We sit down with Jon Collins, co-founder of The Bible Project, in their Portland-based studio. Books about theology and Bible commentaries line the shelves and stack from floor to ceiling. Coffee is brewing in the open-space kitchen. It’s a cold rainy day outside, the kind of day that people imagine when they think about Portland; but inside there’s a creative warmth as artists are quietly and energetically seen working on The Bible Project’s next video. We begin.
Bryan Chung: What is the role of spirituality—if any—in your creative process?
Jon Collins: For me, it's completely intertwined. I think that all work is a spiritual endeavor. And sometimes work is just digging a ditch or driving around town, and it's harder to see the spiritual side of it. In other things like when you are creating something, maybe it’s easier to see it.
I grew up in the faith, and as I explored it, I saw how in the biblical story humans are made as co-creators with God. That he created us to rule and to create with Him. He left the garden unfinished. He started it and said to till and work it. That was our divine calling.
BC: We’ve been told you’re the “storyteller” side of The Bible Project. How did you get started in storytelling and what is good storytelling to you?
JC: I am often referred to as a storyteller, but I’ve actually started to divert away from that term.
In a strict sense, I don't tell stories. I'm not writing a novel or a screenplay. In a very general sense, everyone tells stories about whatever they are doing. Our life is a story and all of our creative endeavors are created to stories. Every time we want to explain something, we use story. I like to think of myself as an explainer first, and a storyteller second.
As an explainer, I want to take ideas that are complicated or feel inaccessible, boil them down, distill them, and help people understand them. That’s the role of an explainer. I think an explainer uses story. The story is one of the greatest tools to explain things, but it's not the only tool.
BC: Could you describe your routine when you’re creating? Any rhythms or habits?
JC: I like to keep mornings for more creative projects—so I block out big chunks of time. Then the afternoon can be smaller chunks to meet with people and get administrative tasks done.
Other than that, some routines around the office—design reviews are every Monday; we usually have five or six projects going on at once. Wednesdays I work on our podcast, and every Thursday we launch videos.
BC: How did you land on animation as The Bible Project’s medium of choice?
JC: I found that animation is a great way to explain things. It’s a lot more engaging than just watching talking heads. And, if you do it right, there's something kind of hypnotic about it. You're watching something get drawn, developed, or spinning, and moving and changing and if that's done in such a way that's helping you further understand what's being said—there’s something magical about it. I've always loved animation for that reason.
BC: How do you choose the visual style for any given video?
JC: Yeah, we’ve done anywhere from just basic, what we call, "back of the napkin, doodle style.” We still want it to feel not like something I would doodle, but something that your best creative artist guy would doodle. Then we've also done much more sophisticated designs.
For every video, we start with pretty intensive visual development. It's an eight-step process. The thing we're thinking about is the topic at hand and what kind of visual style will help that type of topic. If it's a really intense topic, sometimes it's nice to do a more back of the napkin, doodle-type-thing. It alleviates all that pent-up angst in it. If it's a very emotional topic, you want more characters in it with more acting. So, we're thinking about the style in terms of what's good for the topic. Then we're also thinking about stretching our team. We don’t just want to do styles that are easy. We also want to make things that will make us better creative people.
I really want the studio to feel like a perpetual art school—where we're learning and continuing to learn every day.
I was actually worried that the audience would be like, “oh man, the [animation styles] are so sporadic and all over the place. I don’t feel like there is any consistency, and I don’t like that.” But, actually, viewers appreciated it.
Even though our style is very spread out from video to video, there is something that strings them all together. I think it's the tone in our scripts and our approach to explanation. You can feel that through each one—whether it's a very cinematic, dramatic style or a very lively, funny, goofy style—there’s a tone that ties it all together.
BC: Were you personally always interested in animation and/or filmmaking?
JC: Yeah it was always something that interested me. I really wanted to learn the craft of filmmaking. But for me, early in my career, I think I struggled believing that what I was making was good enough. I was nervous to assert myself and say, “hey I can do this”, because I didn’t want to fail at it. Filmmaking—and The Bible Project for that matter—meant a lot to me. It felt like it was connected to this vocational calling I had. If I failed at it, then I’m failing as a person.
I had to get over that. I had to start to realize my identity was more significant than just this creative enterprise
If you’re familiar with Ira Glass (host of the podcast This American Life), I watched a person interview him once, and he said the fact that you know your creative work could be better means you’re a good artist. That’s the most important thing—taste, if you can tell something can improve. That was empowering.