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Amen Corner: Gluing Felt and Foam to Build Faith
Posted Jun 1, 2007 Print Version     Page 1of 1

Mention puppets to someone, and they’ll hardly think of them as a cutting-edge ministry in their neighborhood house of worship. But gone are the days of a floppy stuffed animal nodding on top of a gloved hand, or the memory of puppets whose lip-synching resembled a B-grade movie. With the introduction of powerful image and video software tools, puppetry has become an innovative way for teens to communicate with young and old alike.

Brian Stewart, coach of the Faith, Felt, and Foam puppet team at Shannon Hills Bible Chapel in Greensboro, North Carolina, says his team uses a series of software tools to create the right mood, performance material, motion graphics, and promotional items needed for hour-long puppet productions, layouts, and take-home DVDs.

“With the introduction of powerful software, such as Production Studio Professional CS2, MediaShout, Acrobat, and InDesign, the sky is the limit for creating a story presentation that has punch,” says Stewart. “From the opening curtain to the final splash of lights, we rely on creative software to help focus attention on the story and the puppets, not on the limitations of the venue.”

Combining a highly trained team of young people, ages 11 to 15, and entertaining storytelling, Faith, Felt, and Foam aims to provide a top-quality entertainment experience while conveying its message at the same time. Enhancing the show with quality lighting, contemporary music, and a backdrop of custom animation, the presentations are made available to churches that provide neighborhood outreach.

Stewart points out that many of the tasks required for a neighborhood outreach are well within the capabilities of most churches. “It’s easy to cook hot dogs, rent some inflatables, and set up a face-painting booth,” says Stewart. “But audiences today, whether in a house of worship or in a live theater, appreciate quality and a professional delivery.”

As such, Stewart says the most successful puppetry teams think like a band’s road crew, creating a “package” that is ready to go and kitted with all the technology required to produce the entire performance. “Inviting the community, providing the venue, and setting up chairs can be done anywhere, but it is not that simple to pull off the actual presentation,” says Stewart. “People, especially children, are naturally attracted to puppets, but staging a professional-quality puppet show is very difficult without a lot of training and practice.”

As a software engineer, Stewart knows the value of good software, but he starts planning for shows with pen and paper. After scribbling down notes and story ideas on a legal pad and discussing the ideas with his wife, Bonnie, he then turns to Celtx, an online script-writing tool that organizes a story with scenes, action, characters, and dialogue. “I use Celtx to keep track of all my background research for scripts. I use it to organize web bookmarks, keeps notes organized, and, of course, write the scripts in standard screenplay format,” says Stewart.

Stewart composes the staging layout for each skit or song using Adobe Illustrator. This provides a first glimpse of what the segment will look like and how it will actually work behind stage.

The next step is audio production. Stewart recruits voice talent for recording scripts from among his puppeteers or their parents. After assembling the talent in his studio, he uses Adobe Audition to record the skits. Audition is also used to clean up and sweeten the audio. What happens next depends on the nature of the skit or song. If it’s just a live puppet skit with no visuals, Stewart exports the Audition file to WAV and loads it into MediaShout, the team’s presentation software. In the case of simple slideshow-type visuals, Stewart pulls the audio into Adobe Premiere, and creates a movie.

For more complex backdrops, Stewart uses a combination of art and motion graphics products. He uses the website www.clipart.com for many of his source images and drawings and then moves to Illustrator and Photoshop to edit these materials. In the case of vector drawings that will be animated, he splits them into the appropriate layers to make things easier in Adobe After Effects, which he uses to animate the vector artwork in time to the audio.

There’s a lot more to a production than just the media and the skit audio. Stewart uses Acrobat for a lot of tasks, Adobe Bridge to track and organize assets, Sonicfire Pro for putting music to logo and title animations, Excel for puppeteer assignment sheets and puppet costume sheets, InDesign for flyers and posters, TurboCAD for stage layouts, and Illustrator for storyboards. “I use the open-source product Subversion to provide revision control,” says Stewart. “Keeping track of all the assets—not just the visual assets—is very important to help the entire production flow. It’s almost live theater meets the movies.”

The team is now moving towards producing videotaped puppet skits with greenscreen and digital backdrops to serve as transitions between the more traditional live puppetry segments. Stewart is also planning preview DVDs of the production using Adobe Encore, with licensed music. “Like anything that happens live, whether it’s a sermon or a skit, we often forget to capture the moment,” says Stewart. “But affordable tools are available to recreate the excitement felt during the live performance. And that makes our team’s mission even more exciting.”

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