At the beginning of COVID, Faithlife did a video series unlike we’d ever done before. It made a splash in the Church Communication Facebook group, but it didn’t get posted on all the places Faithlife usually shares new things (like this blog, for example!).
As we reach the one-year anniversary of COVID-19 in the United States, and churches are still looking for unique ways to communicate, it’s about time we share it with you.
Meet the character with boundless energy, unchecked confidence, and hilariously bad advice—“Chip Reiser, Church Advisor.”
Chip’s three episodes were made entirely in quarantine with a low budget, all-online collaboration, and a whole lot of creativity. Come with me behind the scenes with Tyler Smith (writer), Matthew Boffey (actor), and Brian Russell (director and producer) about the process of making people laugh—while also making a point.
Then stick around for some great advice about how to help your church communicate during COVID and beyond.
How did these videos get started?
Tyler: We knew we had this opportunity with a really specific audience where people were having a lot of conversations relating to the different challenges they have week to week with communicating to their congregations and getting the word out about events and things like that.
I think anytime that there’s a really specific audience, there’s a huge creative opportunity. We pretty immediately moved toward “How can we do something that’s funny and shows that we understand the challenges that they face every week?” That was the opportunity that eventually spawned the idea for Chip.
Matthew: Early on in my time at Faithlife, people learned that I have a background in improv and sketch comedy, so I would just get tapped every now and then for different promotional videos that were more fun. So when they had the idea for this, they reached out to me and knew I’d be game for it.
Brian: By the time I got involved, they already had the idea, the script, and Matt set up as the actor. A lot of my job at the beginning was teaching Matt how to set everything up. He doesn’t have audio and video experience and had to scrabble things together. He borrowed a DSLR from his brother and coordinated borrowing equipment from his brother’s church. It was available sometimes and not at others, so he’d have to borrow it and then return it.
Where did you film?
Matthew: I was quarantining at my folks’ place just because it’s more enjoyable to be there than in my smaller apartment. So we had some fun staging options available.
How did you come up with the idea?
Tyler: I tried to come up with different ideas of how we could make talking about our problems funny. Our initial concept was actually a character named Aunt Maud. It would be kind of a different take where it was the sweet old lady in your church who really means well, but she’s posting flyers for her knitting club, and it looks awful and just doesn’t fit with everything else that’s happening. And it’s like, “Oh my, if you would have come to me I could have helped you out, could have made it look great.” It was kind of sweet in a way, but what we realized after talking internally with a few people is that it’s hard to do that without having too hard of an edge because at the end of the day, the brunt of the joke was Aunt Maud. And we all have Aunt Mauds in our churches, and we love them, so it ultimately felt a little mean. So even though I think that’s something that people definitely would have related to, it wouldn’t have felt right. It got rejected internally for that reason, and it was the right call, but it was also kind of a bummer because at the time we were thinking it was a great idea.
And so I went back, and the second idea that we came up with was so dumb. Drew Snake, like Screwtape. It was so bad. The idea was he’s the guy who wants to ruin your church’s image and everything about you through really bad design and corny graphics and is there kind of lurking over your shoulder. It was pretty half-baked, and it was pretty clear there wasn’t enough substance.
The idea was, how can we create a character that you love to hate? So there’s something fun about a character that was so good hearted and well intentioned but also really egotistical. But in a way he was egotistical but also has such a lack of self awareness that it’s funny. I think the reason why that idea works better than the others is that it enabled us to answer the question, “If Chip Reiser is solving your church’s problem, well, what problem is he trying to solve?”
How did you film?
Tyler: I wrote the first one, and we pretty immediately had to go into production because it was a tight turnaround. So as soon as I had the idea, I wrote a draft as quickly as I could, and we got approval on it.
It was right toward the beginning of COVID, so we had to figure out how we were going to produce the video. So we thought, “Well, if he’s not really self-aware, a little bit arrogant, obviously he’s a YouTuber, right? So that enabled us to create a scenario where it makes sense for it to be this direct-to-camera thing where you only see him.
We recorded that first one, and then I went away and wrote the two following scripts. We shot those back to back, and that was a pretty grueling day I think.
Brian: Matt had to rig up a phone behind the camera lens with a rubber band and a tripod so that Tyler and I could see what the filming looked like and check for things like “Is he in the shot?” And then he had a laptop set up on a table off to the side so he could see Tyler and me, and we could talk to him. So different from our normal experience filming in the studio, but it was fun being able to create something that would work so well in spite of that.
How long did it take?
Matthew: Probably the shortest it took was two hours, and then probably the longest would be four hours of filming itself. At least a dozen stop-and-start recordings to get through the whole thing.
Brian: The filming itself didn’t take very long. I did have to do some post-production work, like matching the audio and video. And, of course, going overboard with adding in all the post-production elements because that’s what Chip would do.
Who played the extras in your videos, and how did you coordinate those shots?
Matthew: My mother. One of the videos kept referencing a mom, so that was her. Oh, and then Brian. Brian did some voiceovers, but he wasn’t in the room, so I just imagined Brian saying his lines, and he recorded it later and must have edited the audio so that it felt like he was saying it from the direction that I was looking, but he wasn’t there.
Did you have any points when everything was moving along nicely, and then you hit a roadblock?
Matthew: Lighting was a challenge with the one in the garage, and we were racing the clock and trying to adjust for how the outside lighting was affecting the room.
I’d also say a roadblock was working with limitations in our equipment. We just were scraping together everything. We did have some memory card issues where things didn’t take and so we had to redo a bunch of work on one of the videos, but that wasn’t that big of a deal.
Brian: When that problem with saving video happened, I had to come over to pick up an SD card from Matt’s porch. So that was the one time I ever came over during the filming.
Can you remember a best moment?
Tyler: Chip has these stories about some sage advice that somebody once told him, but he’s always very unaware of how it reflects poorly on him. So the one that ends up in the video is, “It’s like my sixth grade drama teacher Coach Gleason said, ‘Chip, you can have the part. Just stop calling my house.’” We all argued over “It’s like my sixth grade drama teacher Coach Gleason said,” and they were like, “But why is he Coach Gleason? That doesn’t make any sense.” I was like “No, that’s why it’s funny! Because he’s the coach, but he also teaches drama,” and I was fighting for the stupidest line and trying to explain why that is so much funnier than just saying “my sixth grade drama teacher.”
So yeah, there were so many little things that Matt changed or improvised that just made it so much funnier. He would hate to admit it, but he became Chip Reiser for a little bit.
Brian: I can’t remember any particular example, but it was hilarious to see how Matt would deliver the lines. I also had several times where I asked a designer to make something for Chip, and I had to send it back because it was still too classy.
What advice might you have to share for church communications teams, especially right now?
Matthew: Get creative. You can do a lot in post-production. We had the luxury of making it cheesy and over the top, and it was on theme. Obviously, you wouldn’t want to do that in a church, but on-screen text and sound effects and things like that can really add a lot of spice to a video. So don’t just hit record and match the audio and the video. Also think about what you can do to add some refining touches and post production.
Get people involved who don’t want to be behind the camera or who aren’t technical, but maybe they have an artistic flair. Invite them in on staging or costume design or whatever. There’s a lot that goes into making a good video, so it can be a really fun way to pull together a lot of people. You don’t have to think of yourself as a video creator to be part of the creation process. And also, you’d be surprised at what you can learn on the job in a few hours. Don’t underestimate yourself.
Do video shoots all in one go, if possible, because setup and teardown take a long time.
Think about the audio quality. It’s in some ways more important than video. I’m a total novice, so take this with a grain of salt, but bad audio will make a video pretty much unbearable to watch because you can’t hear. Or it’ll feel cheap.
Research how to do good lighting on a budget because lighting really makes a big difference as well.
I think the last one would be to try to find that sweet spot of the number of people in the room to raise the quality on something without getting too many cooks in the kitchen.
Tyler: Embrace your restraint. I think that’s number one, especially in the midst of COVID. A lot of churches can have really cool crazy ideas, but if you try to execute those and you don’t have the skills to execute them, it won’t end up like you’re hoping. It’s like if you were trying to make a movie and you have a budget of $500,000, you wouldn’t want to try to imitate a blockbuster that would make $50 million. The product is just not going to be good.
But if you can think in terms of “Here’s my limited budget. Here are my resources. Who’s going to be on screen? What kind of range do they have? Do they have the ability to act the thing I’m asking them to act?” then you can create something good. Always consider those limitations and then use those to your advantage.
Surround yourself with people who you trust and whose feedback you’re willing to listen to. Feedback can be painful, and it can feel like a roadblock along the way when you fall in love with your idea. But if you’re willing to have a really open mind and not hang on too tightly to any of your ideas—especially at the early stages of the process—then ultimately you can come up with something that’s way better than you ever could come up with on your own.
Also, if you speak publicly, you can be deceived into thinking that speaking on camera is easy, but when you put a camera in front of somebody, it can be incredibly intimidating. There’s something about that black lens staring at you that can make you totally freeze up. And people who are so great in person can be so wooden and impersonal on the screen.
There are a couple ways to overcome that. One is just to understand that intimidation. And then if you’re the person who’s having to put together this piece of video, the two hugely important things you really need to have are a solid script—not talking points, but a script—and talent. That script should be written to that talent’s ability and memorized, even if it’s a simple announcement video. The only reason we were able to pull off Chip Tips is because we had somebody with an improvisational comedy background, and I wrote the script knowing that Matt had the comedy chops to pull it off. I would read the script to try to give Matt an idea of what I was going for, but my reading of the script wasn’t anywhere near as funny as what Matt was doing (and I wrote the thing!).
Brian: Don’t underestimate what you can do with a phone. A lot of churches think you have to have really expensive video and audio equipment, but you can record video with your phone. You can record audio on your laptop. Don’t let not having a studio or fancy equipment stop you.
Let others in on the fun—share Chip’s tips! But, of course, don’t follow them. Meet all your church’s needs, from a professional website to easy-to-use online giving and more, with just one subscription (and one login): Faithlife Equip.