Animating the Stories and Themes of the Bible – An Interview with Jon Collins and Tim Mackie

BibleProject is a crowd-funded animation studio in Portland, Oregon whose mission is “to help people experience the Bible as a unified story that leads to Jesus.”  They have made hundreds of high quality animated videos explaining books and themes in the Bible that are viewed by millions of people around the world.

Tim Mackie is co-founder of BibleProject , and  a writer and creative director for it.  He has a PhD in Semitic Languages and Biblical Studies. He wrote his dissertation on the manuscript history of the book of Ezekiel, with a focus on the Septuagint and Dead Sea Scrolls.  Tim is also a professor at Western Seminary and served as a teaching pastor for many years.

Jon Collins is BibleProject’s other co-founder, as well as a writer and creative director. He has a BA in Biblical Studies from Multnomah University (where he met Tim). Jon is known by the team as the Architect of Ideas. He is a master of making complex ideas simple, and has spent the last decade founding and leading digital media and marketing companies.

David Brenner interviewed Tim and Jon in a Zoom call on May 18.  Here is an edited transcript of their wide ranging conversation.

 

Q:  AI and Faith brings together sophisticated tech professionals and theologians to better apply their faith understanding to life. What continues to excite you about combining your skills and knowledge from your two different disciplines in BibleProject?

Jon: The disciplines being Biblical studies and technology, specifically animation? I’ve become really enamored and fascinated with how communication technology is advancing, and allowing us to more efficiently and more delightfully understand the world, consume information and make meaning of it. Growing up with the Bible, I’ve always been kind of overwhelmed with what the Bible is doing.  There’s just so much there I never understood as much as I tried, even when I went to Bible school as an undergraduate to understand it. So being able to try to appreciate the complex beauty of what the Bible is doing and how it communicates and then distilling that down so that it’s more approachable and understandable,  it’s really fun. And we’ve found people really value it.

 

Q:  Tim, I understand you were involved in local parish ministry for a while before you teamed up with Jon on BibleProject… And you earned your PhD from the University of Wisconsin in ancient languages. How did those experiences contribute to your interest in technology?

Tim:  Of the two parts – technology and the Bible, I’ve definitely made my investment In the Bible for the most part. One thing that always has been of interest to me is the historical origins of the Bible. This is the area where Jon and I have a lot of overlapping interest.  The Bible has been at the center of some of the most important developments in communication technology throughout history.  Whether that’s the invention of the alphabet – the alphabet that we use today is the invention out of the Semitic language family during the lifetime of Abraham. Whether it’s the scroll – that wasn’t invented in the land of Israel, but biblical scribes pushed the technology of the scroll to an absolute limit and the scrolls were the prompt. The literary work of what we call the Hebrew Bible actually was a mental construct that existed in the minds and the hearts of the scribes and communities and the scrolls were the means to preserve it. Once the whole collection became too burdensome for scrolls, it led in the Messianic communities to the codex, and eventually to the printing press, etc.  So I think one thing Jon and I are really excited about is dreaming up or at least being a part of what we hope is a new wave of communication innovation with the Bible at its center. That’s a frequent conversation between us.

 

Q: Jon, you started out making online explanatory videos about ordinary products of various sorts. Is that right? And some for non profits. How did that carry over to your work on TBP?

Jon:  I learned the craft of explaining through animation and everything was immediately transferable to BibleProject. Learning how and when to present information visually, how to pair that with the narration, how to use storytelling elements, both visual storytelling elements and then ancient storytelling elements. And then how to write scripts so that you get to the core of an idea in a way that someone can follow.  Remember, you’re giving them the information architecture of an idea so that it makes sense, and so the rest of the information that they’ll absorb once they’re done with the video has a place to hang. So all those skills, and then just the whole pipeline of writing, story boarding, illustrating, and animating all of that, I got to learn on the dime of a lot of startups. That was a great way to go.

 

Q: The Old Testament is full of visual images and in the New Testament, Jesus famously spoke in parables, very short stories. How have those characteristics of the Bible affected your work?

Tim:  Yeah,  the main vehicle of the messaging of all of these biblical texts is the medium of narrative and poetry, which is a heavily visual and symbol driven kind of communication. Ideas can become set into icons in certain characters. And then you all of a sudden can refer to whole complex themes and ideas through an image that translates really easily into visual communication. For sure, that’s been a main driver. There are some abstract things in the Bible but they are usually anchored to symbols and that really makes that job a lot easier. Jon made videos on cloud computing and other kinds of things that are way more abstract. Cloud computing is basically a virtual idea, so in some ways it’s actually easier to work with the Bible.

 

Q:  What were the most difficult books of the Bible so far to describe through animation?

Jon:  I don’t know about books. I would say the most difficult kind of projects are when we try to trace a theme through the whole storyline of the Bible. We did a “character of God” series and as the symbol for God’s covenant, keeping loyal love,  we ended up on a candle, after many iterations of other symbols that we could have used. That’s a good example of an abstract idea that we came up with a symbol for, like an icon. Actually, videos that are focused on books are almost the easiest because the content of the book itself determines the playing field. Whereas when we’re doing a theme, it’s like the whole biblical canon is the playing field and we’ve got to really pare it down both conceptually and visually.

 

Q:  It appears to me that both your forms of animation and also your content have changed over time.  You started out explaining what books are saying and the stories they’re telling and then you’ve moved into themes.  And now it seems you are applying those themes to show how this all matters for life. Is that a fair description?

Tim:    I think our book overviews were the first thing to catch the attention of most people and we became really known for them but we were always doing both.  The very first two videos we did were an overview of Genesis chapters 1 through 11 and a theme video on the relationship of Heaven and Earth in the Bible, in God’s space. We were always trying to go back and forth between doing a book overview and a theme overview. We then started introducing more types of videos. Word studies, which we treated more like thematic studies than strictly a word study. Then we did a hermeneutics-type class on how to read the Bible – a class series of videos.

It was only at the beginning of COVID that we started doing anything that was really more life application. We decided [a year ago last March] to start putting out a weekly Bible study for people who didn’t have access to church anymore. . . . We’ve continued to do that this year, but we found that our sweet spot isn’t necessarily in application, it is more in and Biblical studies.

 

Q:  How has your approach to animation changed over time in relation to the way that you are handling content? I’ve always been impressed by the developing line drawing approach because it takes the viewer with you on the journey. But you’ve also done more complicated shading and other approaches that are artistically quite different. How do you arrive at those different creative solutions? 

Jon:  We’re always interested in three things when we’re deciding what style to use. One is just our budget because some [techniques] are more expensive than others,  just design hours.  More importantly, we think about what illustration style will serve the content the best. So when we did a video on exile, a painterly, moody style felt really good. When we did a video trying to explain the nature of God, it was much more simple motion graphics, shapes and movements just to try to keep the visuals really simple because the ideas are so abstract. So that’s the main consideration. Thirdly, we have an inhouse design team that we want to keep developing and growing together.

 

Q:  To what extent do you use artificial intelligence tools in your work, either in the animation process or in other forms of distribution, your podcast for example?

Jon:  Transcripting has become all AI, and that really helps with our podcast. We’re able to provide a really great transcript; it’s combed over after AI.  Our videos all at first were on YouTube.  YouTube would create a closed caption with their own AI, that we would get cleaned up by the crowd.  We have a chat bot on our website. We’ve worked with an organization called Storytellers that uses machine learning to predict . . .  what’s going to happen with [our patron donors] – how many monthly supporters will we have in the next months, how much giving will come through.  Actually, it’s really accurate.

 

Q: Do you use natural language processing for translating your videos into other languages?

Jon:  No, we use humans for that. . . . But our customer support probably does use [AI-powered translation] to communicate with people.  Half of our viewership is outside the U.S., and a large portion that is in non-English languages.

 

Q: Do other media that are AI-driven like computer generated images and video games have an impact on your own artists’ approach to how they depict faith beliefs?

Jon:  All animation in the way that we use it now, it’s not hand drawn frame by frame. It all is in some sense interpolation.  You say start here and here and do it in this manner. And then the software will create all the frames in between. When you get into rendering things with shading or texture, that’s all done through software.  The big budget productions are pushing that to its extreme to where you get really realistic water [or] hair. And then that stuff trickles down and becomes more accessible. But they don’t necessarily lend themselves to better explanation.  What does happen is our audience becomes more sophisticated in how they absorb animation.  They can tell the difference between good motion and bad motion, and they know what minute details of motion mean, like what it’s communicating. And so we have to be prepared to make sure that we’re using that in the correct way.

 

Q:  I wonder about the medium and the message over time. Have you had to concern yourself with how the medium you’re using may affect the substance of the message?

Jon:  I think about that. I think about how, when Disney makes something on the story of the Exodus with Moses, they’re digitizing it and it kind of changes the message. One thing that’s great about the explainer medium is we’re trying to explain what the literature is trying to do. Our medium is intentionally trying to mirror the message as best as possible. It’s not going to an exact match to just reading these stories in Hebrew over and over and over. That’s the best way to let that really land. I’m sure there’s unintended consequences that I haven’t quite come to terms with yet, but I’ve been feeling pretty good at how we’ve been able to translate between mediums.

 

Q: How about you, Tim – has the medium threatened the message in any way from your point of view?

Tim:  No, you know these biblical texts are designed to communicate things and they do so mainly through using narrative and poetic conventions and repetition to communicate content. We’re essentially trying to do the same thing by following the clues of the literature and then distilling it. And even the way that we shape the narrative arc of a lot of our videos, the information arc is mirroring the patterns of the literature itself.

So, at the end of the day, the goal is that somebody is intrigued enough that they want to go start reading scripture for themselves.  For us, that’s the win. It’s not necessarily that they watch our videos, it’s that our videos help them. You have a new excitement and clarity to go read the scriptures for themselves.  For us, that’s the progression. That’s why our video series are paired with Bible reading programs.  Bible reading opportunities have been the most successful in building momentum. And so in that sense, I feel like [animated explainer] is the medium on the stage right now culturally.  In another generation it will be something else, another tool that will need to be adapted and hopefully do the same thing.

 

Q:  There’s software out there for building your own Bible.  The YouVersion website includes lots of opportunities to interact with a text. Are you partners with YouVersion? If so, how does that partnership work?

Jon:  We have a really good relationship with YouVersion. They have the leading Bible reader and access to just loads of translations and really blaze the trail for getting these translations on a digital reader that’s free and accessible to anyone. It’s amazing. Our content is also free. So we have found this a really great collaboration just in that spirit of generosity. They’ve embedded all of our videos into their app. We have reading plans in their app.  Sometimes [our work] is the verse of the day. We get a lot of exposure through YouVersion. I use it on my phone. It’s a great reader. So it’s been a great partnership.

 

Q:  AR/VR?  Do you see that coming for BibleProject?

Jon:   Yeah, we’ve been super excited about it. We’ve been thinking about it for the last four years now. We’ve had a set in the office, our artists use it and play around with it. We designed our current studio space in VR. We built a VR experience prototype that we haven’t released.  It’s called Last Week of a King; it follows the last week in the life of Jesus in VR.  I’m really, really bullish on VR. I’m not sure when it’s going to hit the mainstream, but we want to be ready.

Then there’s this idea of augmentation in general. I’ve been starting to think about what we do through that lens, because we’re not just making videos anymore. We have online classes. We built a learning management system from scratch for that. We are also building our own app. It’s going to have our own digital reader. In everything we do, we’re augmenting the Bible. So you’ve got the text of the Bible and then it’s how do we give you more information, the right information at the right time and the right way to make this as meaningful to you as possible and be faithful to what’s going on.  And so in a way we’re kind of an augmented word brand.

That’s all going to culminate eventually when you have something in front of your eyes that’s going to do that for you. So I want to be ready. And we’re playing around with it right now.

 

Q:  Will it essentially be making your visual product and placing it directly in front of people’s eyes so they can read it through their glasses rather than on their phone? Or is it going to be more adventurous than that?

Tim:  When it comes to an interactive reading experience, that’s going to be a lot more than just watching a 2-D display on your glasses. So what I was saying earlier about how the Hebrew Bible existed in a meta form? In other words, it was a set of text that actually existed more as an abstract entity in the hearts and minds of the community and the scrolls were just the physical prompts for the precise wording. The way biblical literature works is through patterns and repetition and hyper linking and interconnections between all these different scrolls. So we have the opportunity for an augmented reality experience in the Bible where you could begin interacting with it in multiple dimensions, not just a linear sequence through a text but then read a text and connect it to all of the place where it’s echoed and requoted and referenced later and calling all those up at the same time. I think that qualifies as more adventurous!  There are amazing opportunities for an interactive Bible experience.

 

Q:  Imagine a spectrum of “Biblical explainers”.  On one end is Veggie Tales. You know, the 1990s kids sing along animations. Let’s say the Museum of the Bible at the other end with its high tech, in person museology – screens and drill downs.  And then maybe in the middle Mark Burnett and Roma Downey’s The Bible: the Epic Miniseries, a regular movie depiction of the Bible. Where would you put BibleProject on that spectrum?

Tim:  It’s interesting speaking about the medium being the message.  There’s a lot of narrative in the Bible, but any time you recreate a biblical narrative, you have to do so according to a set of storytelling conventions that are actually really different from the narrative and communication conventions of biblical literature. So while it’s cool, a movie portrayal even of the Exodus will end up communicating something important, but something that’s going to be really different. Not that explainer videos are the silver bullet, but it’s just different. What we’re trying to do is again mapping onto the actual patterns and conventions of the literature and trying to convey the message that way. But even then the original technology for this literature is the literature itself. Ultimately that’s the most pristine form and we’re all just imitators.

 

Q:  Last question.  Attention. We’ve seen attention spans decrease over the last 20 years. In the faith world, sermons became more like TED talks.  In the tech world in general, we’ve seen broader Wikipedia explanations to One Shot Answers on Google. Do you see that trend affecting the way people engage with the Bible? And if so, how will BibleProject help to continue to deepen people’s engagement?

Tim:  One thing we haven’t talked about which might help us answer this is that for us, there’s a very specific paradigm for what we think the Bible is and how to read it. As a catchphrase, we say it’s a “unified story that leads to Jesus”. When we unpack that, we start talking about how it is wisdom literature.  It’s meant to connect you with the wisdom of God. It’s meditation literature –  meant for a lifetime of reading and rereading, so that every part is reexamined over and over. And so it demands long attention. It demands of you that you sit and absorb it and let it shape you.

But in order for us to help you see the Bible that way, we’re very happy using communication technology that’s more accustomed to people who want information quickly and snappier and in a fresh way. The bread and butter for us has been like a YouTube culture, but there’s a whole new medium of videos coming out that are all under 60 seconds. TikTok, Instagram Stories, Facebook Stories, Youtube shorts. It’s that super snappy medium that creates new challenges and new opportunities.  We’re happy to work within those if it’s going to help people on-board our paradigm. And then whether or not we as a culture have the attention span to sit down and actually read literature? That’s a whole ‘nother question in and of itself!

 

Thanks very much for this insight into your team’s great work, Tim and Jon!

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