Getting connected with Willow Creek

Published: WORSHIP

Getting connected with Willow Creek

USA: Willow Creek Community Church is a non-denominational and multi-generational Evangelical Christian church located in South Barrington, near Chicago. It was founded in 1975 by Bill Hybels, who continues to lead the church as its senior pastor, with over 25,000 congregants attending services at the church's main campus and its seven additional regional locations. As one of the largest US churches, Willow Creek Community Church places a very high value on the power of audio and video to connect with its congregants.

Willow Creek’s audio systems engineer Matt Wentz’ role is to design, maintain, upgrade, and install audio systems in over 20 venues across the entire campus. ‘Our church is really dedicated to moving forward, keeping up with the latest technology in all the disciplines, and networked scenarios is a huge one for us,’ says Mr Wentz. In mid-2016, he installed the first of three Bel Digital BM-A1-64Dante audio monitors, with two additional units purchased during a large systems upgrade. The Bel Digital solutions were all supplied by the manufacturer's American distributor, Fingerprint Audio.

‘With Dante, it’s all networked, so how do I monitor the audio that’s flying around here without patching to a console?’ Mr Wentz asks. 'What’s nice about the Bel is that I can have multiple channels going – with presets ­– and I love that it’s a bit of a mixer. The flexibility of the product is huge with the internal speakers, but it can also route to external speakers. It’s filled a huge void. With this unit, I can troubleshoot issues – hopefully before they go live, or as they’re happening. On the troubleshooting side, it’s mattered immensely.’

Willow Creek undertook its HD upgrade for both practical and creative reasons. ‘Our existing equipment was between 10 and 15 years old, and reaching the end of its life cycle,’ explains Darren Niesley, video director at Willow Creek. ‘At the same time, we wanted to provide an even better live media experience for our attendees.’

On the video side, the upgrades included HDTV cameras from Hitachi Kokusai to capture and enhance the immersive visual experiences for which its worship services are known around the world. Willow Creek was familiar with Hitachi cameras from the church’s work with mobile production specialist TNDV, who had provided equipment and services for Willow Creek projects including the annual Global Leadership Summit and its 40th anniversary celebration event. Pleased with the high-quality results of those productions, the church was very comfortable when systems integrator Clark recommended Hitachi cameras for the HD upgrade. Clark and Hitachi Kokusai worked closely together during the deployment. ‘Hitachi Kokusai was a great partner throughout the entire Willow Creek Community Church project,’ says George Clark, founder of the integration company.

Eight Hitachi SK-HD1200 portable HD studio and field production cameras are now used in Willow Creek’s 7200-seat main auditorium along with two DK-H100 compact box cameras. A pair of SK-HD1200s are stationed on tripods behind FOH with Fujinon 55x lenses, while an additional SK-HD1200 is set up on a jib. Another five units are deployed depending on each the particular needs of a given service or event. ‘The cameras’ operational versatility is exceptional,' Mr Niesley enthuses. ‘We can configure them in so many ways, from handheld to full studio kits or tripods on wheels rolling around the front row, and with lenses ranging from standard 22x up to 40x telephoto.’

One of the DK-H100 box cameras is used with a Steadicam stabilisation system, while the second is deployed in a Ross Video CamBot 500 configuration with both the robotics and camera controlled over a TCP/IP network. Switched through a Ross Video Acuity production system, video captured by the Hitachi cameras supports live image magnification (IMAG) on the auditorium’s two 24-foot by 14-foot Mitsubishi LED screens and a similarly-sized Barco-driven projection screen. The signal is also distributed to several 55-inch screens installed throughout the campus, including the lobby. ‘Because of the size of the auditorium, our attendees are looking to the screens not just for IMAG, but for a broadcast-style experience that gives them additional context they can’t see from their viewpoint,’ explains Mr Niesley. ‘Our goal is to give viewers the “whole picture”, whether they’re inside or out of the room.’

That out-of-venue reach extends to Willow Creek’s remote sites, which receive media files of the main campus services for showing on a time-delayed basis, and to live and on-demand streams that are seen by followers around the globe. Willow Creek’s annual leadership event is also privately broadcast to hundreds of venues across North America and packaged for subsequent distribution.

Mr Niesley’s satisfaction with the Hitachi cameras spans both visual quality and operational benefits. ‘Right out of the box the cameras look really good, and are easy to automatically match,’ he shares. ‘And while they offer deep, sophisticated control of all facets of the image, the programmability of the buttons on the RU-1500JY remote control units and the ease of switching between scene files let us make operation simple for our volunteers.

‘Our move to HD with the Hitachi cameras has enabled us to more seamlessly integrate video into our live worship experience,” Niesley concludes. ‘The image quality is so high, and the cameras are so reliable, that people can just enjoy the program with no distractions.

church, hitachi, bel digital audio