of the process: animating the character of Jonah, and putting a scene together.

1. The Character of Jonah

The character file that I made for Jonah in Illustrator shows him in three views: front on, left profile and right profile. The front view was used whenever he was standing still, and the left and right profiles were used when he was walking across the screen.

Illustrator works in layers. An image is built up by stacking layers on top of each other, starting with whatever is furthest back and moving forwards. So, as an example, the eye layers have to be on top of the head layer (or all you’d see is a scary eyeless head!) Bottom left below is an exploded view to show how this works. For each view, it was necessary to make a separate expression for every emotion that would be needed in the story. The six expressions needed for Jonah when front on are shown below top right.

Left profile, head on, and right profile.
On the left is the finished character. On the right the layers that make up the character have been separated out.
A range of expressions for Jonah. It’s amazing how much can be done just by changing the mouth shape and eyebrow angle!

When the designing was finished, I imported the Illustrator file into Character Animator. It is designed with characters like Jonah in mind, and the amount of set-up needed to turn artwork into something ready to animate is pretty small. The things that need to be specified are things like –

  • where the arms should connect to the body
  • how bendy the arms should be (wobbly cartoon arms anyone?)
  • which points should be fixed in place when the character is standing still (e.g. the feet)
  • setting up particular expressions to play when keys are pressed on the keyboard

Set-up complete, Character Animator automatically calculates a starting walk cycle from the character artwork. As the name suggests, a walk cycle is the series of movements that take place when someone walks – left leg up, left leg down, foot flat on ground, heel up, and so on. It saves a huge amount of time to use a program that creates a walk cycle for you. Once Jonah was moving, there was then a bit of back and forth between Illustrator and Character Animator to make everything look good, but this wasn’t too arduous.

The animating itself used a series of passes, each of which added something to the final result:

  • 1st pass – Overall positioning. Use the arrow keys on the keyboard to walk Jonah left and right, and walk on/off screen, or stop pressing keys to let him stand still.
  • 2nd pass – Eye gaze and head movement. Using a webcam, my head motion and eye movement were tracked and mapped onto Jonah’s head, upper body and eyes.
  • 3rd pass – Facial expressions. Key presses were logged to register changes in Jonah’s facial expression, to express his different moods.
  • 4th pass – Moving the hands/arms to give Jonah gestures like scratching his head, mopping his brow and leaning in a relaxed fashion.

Here’s a short scene showing this. Going from left to right each copy of Jonah has an extra pass included:

Animation build-up through passes.

(The facial expression for Jonah when he walks to the left is a “default” grumpy expression for Jonah when he’s walking.)

2. Putting a Scene Together

The background, scenery and props were made in Illustrator using a similar method to creating the artwork for Jonah, and then imported into After Effects. Just as artwork in Illustrator is built up in layers, a scene in After Effects is also built up in layers from background to foreground, with each object in the scene (the sky, a tree, a boat, a wave etc.) on a separate layer. Here’s an example of how a scene was constructed:

Some objects, such as the sky, or a beach, didn’t need to move. Others did, like the waves in the sea. I animated each of these separately using “keyframe animation”: I specified where where the object needed to be at key times, and allowed the computer to calculate a path for the object that took it between those key positions. For instance, for a wave, the keyframe information was along these lines: “Start here“; “Two seconds later be further right and up a bit“; “Two seconds after that be further right and down a bit“; “Two seconds after that be further right and up a bit“; and so on.

As well as position, all sorts of other things can be keyframed to produce different effects –

  • The height of an object can be changed to give it a squashed or stretched look. Keyframing a rapid series of stretches and squashes gives a cartoon “Boi-oing” effect. This was used on the signs that land near Jonah towards the start.
  • The colour and brightness of an object can be keyframed. This was used to change the appearance of the waves when the storm sets in.
  • The shape of an object can be distorted. This was used on the fish (whale) to flap its fins and tail, and open and close its mouth.
  • The transparency of a layer can be keyframed to give a “see-through” effect, or make something disappear. When Jonah is in the sea and has his head above water, the wave layer in the foreground is completely opaque. As he sinks, this layer becomes partially transparent so that we can “see” him underwater.
  • The scale of an entire scene can be keyframed, to give a zooming in/out effect. This was used for close-ups, such as seeing changes in Jonah’s facial expression, or the worm eating the bush.

With a combination of keyframed effects operating on screen simultaneously, the result can be quite an interesting, realistic scene.


That’s a Wrap

That’s a quick run-through of the 2-D animation process I used. I hope you found it interesting. If you have any questions, do leave them in the comments below.

Bible Study, Theology, Uncategorized

Interesting Theology: “Theophany” and “The Angel of the LORD”

Last year I got a call from someone from a church small group I used to go to. Like a lot of church groups we had taken it in turns to lead Bible study series. Even though I don’t hold any academic theology qualifications, they had liked the style of the studies I had written for the group and wondered if I would write some for them and send them along. I was wondering what to do with my time, and was only too happy to do so.

I suggested we look at Exodus. I can’t remember why! But they happily agreed. And so I wrote a short 4-part series. The group was largely made up of people who had been Christians for a long time, so rather than start at the beginning of the book and go through it in a basic reading comprehension way (i.e. “who is Moses, who are the Israelites, what happens in the story, what do we learn from this?”) I tried to focus on broader or more difficult topics. This meant doing a lot of studying and research on my own part, which was a lot of fun, and although I came across a lot of questions to which I couldn’t find a definitive answer, I did find out some interesting things. And I’ve been thinking “why not share them on the blog? A lot of my readers are Christians and would be interested.” So over a few posts I intend to do just that, starting with this post on “Theophany and the Angel of the LORD.”

(All Biblical quotations are from the NIV translation of the Bible.)

That title is a bit imposing…

Using the word “Theophany” is a good way to make people nervous. But it expresses a simple idea. The Oxford Dictionary defines it as

Theophany: A visible manifestation to humankind of God or a god.

So to give a simple example, there is a Theophany in Genesis 3, the story of Adam and Eve:

Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the LORD God among the trees of the garden. But the LORD God called to the man, “Where are you?”

In this story “God” is not an abstract figure. He is walking in the garden, and Adam and Eve could encounter him. That’s all a Theophany is: a story in which God is visible to people in some way. There are actually quite a lot of Theophanies in the Old Testament (more on this below). And the gospels that tell the story of Jesus’ life in the New Testament are Theophanies from start to finish!

What piqued my interest in this subject?

When I started thinking about writing studies on Exodus, I already knew of a few topics that I didn’t have a good grasp of myself. One of them was this. In Exodus, at the start of the story of Moses and the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai, we read (Exodus 19 and 20):

The LORD descended to the top of Mount Sinai …
And God spoke all these words: …

What follows is the Ten Commandments, which all the people of Israel hear; after this Moses goes up onto Mount Sinai to talk to the LORD, and receive the rest of the terms of the Mosaic/Old Covenant. But, in the New Testament, we read things like this in Stephen’s speech (Acts 7):

He [Moses] was in the assembly in the desert, with the angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai, and with our fathers; and he received living words to pass on to us.

Whereas the Exodus passage seems to talk about God descending on Mount Sinai, the New Testament writers (who knew their Old Testament well) talk about Moses receiving the Covenant from an angel. This sounds like quite a difference! So I decided to do a bit of research to try and understand why the New Testament writers say what they do.

The Angel of the LORD

The story of Moses on Mount Sinai starts half-way through the book of Exodus. After reading it, I went back to the beginning of the book . Near the start is the story of the burning bush (Exodus 3&4):

Now Moses was tending the flock… and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. …

When the LORD saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!” … “I am the God of your father, …”

At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God.

The LORD said, …

This story starts off talking about “the angel of the LORD” , but quickly switches to saying that God spoke to Moses. The passage doesn’t maintain a distinction between “the angel of the LORD” and “God”.

After speaking to God at the burning bush, Moses went to Egypt to speak to Pharaoh. Their first meeting was a disaster. Not only did Pharaoh not listen to Moses, he decided to make the working conditions harsher for the Israelites, who lived in Egypt as slaves. In response (Exodus 5),

Moses returned to the LORD…

This takes place only a couple of chapters after the story of the burning bush, so I think there is every reason to suppose that here Moses talks to God in exactly the same way he had done previously (though this isn’t stated explicitly).

Does this continue throughout Exodus? Asking a more precise question: whenever the text of Exodus says “The LORD said to Moses”, is Moses in conversation with the angel of the LORD, and no distinction is made between the words the angel speaks and God Himself speaking?

I think this is what the New Testament writers understood to have happened, though it sounds a bit strange to modern Western ears.

Questions of Identity

It is one thing to say that the Old Testament tells us that to see the angel of the LORD was in some sense to see God, but quite another to explain it!

The word angel means “messenger”, so in one sense “the angel of the LORD” means “the messenger of the LORD”. However Exodus distinguishes the angel of the LORD from other angels: the LORD tells Moses that His “Name” is in him (Exodus 23), and that if the angel of the LORD is with the Israelites His “Presence” is there with them (Exodus 33).

I don’t fully understand what this means. The angel is clearly God’s representative – a bit like how an ambassador is the representative of a king in a foreign country, and operates in his name and with his authority. But somehow this doesn’t seem quite enough. It’s rather like trying to talk about how Jesus is both human and God: it’s easier to say “it’s a bit like such-and-such an idea; but that isn’t quite right because…” than to positively say what’s correct.

Actually, some writers suggest that the angel of the LORD is a pre-incarnation manifestation of Jesus (e.g. Alec Motyer in “The Message of Exodus” in the “The Bible Speak Today” commentary series). I’m not sure this is right, because the New Testament makes a clear distinction between Jesus and angels (see the start of Hebrews). But perhaps, like with other things in the Old Testament, it is at least fair to think of the angel of the LORD as a kind of “foreshadowing” of that which is fully realised later on in Jesus.

What about other early Old Testament books?

I decided to go through the Bible starting from the very beginning, looking out for Theophanies and references to the angel of the LORD. The Bible is a long book, but scanning through quickly I got a long way into the Old Testament (at least as far as the end of Judges).

What jumped out at me is quite how often similar events to what Moses experienced at the burning bush occur, both before Exodus (in Genesis) and afterwards (in Judges). For example:

  • In Genesis 16, Hagar ran away after being mistreated by Abram’s (Abraham’s) wife Sarai (Sarah). The angel of the LORD appeared to Hagar and spoke to her. And Hagar believed she had seen God.
  • In Judges 6, the angel of the LORD appeared to Gideon, who did not recognise him. When Gideon eventually realises to whom he had been talking, he says “Ah, Sovereign LORD! I have seen the angel of the LORD face to face!” And fears for his life. This story is particularly interesting because of what happens next: even though the angel has disappeared, God speaks to Gideon – suggesting that God chooses to communicate with him in a way other than through the angel.
  • In Judges 13, the angel of the LORD appears to Manoah and his wife. Just like Gideon, they don’t recognise him until after making a burnt offering (a kind of sacrifice) to the LORD and seeing the angel of the LORD ascend up to heaven in the flame. Manoah, who would become Samson’s father, concludes “We are doomed to die! … We have seen God!” His wife has more sense, and points out that if God intended for them to die, He would not have accepted their sacrifice – or sent the angel of the LORD to give them instructions about the son they were going to have!

While none of these stories are identical, they have things in common. Those who see the angel of the LORD often conclude they have seen God Himself. And they often express fear for their life because they have seen God face to face.

There are many other Theophanies and references to the angel of the LORD in the early books of the Bible. One interesting thing is that on at least two occasions we are told that the angel of the LORD spoke to someone on the earth from heaven (Genesis 21 – another occasion on which the angel spoke to Hagar; and Genesis 22 – the testing of Abraham).

Talking to God face to face

At the end of the giving of the Covenant on Mount Sinai, there is this (Exodus 23):

See, I am sending an angel ahead of you to guard you along the way and to bring you to the place I have prepared. Pay attention to him and listen to what he says. Do not rebel against him; he will not forgive your rebellion, since my Name is in him.”

Exodus 33 puts it a different way – “My Presence will go with you…”. This is a promise that was kept. In Judges 2, after the Israelites had entered Canaan under Joshua,

The angel of the LORD went up from Gilgal to Bokim and said, “I brought you up out of Egypt and led you into the land that I swore to give to your forefathers. I said, ‘I will never break my covenant with you, …'”

Just as at the burning bush, for the angel of the LORD to speak is for God to speak.

What happened between Mount Sinai and reaching Canaan? The Israelites had been told to listen to the angel of the LORD. However, the angel of the LORD doesn’t get mentioned (or at least not very often). But there are many statements of “the LORD said to Moses”. At first the LORD met with Moses at a tent set aside for this purpose; this was replaced at Mount Sinai by a special structure called the “Tabernacle” that was built according to a pattern that Moses was shown by God. The LORD is described as being in the cloud in passages like the crossing of the Red Sea (Exodus 13&14). Exodus 33 tells us

As Moses went into the tent, the pillar of cloud would come down and stay at the entrance, while the LORD spoke with Moses. … The LORD would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend.

While the angel isn’t specifically mentioned here, I think the idea that Moses was speaking to the angel in these encounters makes sense; as we have seen already the Biblical text doesn’t preserve a distinction between the angel speaking and God speaking. It also gives a literal meaning to Moses speaking to God “face to face”.

Different Degrees of Theophany

Last but not least, a short observation. The Theophanies of the Old Testament show different degrees to which God revealed himself:

  • Gideon and Manoah both met the angel of the LORD. They treated him with respect, but didn’t at first know who he was.
  • When Moses met the angel of the LORD at the burning bush, he was told he stood on holy ground, and had to take his shoes off.
  • When Moses, Aaron and the elders of Israel “saw the God of Israel” and ate a meal in His presence to celebrate the ratification of the Old Covenant, what they saw went beyond the earthly: “Under his feet was something like a pavement made of sapphire, clear as the sky itself.” (Exodus 24)
  • After the incident of the Golden Calf, Moses asked God to show him his glory. He was told “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the LORD, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. But, ” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no-one may see me and live.” Moses was then given a revelation of God on the top of Mount Sinai. (Exodus 33&34)
  • When the Tabernacle had been set up, “Then the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the Tabernacle. Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud had settled upon it, and the glory of the LORD filled the Tabernacle.”

For someone to simply see the angel of God was in a true sense to “see” God; but greater revelations were possible. The same thing is true in the New Testament with Jesus. Some people saw Jesus but didn’t recognise him; others saw him and recognised who he was; only a very few went up the mountain with him and saw the Transfiguration.

Wrapping it up

I hope you found that interesting. It’s a subject I enjoyed looking into, and one I can’t remember being discussed in a comprehensive fashion in church.

My conclusions about the role of the angel of the LORD above aren’t fixed in stone. They’re the best I came up with after looking up references and thinking about it – but I’m happy to be proved wrong. This is a topic where the Bible doesn’t spell out the details explicitly, and I found it necessary to gather information from lots of different passages and try to synthesize it together. The tricky bit is finding conclusions that satisfy all the evidence. Taking any one passage by itself can give a misleading impression of the overall picture.


That’s it for this post. Feel free to leave comments below or drop me an e-mail. Until next time!