Problem

If you haven't seen one of Terry Gipson's production designs lately, chances are your kids have. Rhinebeck, NY-based Gipson Design Group has done a studio and a slew of shows for MTV, designed for Nickelodeon and Disney, and done notable things for adults, too.

Christ Temple Church in Huntington, WV bills itself as “a spirit-filled interdenominational church” and makes an effort to be intergenerational, too, with such things as a summer Bible school that promises “awesome crafts, tasty treats, cool songs, and amazing games.” It has been televising one of its three Sunday services in the staid auditorium it uses for all events, a place without much appeal to the younger set.

Gipson, who never guessed he would find himself redesigning a church, was the natural choice to create a new look for an auditorium to function well for pageants and services, as well as work for the church's weekly television and Internet broadcasts. “They didn't want to have to bring in additional scenery each time, so they wanted something flexible,” Gipson explains.

Another challenge was to make sure the new look didn't alienate the grayer generation. Each event had to appeal to parishioners and viewers from ages five to 85. “There were a lot of requests to appeal to different demographics, too,” Gipson recalls.

At times, the stage would hold a large choir and about 30 musicians with equipment. Gipson, who has designed for rock bands, knew he would have to leave room for instruments and people, as well as mask clutter in the space. When he first saw the space, musical electronics and cabling were in view everywhere.

“The other challenging part was that there were almost no flat surfaces,” says Gipson, explaining that new design surfaces would have to conform to curved walls. The baptistery also needed attention. “Keeping this area open enough for baptismal viewing was challenging,” says Gipson. Electrical equipment and lines had to be insulated and run up and over the small pool used for baptisms. The new design had to fit into the existing space with minimal demolition, and some components had to be portable for reuse in a new auditorium the church is planning.

Gipson's mission: to create a base set with flexible components that would appeal to everyone, serve all kinds of events, and (partially) move anywhere.

Solution

“We approached this by running different looks by the client,” says Gipson, who struck on a Mondrian-influenced asymmetrical tile pattern, an abstract grid of rectangular shapes that repeats itself around the space, with built-in color-changing technology. They initially relied on replacing random sections of the “tiles” — actually pieces of MDF wallboard — with translucent glass, but two things went wrong: Rear lighting made them look a little too much like stained glass, something that would be too expected in a church and hardly likely to capture the interest of youth. Also, the surfaces were reflective, and light bounced back. “But what everyone liked about it was the ability to change color,” Gipson adds.

Gipson continued working with his team, art directors Ed Coco and Matthew Glaze, and design assistant Rob Wolin, to develop surprises in the rear-lit tile pattern. “What we stumbled on ended up reversing the whole idea,” says Gipson. “Instead of rear-lighting the tiles, we decided only to rear-light the grout lines.” The team designed a frontlight position at the base of each wall to allow broad bands of uplighting on the wall face. The resulting dynamic pattern coincidentally evokes subtle images of crosses.

“Flexibility was the biggest challenge,” says Gipson, who consulted Brett Gardner of RGB Lights in Chicago for lighting solutions. “A variety of LED components built into the scenery enabled us to change color and do many other tricks.”

In Newburgh, NY, Cigar Box Studios did several mock-ups to help figure out the best way to create the tile walls. “In the end, we decided to create a relief pattern using a CNC router table and ¾" MDF,” says Gipson. “Most of the grout lines were routed at ½" depth. This gave us a very flexible wall face, which was critical since most surfaces are curved. In select places, the router went completely through the MDF to create an open grout line. These areas were then backed with milk Plexiglas®.” Installing strips of Color Kinetics iColor Flex® SL behind the open grout lines provided nodes of RGB LEDs to fulfill the color-changing requirement. “You can program them so the nodes change to any color,” says Gipson. “We ran those vertically and horizontally in every grout line that had the milk Plexiglas in it. In the end, it worked out great.”

It is now possible to change any grout line to any color from the rear and to have video run across any grout line or to program a cue so that everything starts as, say, red, then cross-fades to purple, always maintaining fluid motion. “You can have a subtle cue, like a water effect, flowing through the grout lines,” Gipson adds. “You can't tell which grout lines are translucent and which are not.”

Programming gives the church the ability to change speed as well as color, so lighting can be adjusted to the tempo of music. “They can make these things chase dynamically and go slowly for a quiet prayer moment,” Gipson says. Color Kinetics iColor Cove® MX Powercore provide wall uplighting.

The area in front of the baptismal pool is covered entirely with the milk Plexiglas surface, using the same tile pattern, thereby allowing the entire wall to become “one giant rear-lit light box,” says Gipson. “Then, we added traditional theatrical frontlighting…We also needed a different texture to break up the tiles. That big, 25' surface in the middle of the back wall is independent of the other walls and could be one color or have multicolored lighting.” The back wall is a layered texture of wallboard that resembles water ripples. This wall is uplit by ColorBlast® 12s that can also change colors and chase. Cigar Box Studios built the set and shipped it in pieces; it can be taken apart so that some segments can be moved to another venue.

Volunteers now run the lights. RGB Lights trained five church members on site to program their own looks and also provided stock programming for about 15, some loud and colorful, others quieter, while trainees became comfortable enough to create their own variations.

The space has proved versatile for all church activities and beyond. Marshall University rented the space for a graduation ceremony and turned all the LEDs green, its school colors. “We love that it's flexible enough for rock bands and weekly services and everything in between,” says Gipson, who has since designed other areas for Christ Temple Church, including a children's museum and coffee lounge.

If you have encountered a problem while designing or building a concert, event, exhibit, or play, please tell us about it at davi@comcast.net.

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