art, Digital, Life, Mental health, Uncategorized, writing

The Writer Emergeth (guest-starring Mewlton the Origami cat)

Writing a blog for a year and a bit has been a positive experience. I’ve not been the most prolific of writers – there are only 15 posts on the blog at the moment including this one. I’ve certainly found it a learning curve…

I’ve enlisted my friend Mewlton, an Origami cat, to help me talk you through…


Step 0: Preparing the opening posts

Step 1: My first posts are up! I’m a blogger!

Step 2: Early success…

Step 3: … which gets a little out of hand, and goes to one’s head.

Step 4: The “tricky second novel”

Step 5: Making mistakes – and speaking out of turn.

Step 6: Assembling “The B (blog) Team”

Step 7: Taking feedback on board…

Step 8: … but then trying to please everyone who might possibly read, and avoid all possible criticism…

Step 9: Writing crisis!

Step 10: Learning to write again – finding balance.


Thank you for your assistance Mewlton!

I hope you enjoyed this. Which bits are me, which bits are Mewlton, and which bits are “for effect” you’ll have to decide for yourself. Mewlton may be back in future posts.

Catch you next time!

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.

Church culture, Digital, Uncategorized

Digital potential, part 1 – the sum is far greater than the individual parts

Our survey says…

Last autumn I took it upon myself to do a (totally unofficial) survey of how technology is used by the different churches in my town and the surrounding villages. I used Google to draw up a list of all the churches in the area, then working outwards I went through the websites of these churches one by one, making a note of things like

  • Do they actually have a website?
  • How well does it work? Is it frequently updated?
  • How well does the site describe services, facilities and activities?
  • Does the site have things for particular interest groups (e.g. 20s-30s, marriage-prep, Alpha)?
  • How well does the site use media (audio, video), and does the church use social media?
  • Does the website gives examples of where church members can get involved in using technology, and are these supporting roles (e.g. operating AV equipment) or creative (video production, animation, graphical design etc.)?
  • Does the church use only its own resources, or point people to carefully chosen external resources?
  • How well is the church website digitally integrated into the Christian community in the Aylesbury area (e.g. by advertising events at other churches)?
  • How well is the church website integrated into the wider community, for example by linking to groups from outside the church that use its facilities during the week (e.g. NHS support groups, fitness classes, Alcoholics Anonymous)?

This survey had some obvious limitations. It only provided a snapshot of a church’s digital footprint at one moment in time, it only included items that churches chose to externally advertise (so intra-church WhatsApp groups got overlooked) and so on. Despite this, I thought it was a worthwhile activity to try. Modern technology has already changed the world, and a good question to ask is whether the church (as a whole) is making the best use of it. As someone who spends a lot of time in front of a computer, this is a question I felt I could have a reasonable go at assessing. As a by-product, I gained a good overview of the Christian groups in the area and how they are involved in their wider communities. Which is no bad thing.

Here is some of what I found out.

And the winner of “Best Website” goes to…

Okay, I’m not really going to rank church websites in order of greatness. But some are better than others. Overall, churches with a larger congregation or from a more modern denomination (e.g. Vineyard, New Frontiers) had a better web presence. In comparison, smaller, more established congregations were weaker in this area. This was true of churches in the town as well as in the surrounding villages.

The obvious reason I can think of for this is that making and maintaining a website takes resources (a lot of time, some money) and a degree of expertise. Also, technology (particularly social media) skews towards the skill set of younger people, and there is a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation whereby tech-savvy people are pulled towards a church that is already tech-savvy…

Some of the best use of technology was actually by churches set up to cover the new housing estates. With hindsight this is hardly surprising, as taking into account their target audience (and in some cases lack of a building) they have had to innovate and engage with modern methods of communication in order to succeed.

The stopping point

Some websites were very basic, giving little more detail than services times, contact details and information that certain types of activity existed during the week. Others were much more fully-featured with libraries of recorded sermons (though some of these seemed to be pretty erratic selections), information on volunteering opportunities, pages describing social action and supported missionaries, and so on.

There was a point at which even the best websites ran out: creative content and resource curation. Some churches had music they had recorded, book reviews, or an introductory video. However, creative content of this sort was always pretty limited. Also, there was generally little attempt to link to external resources, even from within the same denomination. There’s an obvious reason for these things – creating content takes time (it takes me a day to write something as long as a blog post), and so does updating websites. Blogs and “news” sections in particular were often rather like zombies – they’re dead, they’ve clearly been dead for a long time, but they get trapped in an archive as no-one can bear to finish them off.

Everything community

When it came to “community” I was particularly interested in three things: how well churches cooperated with each other, how well churches catered for special interest groups, and how well churches seemed to be integrated with the wider community.

For the first of these, the short answer is: when it comes to technology, most churches hardly seem to interact with each other at all. For one church to link to events or resources at another did happen, but it was actually quite rare – even within a denomination.

Some special interest groups were well catered for. Most churches had a children’s programme, though the extent of it varied. Likewise, there was often provision made for senior citizens, men’s and women’s ministry, and mother-and-baby groups. This was often the point at which official programmes ran out. This isn’t really surprising, as most churches are of a similar size (more than fifty, max a few hundred), have a quorum of children and the elderly to care for, and both too few people in other special interest groups and too little time for running anything else.

When it comes to integration with the wider community, the visibility of this on websites varies greatly. Some churches have a wide programme of social action going on and are keen to talk about it. At the other end of the spectrum, some seem reluctant even to mention the public-service organisations (NHS support groups, disabled clubs, Alcoholics Anonymous etc.) that use their buildings during the week. And few indeed mention those that operate at other churches.

Drawing the threads together and making suggestions

In one sense my survey is now way out of date. As a result of the coronavirus lockdown, churches have been adopting new technology across the board in order to keep functioning. The church I go to now has an active social media group for the whole church, Zoom services on a Sunday, and even Zoom homegroups during the week. However, running in the background there is a strong undercurrent of “this situation is temporary, then we’ll be able to get back to meeting together in person.” Which naturally leads to the question: if the lockdown ends soon, will the new technology be jettisoned as quickly as it has arrived?

I think its an open question. Lockdown is a developing situation, and even the best guess is unlikely to be totally right. The thing that concerns me is not so much whether my particular church keeps this or that specific bit of technology going, but rather that in the desire for the familiarity of physical community the church (in the broader sense) might simply return to what it was doing before without giving the wider role of technology much thought.

Over the last few years I have been thinking that it would be a good idea if churches worked together more. Here are a few ways in which greater cooperation in the digital sphere would be useful:

  • Currently each church reinvents the same wheel. Is there any margin in the idea that churches work together on shared webspace, freeing up resources for doing extra things rather than duplicating the same functionality? As an example: the evidence suggests that no church can support a “church blog”. But if churches worked together, maybe they could?
  • Currently, larger churches have better technological capability, i.e. in a sense there is “digital poverty/inequality.” Is there a way in which more tech-savvy, larger churches can partner with smaller churches in the same area (even crossing denominational bounds)?
  • Digital roles tend to be support rather than explicitly creative, and creative work tends to be limited to introductory videos and youth work. Is there a way in which like-minded individuals from across the churches can be teamed up to make something more significant in the adult space?

Perhaps some of these things are already going on. In which case, do leave a comment below!

Phew. This post has got rather long. Hopefully there is something to get you thinking. One final suggestion:

Somebody please come up with a way for Christians in the same part of town to get to know each other! Currently people living a street away drive to different parts of town for church and don’t know each other exist. This is bonkers!!

See you in the next post!