The only thing flannel boards of our childhood and Flannel, the media production company, have in common, other than their names, is the ability to tell stories. However, the method Flannel uses to tell stories is quite different. The most widely known example is their popular video series, NOOMA, which features pastor Rob Bell of Mars Hill Bible Church. Taking its name from the phonetic spelling of the Greek word pneuma, meaning “spirit” or “breath,” NOOMA tells stories in a way that is visually stunning and emotionally compelling. The donor-supported company located in Grand Rapids, MI has been in media production since 2001, and for two years running, they’ve won the COLLIDE Reader’s Choice Award for Best Church Media Producer. We asked Flannel’s executive director, Steve Carr, to share his thoughts on NOOMA and the creative process behind the series.
COLLIDE: Tell us about the beginnings of NOOMA.
STEVE CARR: About eight years ago we started the non-profit company, Flannel, which created NOOMA. The concept of what NOOMA films have become actually took years to develop. Rob Bell and two friends began to explore how to take Rob’s creative way of teaching and communicating and share that with people on a bigger scale. Early on they met with folks from MTV to discuss ideas. They discovered that spirituality was an area of great interest to MTV’s audience; however, their perception of Christianity was not favorable. After many months of discussions like these, the first NOOMA, “Rain,” began filming on September 11, 2001. The first three films were released in November of 2002 and came on really cool white VHS tapes with “NOOMA” in blue lettering.
COLLIDE: What is Rob Bell’s relationship with NOOMA?
CARR: Rob loves the creative process. He spends his time creating teachings. Some of these teachings become sermons, some entire books, some live performances, and some NOOMAs. Sometimes there is overlap. Many NOOMAs have been inspired by teachings Rob has delivered at Mars Hill Bible Church. In creating a NOOMA, the words are Rob’s. Rob comes up with a teaching he wants to share and that becomes the starting point.
The film itself is another process entirely. Each NOOMA has a visual story that takes place around the words. A team of people develops the visual story, and Rob is typically not involved in this part of the process. A team puts together the film concept, and Rob shows up on set and almost always delivers his words flawlessly. It really is something to watch. He has a natural ability and comfort in front of the camera that makes viewers feel like he is talking directly to them.
COLLIDE: What does the overall creative process look like from beginning to end?
CARR: We set the bar high for ourselves when it comes to the creative process. This includes everything you see from NOOMA, from the package each film comes in to the box it is shipped in. We want it to be obvious to everyone who sees our product that we care about what we are doing. Every single element has the user experience in mind.
After Rob lands on a teaching, a team begins to develop the concept of the visual story that takes place around the words. We create the story within the story.
Each film has its own story as to how the visual concept was inspired. Sometimes the visual is obvious and other times you might watch the film many times and pick up new subtleties each time. “Rain,” for example, is a film where the visual story tracks directly with the words. You can feel the father’s love for his son as the story builds. “She,” on the other hand, is a film where a real person inspired the visual story.
Our next film, “Corner,” releases in April and is inspired by the story in Deuteronomy where Moses tells the Israelites to leave a corner of their field for the widow and the orphan. The visual story in this film is one of the most beautiful yet. I won’t ruin the experience for you, but I will say the imagery is special. Compassion International (www.compassion.com) helped us get this film done, and the final scene is shot in the Dominican Republic. It is also the first film we have shot in High Definition.
On the other hand, the music for each NOOMA is written for that film (with one exception). The music is composed once the treatment for each film is complete, and it is finalized as the film is edited. All the music has been composed by a couple of talented musicians and is a important part of each film.
COLLIDE: Our readers have voted you the Best Church Media Producer for two years in a row. What do you think has contributed to the success of NOOMA?
CARR: We are flattered and appreciative that your readers enjoy NOOMA films. I could tell you that it starts with our great donors, who want to be part of what we are doing and give us funds to make films, then moves on to a hyper-talented communicator/teacher, and continues on with some incredibly talented creatives, followed up by a great distribution partner in Zondervan. But the truth of the matter is it’s a God thing. We are just ordinary folks from Grand Rapids who have a vision to beautifully tell the world about the way of Jesus. NOOMAs are now in more than 40 countries and have been viewed by millions of people. We really can’t explain it or take the credit.
COLLIDE: Why do you feel it is important to provide a study guide with each film?
CARR: NOOMA films are short but powerful. They are packed tightly with meaning. A seminary student or someone completely unknowledgeable about Jesus can view them and each can take something from the story. The one thing NOOMA films do effectively is spur discussion because they are often a shared experience. More than 70 percent of buyers pass them along to friends, and they are often used in group settings. The study guide is just one more way to explore the message in each film. We like to say that we don’t claim to have all the answers, but we do claim to start the discussion.
COLLIDE: What does the future look like for Flannel and NOOMA?
CARR: Flannel as an organization has a big vision. We deeply desire to impact the world from a perspective of Jesus through film. We plan to add new speakers and new products to achieve our mission. Rob has many NOOMAs in his brain, and we are working the concepts for three more at the moment. Rob has set the bar very high, and we are happy about that. We strive to make each film better than the previous one, and hope to carry this inspiration to every new production we tackle, and to inspire it in anyone who makes films about Jesus.