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"Singing Angels," singing. And singing, and freezing, and singing some more. Real troupers.

This is the balloon they mounted the camera on for the overhead shots. They launched it before dark so they could make adjustments by daylight.

Ashland & Evynne Hollens, and me.

Peter Hollens in his shepherd costume.

"Bell Angels" forming up for the Nativity.

An Angel Speaks

Glowing Sea Urchin Migrations and Donkey-eating Octocopters

By Michael Little

Many of us share the dream of someday setting a world record. Some end up accomplishing it more or less by accident, intent on another goal entirely, while others are so desperate that they are willing to go to bizarre lengths to fulfill their ambition. Most fall between these two poles, aware that a feat such as the fastest snowboard descent down the northeast face of the Matterhorn is probably beyond their capabilities but wanting to do something not-so-stupid as “world’s largest ball of navel lint.” Enter the Live Nativity World Record, December 1st, 2014, in Provo, Utah. Devin Graham made a really good behind the scenes video of the Nativity but left out a few things. Speaking as one of the 1000+ angel extras who participated, I’d like to let you in on them.

While in Provo I stayed at the Provo Marriott, which seemed like an obvious choice for out-of-town participants. I was beginning to wonder if I was the only one there, though, until I saw some guy walking across the lobby holding his telephone at arm’s length and talking to himself. YouTuber or a nutcase, I thought. It was Shay Butler.

Not knowing what to expect, I arrived early the next day and parked at the Temple. This is something of a hike from Rock Canyon Park but I thought that might give me an advantage when we left. All it actually gave me was a little extra cardio. At the sign-in table I received a wristband with “GG4” on it, identifying my position on the grid (about which more later). My next stop was the costume tent, which was a flurry of frantic activity. To interject a word about the costumes, they weren’t what I was expecting. We had the option of bringing our own or having one provided. The people singing in the video, all draped in white, the classic image of angels? They brought their own. The rest of us got this white cloth cone with a sort of LED hoop skirt, which made us look more like a bell than an angel. These came in small, medium or large, and had, besides the hole for your head, a little slit just in front for the flashlight they issued you to shine at the camera. Problem was, the costumes needed to be sorted by size and not all of them had the slit. I was put to work sorting and snipping. If you check out the segment of the timelapse taken in the costume tent you’ll see me zipping around in the right foreground. 

For people who had never laid eyes on each other until then, we worked together remarkably well. One jarring note is that everyone kept calling me “Brother.” For a fleeting moment I wondered if I looked like a monk, but then I understood: I was surrounded by Mormons.

After hours of dressing everyone and herding them in the right direction, the nativity itself took something like ten minutes. We had Jesus, Mary and Joseph, three wise men, half a dozen shepherds, 1,000 plus angels, a camel, two or three sheep and a donkey. Once the Guinness World Records guy had a good count he announced the record and everybody cheered. Personally, I was relieved that the standing around for six to seven hours they had warned us about wasn’t going to be in some frozen posture of adoration. While everyone was milling around taking each other’s picture I worked my way down to say “Hi!” to Peter Hollens, who had led us in carols and was playing one of the shepherds. His wife Evynne and their son Ashland were there as well, costumed as angels. We chatted briefly until the call went up for the “bell angels” to head out to the grid.

In The Piano Guys’ video the nativity proper is placed inside a larger one outlined in lights, shaped like an ornament featured in the opening scene. The way they achieved the effect of this outline forming and brightening was to have us all get into position on the previously laid-out grid, switch on our hoops, shine our flashlights at the camera hanging from the balloon overhead, then on cue turn off the flashlights and scatter. Played backwards it gives the effect you see in the video. Seen from ground level as it happened, though, it looked pretty weird, prompting one observer to compare it to a mass migration of glowing sea urchins.

After three or four takes they let the “bell angels” take a break while the “singing angels,” in their more classically angelic outfits, got to stand on a cold, artificially foggy slope and sing. We had cocoa and muffins in the tent, warmed up, and wandered back out to where the singing angels were still singing. About that time someone had an epiphany and decided to have the “bell angels” flow up around the nativity as a transition shot. We were recalled, re-costumed, and repositioned. The concept was for those in front to switch on their light hoops at a particular point (they tried several different ways) as we walked forward and for the rest of us to turn ours on when the person next to us lit up, giving a ripple effect. For this shot they decided to use an octocopter.

The donkey did not like that octocopter.  Given its black, stalky shape and insect-like buzz, he may have thought it was the mother of all horseflies. Regular horseflies bite painfully. For all he knew something that big might just eat him on the spot. Unfortunately Jeremy Warner, who was holding its reins while down on one knee, head bowed in reverence, didn’t notice this. The octocopter buzzed aloft, the director cued us to walk forward, and the donkey decided to leave, yanking Jeremy flat on his back. The camel wasn’t happy about it either but calmed down after a couple of tries. The donkey never did. Every time the octocopter took off, so did the donkey, dragging Jeremy behind it and prompting a chorus of “Poor Jeremy!” from the angels. This would have sounded more sincere if it hadn’t been for the giggles. Finally they got a wrangler out there strong enough to hold the donkey. His baseball cap and jeans didn’t look terribly Biblical, but as you can see, they worked around that.

“Set a World Record,” check! OK, it’s more like “Participated in a World Record,” but I’m still checking this off my bucket list. I can toss that ball of navel lint, now. Thank you, Radiant Foundation!

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