Word Online is a huge project. Imagine you had a clear vision of an exciting calling, to share the life of Jesus and other useful resources with the Church around the world, specifically the growing, persecuted church. Very exciting, but now we need to write 184 sermons based on years of theological research, across multiple sources of reference, on the life of one man (who lived 2000 years ago, but of whom plenty has been written). Now, we’re going to ask that you memorise as much as you can of those sermons, and present them to camera, in a room by yourself over 38 days, across 3 years. Oh, and by the way, we need to create a Green Screen Studio to put up and pack away each time, edit all the videos, prepare transcripts for each video, add subtitles and of course not forgetting, create an amazing piece of software that supports translation and presents all of this content at your fingertips, for free! When I said ‘Huge’... I really meant, ‘ginormous’, and the majority of this project was built on the backs of committed volunteers.
It was late 2016, when, captivated by the vision, I first began writing a report, listing some of the ways a project like this could happen. Since then, I have worked alongside over 40 different people who have all contributed in a significant way. Unfortunately, I can’t name them, as Word Online operates a strict ‘Anonymity Policy’, but I will try to describe their contributions so that you too can share in our gratitude for each of them. They know who they are, and this is just one way we want to express how grateful we are, and to acknowledge that it couldn’t have happened without them.
The Early Days
Behind all great visionaries are those working to enact that vision. Before much happened, we needed a viable plan. It’s no secret that Word Online receives tremendous support from a local church who have provided resources, space and advice throughout the project.
At the beginning, a committee was formed to scope out the project. A group of 5 diligently oversaw designers, software companies, filming options - even down to the decision: ‘was this going to be pay to access, or free for all?’ These individuals provided a solid direction, rooted in vision, that would steer the project and formation of the charity for years to come.
One of their tasks was to commission external professionals to deliver certain aspects of the project. At the offset, that was a designer to develop our branding which helped to establish who we are and the overall visual style for everything that we do. It’s handy having such capable professionals readily available who share in the vision and purpose of our goal.
This team of 5 also helped establish a key partnership with a UK-based Software Developer, who shared our Christian values, and has walked alongside us since January 2017, providing advice and expertise throughout the journey. They continue to run and support the software that Word Online is built upon, whilst working with us to develop new features as funding allows.
This is how I got involved, my role was to specify, design and then build the platform now live on wordonline.org. As my involvement grew, so did my role, to a point where I oversaw everything. God had imparted a real sense of purpose to me and my family and we chose to run with it. I no longer work for the Software Company, but the partnership remains strong.
During the rest of 2017, further plans were formulated including exploring the specification for the software. As the summer turned to autumn, that specification became designs, eventually being presented to the charity just before the end of the year. We had the first glimpse of what we were working on together.
We are grateful to the many who made private donations during this period, ultimately funding the project until launch. The generosity of individuals propelled us forwards with a sense of purpose and calling, although, not really knowing the extent of what lay before us. Their giving directly financed the purchase of great equipment and the commissioning of software.
Individuals' generosity offered a tangible sense of God at work, even at a time when none of the threads were connected, we knew the project belonged to God.
In early 2018, a team gathered to start creating a ‘pop up studio’ that would be the environment for filming the 184 episodes, plus a decent collection of retakes. The team was formed of two engineers who would be responsible for setup and pack away, and a dedicated video editor who worked tirelessly for the duration of the project. We’ll come back to that.
On the 2nd May 2018, the first episodes were recorded against a green screen. More than two years later, after 38 days in the studio, the final re-record was filmed on the 19th June 2020.
The two engineers meticulously prepared the studio for each film day, carefully stowing it away afterwards. Without their diligence, the videos would have never been recorded. Even after this responsibility ended, both individuals have continued to support the work of Word Online, providing encouragement and advice where needed.
As the filming began, so did the acquisition of hard drives. Over 26 in all, with nearly 200tb of data backed up and shipped around the country to be carefully edited by what would eventually be a small team of editors, but it began with just one. A steady hand that did not waiver for another 2 years, carefully defining the process of editing that would be followed for the whole project.
The building blocks were coming together; the contract and specifications for the software were finalised and the first views began taking shape. Little did we know at that point, that despite our enthusiasm, it would be another couple of years before the project launched.
During the rest of 2018, recording, developing and editing continued methodically, with regular trips around the country. There were still just a handful on the team. Progress was good, but the timeline seemed endless without more help. At this point, everything but the software was running on volunteers.
A sure footing
Meanwhile, Martin had a view of the future and was working to secure further funding and the formation of a standalone charity with its own directors.
Cue the new Directors: a handpicked collection of men and women skilled in the essentials of forming a charitable organisation and the legalities surrounding that. This team would form the charity, eventually ramping up to support every element of the project to launch and beyond.
In winter 2018, we welcomed a new editor to the team, bringing a background in professional video work. This individual created the iconic video background now seen in every video and provided valuable input in every decision-making moment, big or small. This individual continues, even now, to provide technical and creative support.
That December, contact was made with an Animator from Norway who agreed to animate the logo into a few seconds ident that we could use in our videos and media. The work created speaks for itself; our animator did an amazing job at a very busy period in their life.
In January 2019, to compliment the animation, a composer joined the team who carefully and prayerfully composed the Word Online jingle. Their astonishing talent created a diverse piece of music that can be used in many forms in a range of different creative media over the years to come.
During Easter 2019, we welcomed another editor to the team, confidently tackling first edits for Series 8 and 9. Bringing enthusiasm, encouragement and sound advice, this individual brought a new dynamic to video conferences [ yes, we worked remotely before the pandemic made it cool and trendy ].
Shortly after, in May, we had the privilege of working with our first proof reader. An individual who dedicated over 200 hours to proof reading the subtitles for the first 5 series. This contribution helped to propel forwards the written content alongside the video content. This person helped define the proofreading process that others would follow.
Also in May, our first voice artist recorded intro and outro voice-overs, to introduce and finish each video and audio version. Unfortunately, due to an urgent name-change for the charity that autumn, we could not use the content from these sessions. Despite great charisma, this artist was not available for the next recordings.
By now, the software was all but complete except for final elements that needed to wait for the project to catch up.
A set back
During the summer months of 2019, came a setback that no one had anticipated - for practical reasons, we had to change the name of the charity.
This came as quite a blow to the whole team. Progress came to a grinding halt. Our name was everywhere: in our branding, throughout the software, spoken throughout the videos, in each of the transcripts. It felt like the floor had fallen from under us.
Not to mention the responsibility felt by the directors at this critical juncture in the project. The directors chose to separate the name of the project from the charity, enabling them to immediately change the company names - resolving the issue, whilst buying time to pray and consider the new brand name for the project.
Meanwhile, the production team frantically tried to find a way not to refilm all the content and start again. As theories were tested, our team found a way to simply remove the old name from the videos, the audio, the transcripts and the subtitles. The process would add extra time, but save us from starting again.
Whilst this set back was unexpected, we are grateful for God’s provision in the timing, we were moments from a few milestones that would have placed our name in the public spotlight making it infinitely harder to adapt to the name challenge.
As summer became autumn, the issue was resolved and the team progressed to remove every reference to the old name, whilst name options were drawn up for the project moving forward.
That August, my family and I relocated across the country to be more closely involved with the charity. During the rest of the Autumn, as we settled into our new town, church, jobs and friendship groups, significant elements of the project started to come together allowing the charity to employ me in December 2020 for one day a week. With renewed enthusiasm and vigour, we finalised the new brand name ‘Word Online’ and started to pull all of the elements of the project together.
At this time, our Cumbria-based editor connected the project with an old friend who could pick up the mantle of proof reading to help keep things moving. Eventually becoming part of a wider grammatical team, this individual diligently worked on the material and willingly returned later in the timeline to provide a last push before the project launch.
As we welcomed 2020, we began to pick up the pace of all elements of the project. The search began to add new team members across a range of disciplines. The number of hard drives being shipped increased exponentially as data moved between different team members.
In the very first week of the year, I met with an individual who continues to amaze with their technical proficiency, their grasp of the content and the English language and their time commitment to the project. This individual did not wince at the scale of the task and faithfully became a department leader - owning and overseeing all of the transcript and subtitling work. Beyond the work itself, they provided friendship, pastoral care and encouragement to myself. A year later, they are now a director and continue to serve the project, writing blog articles, tagging content and fundraising to secure money for the project - that it may continue long into the future.
God continued to provide in diverse and wonderful ways as we added a new editor to the team in January 2020. An editor who would bring renewed focus to the team alongside their professional experience. Once up to speed, this team member endured weekly meetings with yours truly and committed over 450 hours until the project launched. Their skill, expertise and enthusiasm was key in bringing conclusion to a project that had spanned years.
Even now, as I write this, I’m amazed by God’s impeccable timing to allow us to add so many critical team members in such a short time before the first lockdown.
In February, I was able to meet with a young individual who would work alongside me for a period of time to help with various tasks including working alongside our growing number of volunteers. As the project progressed, they also worked on episode covers providing artwork for several series worth of episodes. This individual brought real encouragement and support personally to me during a relentless schedule of coordinating different elements of the team, content and software.
In early February, the town flooded and brought devastating damage to the church building and local businesses. This affected our office space, the logistics of hardware storage and most importantly our Film Studio. As we responded rather urgently to this new challenge, there were hidden opportunities that no one expected, that prepared us for the upcoming lockdown (that we still didn’t really anticipate at that point).
The very first Sunday in a temporary location, we launched a new prayer strategy for the project. In the months prior we had welcomed a team member who would help coordinate the prayer requests for the project, administering a monthly prayer update. That Sunday we welcomed sign-ups to pray for the project. Whilst not always at the forefront of activity, we are so aware of the critical part prayer and the prayers have played in this project. We continue to be grateful and remember in all the activity that we do this for Jesus - that his name be known.
That same morning, we put the call out for volunteers to serve in a range of activities. Amazingly we had some very talented individuals sign up and dedicate huge amounts of time to the project. Incredibly, we were able to onboard and train the new volunteers days before the national lockdown here in the UK.
Just days before Covid-19 changed everything in the UK, we gathered together a group of volunteers with diverse roles who would help us to pull together all elements of the project. Most significantly, ‘proofreaders’. I cannot express just how much proofreading has happened for this project - to create Subtitles and Transcripts for each of the episodes, celebrating the Life of Jesus.
Not everyone who was trained, was able to see it through as life changed dramatically in the coming days. However, the team learnt as I explained the systems and processes that we use for the project, ensuring that no single episode would be left incomplete, or unchecked. Digital systems were new for most, and by the nature of just how many episodes we were dealing with, complicated. Rigorous accuracy on a data set this large is always important, and we are grateful for everyone’s adoption of the system and practices to limit the amount of errors.
Having spent some time carefully auditioning new voiceover talent the new ‘voice’ of Word Online had been discovered. In another miraculous event of God’s perfect timing, somewhere between the town flooding and the first lockdown we were able to get into the studio to record the elements that were needed for the beginning and end of each video - another talented and cheerful individual who arrived at just the right time to contribute their part. This project is made up of individuals and moments just like this.
During lockdown, one couple came alive shouldering the remaining burden of proof reading. Working alongside the other proofreaders and directly to the department head. With the exception of a little technical guidance, this couple pressed on autonomously working toward completing the collective task.
As the editing and proofreading started to come together, it paved the way for some new roles and the individuals who would perform them. These roles were technically skilled and essential for collating the data ready for the software.
Queue the final line of defence for the grammatical error, or misquoted reference. Subtitle CRT files. This is the process of turning text into an actual subtitle on a video. We’re very fortunate to live in a golden age of technology with lots of development in-production tools making them accessible to small projects like this, but it still takes skill and focus to get good results.
The individual who worked tirelessly on this task, not only downloaded and uploaded videos and files left right and centre, but watched every single episode aligning text to spoken word. This task took over 230 hours to complete, in the space of just a couple of months. As described, this was the last error-checking stage in our process and this person performed the role amazingly, meticulously completing the progress, logging, communicating and following up on each individual typo.
The next task required a working knowledge of HTML5 and a pedantic eye for detail to ensure each character was correctly encoded for the website. God provided the right person - a recent graduate that I had previously taught HTML. Their availability at our time of need was invaluable as they worked to encode the transcripts in good semantic markup for the site, that equipped screen readers and other assistive technologies with all the information they needed to make sense of the transcript. This task alone took 120 hours.
These technical last stages are just as critical as every other. The transcripts and subtitles ensure that Word Online is accessible to a wide audience base, including those who for whatever reason make use of assistive technology when accessing our content. It’s also an essential foundation for providing translation services.
To anyone in the process who worked behind the scenes to correct grammar, add sentence structures or contributed to turning the spoken word into either subtitles or transcripts, we are so grateful. These features contribute significantly to our vision to make this content freely and widely available to people of all languages and cultures around the world.
With the exception of the ongoing software development to prepare for launch, the final leg of the relay was pulling together all the components and adding them into the software. I’m grateful to one of our Directors for stepping into this role at the last minute, for recording the obvious and the tiny unseen detail - like how long each episode is. All of the information you see and interact with, whether directly on Word Online, or via a podcast platform, was collated across a range of sources.
The final step, from Martin’s notebook, to countless studio hours, even more editing hours, and many many proofreading hours, culminated in all the content for each episode being added to the software. A journey of nearly 4 years resulted in a project ready for launch. The final preparations of the software and submissions to podcasting platforms had been approved.
On Monday 14th September, 2020, Word Online the Life of Jesus, by Martin Charlesworth, was launched without drama.
There are others to whom thanks are given and that is to the families of those involved. To Martin’s family, who carried this vision with him for a decade. My family who left jobs, schools and friends to relocate across the country. Our Cumbrian editor, who spent 2 years doing first edits, and the many other families whose family member was late for a meal, took a phone call at a strange time, or was glued to their computer for endless hours. We are extremely grateful.
This journey has been life-changing, and we hope that what we have produced, and what we are continuing to produce, will bless millions around the globe.
If you are one of those who came on the journey, who donated, prayed or volunteered, our words cannot express our gratitude. If you have just discovered Word Online, you are so welcome. Please enjoy the content and share it far and wide.
I hope you have enjoyed our story.