Being on national TV

Behind the scenes of ABC’s Great Christmas Light Fight

The Great Christmas Light Fight television show on ABC
The Great Christmas Light Fight television show on ABC

The Belcher family was a participant in Episode 1 of ABC’s “The Great Christmas Light Fight” for 2014. We were included in the TV show which aired December 8th. We didn’t come out on top but Mr. Weaver deservedly won the coveted light bulb trophy for his wonderful Disney castle and character creations.

First, a little about our display

Our 2014 Christmas display was an experiment in visual arts in which we “projection mapped” the front and one side of our two story brick and wood home. Projection mapping is a fairly new art form which in its simplest form is the projection of content onto irregular shapes and surfaces and “mapping” the content to fit those shapes and surfaces.

We created five videos from purchased content, free content and content we created in Photoshop, Gimp and AfterEffects. We mostly used free content, as it took hundreds of images, gifs, png’s and .mov files to build a 15 minute show based around five song titles. Each song was also edited and included verses and chorus from at least three different artist as we tried to match the feel of the song to the video scene we wanted to create.

Vickie, my wife, created and developed the four animated characters who narrate the story line “Welcome to my House Party”, the theme of this year’s display. The star of “Welcome to my House Party” was, of course, “House”, an animated character who follows the outline of our real house and is very much alive. This is the character ABC showed in our episode and the character that Sabrina Soto, our judge, loved.

Belcher house with some of the decorations
Belcher house with some of the decorations

After the movies for the song titles were made, the story line was developed and narrated by the characters. We then synchronized both the video and lights to the music track. The movie was built in CyberLink Power Director 11 and the audio in Audacity. The show file including the 15 minute show based around the five song titles and 15 minutes of break music all which timed out at exactly 30 minutes. We rendered it to an “.avi” file and played it back in Light-O-Rama S3. The final file was 85GB which plays an hour and half without hiccup into four LOR data networks at normal data speed.

The lights were designed to take a back seat to the projection in two ways. The first is that we could not have lighting which unintentionally spilled onto the projection surfaces. Second we could not have yard decorations which interfered with audience sight lines.

We used RGB dumb strips on all windows, doors, soffits, eves, the chimney and a few vertical lines thrown in for balance; LED net lights and strands on the three 70’ high pecan trees; LED net lights on the front and garage bushes and we outfitted the two 40’ cedar trees with oversized C9 bulbs and homemade rope light candy canes. The only yard decorations were two 5’ x 5’ “trees” made from 8” x 8” glass block and lighted with RGB dumb strips, row by row. A glass block “footer” was also used in between the two trees which actually sat on top of the existing landscape blocks.

Getting selected to be on the show

Basic house during the day
Basic house during the day

Due to the many people I engage with in the capacity of being one of the original Light-O-Rama partners, I have been asked too many times about the experience of being involved with the Great Christmas Light Fight. Let me detail it here for all of you who wish for a shot at making it on the TV show.
I taught a “projection mapping” class at the Christmas Expo in July 2014. ABC had a booth set up in the vendor room and was actively looking for contestants to participate in the 2014 series. A casting person and one of the executive producers for the Great Christmas Light Fight were there for three days.

I spoke with both of them on day two of the Expo. At this point, we had not really even gotten past the “concept” stage of our 2014 display. In fact, we had not done a display at our home the last three years, so we were really starting from square one. I had even sold all of my controllers and much of the lighting was outdated and/or unusable. We had a couple of minutes worth of content built to present to the class and this is what we showed ABC. The casting person said they were looking for different types of displays to present to the producers in addition to the synchronized “lights to music” displays which are so commonplace now. They liked our idea and said they would call. This was July 18th.

House outline used for projection mapping
House outline used for projection mapping

The first email from ABC came on July 24th. They ask me to make a “submission video” of the family. This was a simple video introducing each family member in the front yard and saying things like…”We are going to win the $50,000” and “Nobody has what we have”—regular reality TV stuff. We recorded it and emailed it to them. A few days later several documents from ABC arrived for us to read, sign and return. Before committing to any family, ABC will do background checks, and search all social media outlets in order to get an idea of what you are about.

Our family went on vacation and while we were at the beach we received a call from ABC asking us to be available for an interview via Skype in the next couple of days. It felt like a step up the ladder of selection so I was becoming cautiously optimistic.

On Thursday of that week, we gathered around the kitchen island in the rented beach house wearing our red and green shirts to do the interview. They asked us very leading questions and even supplied the answers they were looking for to several of them. It was basically more reality TV type dialog. This was followed by another round of emailed attachments for each family member who was going to participate to read and sign.

They have “helper” forms to be read and signed; they have “owner” forms to be read and signed; they have “minor” forms for the “under 14” kids parents to read and sign and all of them come with very tight time lines for return. Before the process was over, we probably had a stack of documents 2”-3” high. We did read through all of them, asked questions, got clarifications and signed all of them indicating our agreement to their terms. They want to control everything pertaining to the show and they want to make sure that any family or anyone “helping” the family does not spill the beans before they are ready to advertise the show themselves. This is a huge deal to ABC.

Projection with some of the talking figures
Projection with some of the talking figures

We got back to Dallas on August 4th and exchanged more emails with the ABC office in Hollywood for a couple of weeks. It was then that we progressed from the casting department to the production department of the show. Throughout the transition we were still not told that we had “officially” been selected to be on the show, although we certainly had that idea from the language being used. Even at this stage, more paperwork was sent to us, much of it was redundant and my guess is that they needed to make absolutely certain that we understood the process and the rules.

Once it’s official the work begins.

The official confirmation of our participation was given to us August 10th.

More action in the display
More action in the display

Because of the late date and the fact that we were creating this show from beginning to end, we decided to cut the show down from 15 minutes to 6 1/2 minutes and only do two song titles. We got to work on making the movie because it had to be finished before we could begin to program the lights in Light-O-Rama. No pressure!

On September 4th, we were asked to make time for a “Rules Call” with all 20 families on September 5th and around that date we received a small hand held camera which we used to make selfies as we prepped for the installation. We were given a code name by which we were referred to during the conference call. Around this time they set up the first filming date which was to be September 8th. At this session, the crew was to interview the family members and shoot some footage of the property before any decorations were installed. This was a one-day, all-day video shoot. The day before this scheduled shoot, they called to postpone the first shoot and re-scheduled for September 15th and scheduled the final three-day shoot for October 2-4 with October 3rd being the judging day.

The film crew showed up at 11:00am on September 15th. The crew included a producer, her assistant, a sound engineer, two camera operators and a technician who handled the technical set-up of all the gear. The producer and assistant were at all four film dates, but the other crew members changed. They showed up in three vans loaded with gear and used our garage as their staging area. All family members were mic-ed up the entire time. Included in the paperwork we signed was the requirement that no one could turn off their microphone at any time during the filming. We made sure to tell them when we went to the bathroom. Everyone on the crew had ear pieces, producer, assistant, cameraman and sound man.

They guided us through a routine that they had obviously done several times before and were extremely professional in both their work procedure and the handling of our family. I can’t say enough about how good they were. They were all free-lancers but a couple of them had been on Dancing with the Stars for several years and knew their stuff about the shots they wanted and how to go about getting them. At the end of the day, they installed two battery powered cameras in our front yard. These were set to take a photo every five minutes or so.

That day ended at 10:00pm and we didn’t see them again until October 2nd at 10:00am. We were allowed to begin decorating at this point although they asked us to save something for the October session. The flow of paperwork probably ended around September 21st or so. With regard to the other competitors, you never know who you are competing against in your episode and you don’t even know the names of anyone in the other episodes. I heard one technician making flight arrangements for El Paso and figured it was the Loya family they were going to film, having previously seen his display myself. I didn’t ask because I knew they would not give me the answer.

The GCLF judge: Sabrina Soto
The GCLF judge: Sabrina Soto

A larger crew came in on October 2nd. There were more camera operators and production assistants to help with the bigger project that day. The crew split up; one crew followed me around and another crew followed my son, Chris around. They even jumped into the 60’ man lift with my son and filmed as he wrapped branches at a height of 50’-60’. This day was all about the “final preparation day” before the judge came the following night. On October 3rd, Sabrina came at 8:00pm to judge. She pulled up in that same black SUV that you see on every episode. The crew came in at 2:00pm that day and stayed until after 1:00am. Sabrina stayed on site until around 11:00pm. After she does the reveal and the walk-through, she basically just hangs out and waits for her turn in front of the camera to give her impressions. Late that night, the show producers also filmed our family as we discussed Sabrina’s reaction to our display.

Throughout all film days they do something they call “OTF” which means a non-scripted film capture “on the fly”. When the field producer sees something she thinks will have TV value, she calls an audible and the crew jumps in.
We had over 150 people at our reveal, who all stood in the street for at least two hours before seeing our display play. We had hired catering for our guests, compete with tables and chairs which we set up in our back yard. We also rented a bouncy house for the kids and a stilt walker who was more than happy to be in every shot they took. ABC does not pay for any of this. Our field producer took a back seat on this day to a “director” who was flown in. The director set up all the shots, talked to the audience via bullhorn, directed the Jib-Boom operator and basically ran the show that day. She left after Sabrina’s “final thoughts” moment was filmed and the normal crew stayed another couple of hours.

The next day was reserved for “personal” shots. This was October 4th and a smaller crew came in at 1:00pm and stayed until around 10:00pm. This is when they really collect the personal shots of the family walking, talking and interacting. Our energy level was gone at this point after two long days of filming, but we did our best to be excited.

So, there you have it. Was it fun? Yes. Would I recommend it to someone else? Yes. In the end, it was a good life experience for all of our family and just like a great Christmas display, the end result will be a lifelong memory.


This article was included in the Spring 2015 issue of PlanetChristmas Magazine.

By Charles Belcher

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