Vice News Tonight designs handcrafted miniatures to bring a timely story to life

We talk to the show’s design team about building sets and crafting foamcore models in an attempt to tell a nuanced story about religion and modern internet habits.

21 August 2020
Reading Time
4 minutes


Working in a newsroom rarely allows for prolonged creative development and production. But the Vice News design team has taken an innovative – and more considered – approach to storytelling, producing a series of handcrafted miniature models to bring to life a story about modern religious practices.

Partially conceived as a creative response to the challenge of much of the team working from home, the project was pitched off the back of a recently released book, Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World by Dr. Tara Isabella Burton, which looks at the largest and fastest-growing religious demographic in America, the “religiously unaffiliated”. These are people who say they “aren’t part of any organised religion, but find a sense of spirituality on the internet,” according to Ana Simões, who was the creative director on the project.

It might seem surprising nowadays, with the tech available to design teams, to build a physical set, but for the team, there were many benefits. “There’s something special about seeing a physical object,” says Grace Shin, senior animator and the lead on concept development for the piece. “CG has come such a long way and you can replicate so much, but there’s a certain quality that still feels artificial. There’s a warmth to an object you can hold, observe, touch, and be in the presence of.”

The piece, Church Is Optional in the U.S.’ New Spiritual Awakening, was shot in studio and there were several challenges here, including the size of the dolly track and a lot of wires to constantly fight against, but design director Kaz Ishii says “we came up with creative workarounds and really pushed ourselves to do justice for the meticulous craftsmanship that went into the production”. Towards the end of the video above, the team has also put together a super cut of the behind-the-scenes making of the project.

When it came to the creative direction, Ana and her team ran with the idea of using a stained-glass-window aesthetic. “Stained-glass [windows] in cathedrals interact with light in a unique way to convey religious ethos with incredible vibrant colours,” Shin explains. “They are not only beautiful; they signal a place for like-minded people to congregate inside and explore.” It felt like a good way to contrast traditional religion and modern spirituality, because in the film there is also a subtle similarity to “how billboards light up Times Square and draw people in to stores.”

GalleryProduction shots of Vice News Tonight: Church Is Optional in the U.S.’ New Spiritual Awakening (© Vice News, 2020)

The Vice News design team built six “buildings”, each loosely defined by a theme. There’s a synagogue with a Passover seder plate, a kiddush cup and challah bread for the sabbath, the tree of life, stone tablets of Moses, and the Torah. Then there’s a Catholic church that depicts Mary, the sacred heart of Jesus, the eucharist, the Holy Spirit dove, and a bishop’s mitre and cross. There’s then a building dedicated to social media and the internet with icons for wifi, “like” buttons, and the cloud. One building is about communication and the spread of ideas, so there’s a person speaking at a podium, microphones, a printing press, satellite, radio and TV. There’s also a building dedicated to health, wellness and spirituality that has a spin class, yoga, tarot cards and astrology symbols. The last building focuses on tangible consumerism, so we see shopping bags, a credit card, weed, beverages and the influential media gurus who sell them.

Each building is roughly one cubic foot, handmade with foamcore. All 32 window panels are die-cut pieces of photo gel, glued onto acetate sheets and then adhered to laser-cut frames. The design team had an illustrator file made to scale throughout the process to keep track of each shape and gel colour code.

Grace and Kaz were assigned to planning and design and worked on this on and off for a few months. The team made life-size 3D models in Cinema 4D to visualise the construction early on, and used them to plan the set, storyboard the sequence and eventually to make a shot list. The construction was about two and a half weeks and the shoot was about one to two weeks with the addition of a director of photography, Kris Cave. The film was shot on a Sony FS7 with a pair of Fujinon 4K lenses, all set up on a short-rail dolly track on combo-stands. They wanted some low-angle shots that made the buildings feel life-sized, so they built their set on elevated tables to get the camera at the set’s “ground level”.

It’s rare to see such a creative approach being taken within a news and current affairs context which is ordinarily such a fast-paced industry. The Vice News design team’s approach to this story shows what’s possible when you have a bit more time and a team that’s committed to pushing the boundaries of storytelling, even in a time of lockdown.

GalleryStills from Vice News Tonight: Church Is Optional in the U.S.’ New Spiritual Awakening (© Vice News, 2020)

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Still from Vice News Tonight: Church Is Optional in the U.S.’ New Spiritual Awakening

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Further Info

Further credits

Design Director: Kazuyuki Ishii

Concept and Design: Grace Shin

Producers: James Hamilton, Emma Newmark

Music Supervision: Chase Stafford

Sound Effects and Mix: Brian Arnold

About the Author

Matt Alagiah

Matt joined It’s Nice That as editor in October 2018 and became editor-in-chief in September 2020. He was previously executive editor at Monocle magazine. Drop him a line with ideas and suggestions, or simply to say hello.

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