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Five weeks in the life of a lighting professional

I wrote an article entitled “A Day in the Life” for the August 2009 issue of PlanetChristmas magazine. I received emails from people who were amazed by the amount of work and time involved in such an endeavor and thrilled by the excitement that surrounds a life in this business.

I thought I would share five weeks of my schedule for those of you considering a career in the decorating world. The weeks described below include the three leading up to a large decorating job and the two of on-site installation. If you really dream to be a superstar lighting designer/installer, then get ready for how the real world works. It starts with the first conversation about a proposed job through its completion in five very short weeks.


On April 19th I received a call asking if I could fly to Sandusky, Ohio. On a tiny peninsula protruding into Lake Erie is Cedar Point Amusement Park. (insert pic 1) I was asked to take a look at improving an existing lighted path which had been installed by the park the year before. The parties involved compared their schedules and decided April 22-23 would be the best days for a site survey. It turns out that I had an 11:00am meeting at the University of Oklahoma on the 22nd concerning another job. I decided to fly out of Oklahoma City rather than driving back to Dallas even though it would mean having to drive back to Dallas upon my return. I booked a flight for 2:00pm on the 22nd and flew to Cleveland via St. Louis where I was picked up by an associate who had flown in from Atlanta. We rented a car and drove about an hour to Sand

usky arriving at the park around 11:00pm.

The attraction is named “Starlight Experience” and consists of a walking path through the Frontier Town section of the park. The path takes in 1,000 feet and includes about 200 trees, 20 buildings, a train tunnel and several objects such as a windmill, pond and ride entrances.

The theme of “Starlight Experience” is vaguely based upon the four seasons of the year with several Snoopy inflatable characters on trailers involved in activities defined by each season. The Winter area utilized mostly blue and some white light. Fall contained red, orange and amber lights. Summer was red, white and blue and Spring used pastels colors throughout. All lighting elements were LED based and included G-12, G-25, C7 and 5MM light strings. There were also DMX controlled Color Kinetics Color Blast and Color Graze wash lights as well as Color Kinetics I-Color Flex programmable pixel strips.

At 11:00pm we were met at the park service entrance by the department manager and a technician to immediately begin the walk-through. The lighting system had been “winterized” and even though the park personnel had suggested the meeting dates, they had only begun the process of the putting the system back together. There were many lighting elements not yet re-connected and many not working at all. This was a little disappointing. We were there to take a look at what they had in order to give them a bid for improvements, yet we were not able to see much of it that night.

My associate and I dug in and helped the park technician re-connect as many elements as possible while we made our way down the path comparing what we found and could actually see to the electrical riser diagrams and the lighting specification printouts generated by the Lightwright 5 software they had used. The entire system was implemented with an ETC theatrical lighting console and ETC theatrical dimmers. The 20 minute show was programmed on an ION/EOS console system with SMPTE time code assigned for lighting cue events. The signal was then routed via Cisco wireless Ethernet to various stations around the path. Each station provided an Ethernet to DMX node whereby the DMX dimmers, wash fixtures and pixel strips could connect. It was interesting in that none of the products which PlanetChristmas readers traditionally use to control their displays were implemented. We all ran out of steam and called it quits around 4:00am.

We met the park Operations Manager in his office the next day at noon to discuss the vision they had for improvement. It was decided that we would give them a bid to replace all lighting and add a complete Light-O-Rama controller package in the Summer area. We would add lights to the existing lights in Spring and use Light-O-Rama controllers to control the new lights. Winter and Fall would remain as installed and we would re-program a few sections of the soundtrack on their existing control system. As a result we would also design a system for integrating the existing theatrical based control system into the Light-O-Rama control system.

The scope of the work was to design a plan for Summer and Spring lights, designate the locations for the new power drops and data cable runs; order 1,400 new LED strands, Chauvet Colorado 3 wash lights, strobe lights, and Light-O-Rama hardware. We would then install the new components, program a 20 minute soundtrack from scratch where the new controllers were used; re-program Winter and Fall on the existing system and design an integration between the traditional theatrical system and the Light-O-Rama system. This would all have to be accomplished by the new Grand Opening on May 29th with a VIP showing on May 28th. OK, piece of cake!

We spent the rest of the day, walking the path and taking measurements of the tree diameters, tree heights, building dimensions and deciding where the new Light-O-Rama controllers should be positioned. That night we again worked with the park technician reconnecting as many elements as possible in order to try to get a better idea of what the system really looked like. At 1:00am we went back to the hotel.

Head lamp
Head lamp

The next morning I drove to Cleveland, caught my flight and landed in Oklahoma City at 3:00pm. I drove back home to Dallas, arriving around 7:00pm, packed a new suitcase, jumped back into my truck and drove to San Antonio that night, arriving just after midnight. At 8:00am the following day, we began the load-in of the rigging, sound, light and video for a George Strait/Reba McEntire event. The concert was performed in the Alamodome on May 1st, for a sold-out crowd of 55,000 fans. My company was the general contractor for the show and I was the sound system designer for the event. Fortunately, I had this design finished before I went to Cedar Point and I arrived at the Alamodome; on time, with the paperwork in hand.

During the week, I bounced back and forth from the Alamodome floor to the hotel room where I would collaborate with my associate in Atlanta on both the Cedar Point design as well as the search for commercial grade Christmas lights and accessories in the off-season. I had also received the music track from Cedar Point and I was able to begin programming. This went on all week until I left San Antonio for Dallas on Sunday, May 2nd. With no rest for the weary, I had to be back at the University of Oklahoma at 9:00am on May 3rd to begin the installation of the rigging, stage, set structure and lighting for the University of Oklahoma Graduation Ceremony which was scheduled for May 9th in the football stadium.

On May 4th, I received a call from Cedar Point saying they had located several hundred strands of lights that had been left over from the previous installation. This was good news because finding that much inventory at that time of the year was proving to be quite a challenge. In fact, it was so much of a challenge that we had to make substantial substitutions from commercial grade strands to retail grade net lights for the 26 trees in the Summer section. We didn’t like having to do this, but we had no choice if we were to be ready by May 28th. My associate in Atlanta put together the electrical requirements, cable drops and all other infrastructure needs (labor, boom lifts, etc) as well as keeping track of the ever-changing light strand requirements and procurement.

I continued programming the Summer and Spring sections during the University of Oklahoma load-in. Fortunately, I have some really great technicians that can take over when needed and believe me, I needed them during this week! Our handshake deal officially finalized with Cedar Point on May 6th, just 11 days before we were to begin the installation. A purchase order was issued and deposits were made. By the end of the week I had programmed nine minutes of the 20 minute show and was facing the hardest three minute section of music after which it would be fairly easy. On Friday, May 9th, the day the graduation ceremony was to be held, the rain rolled into Norman, Oklahoma. The graduation ceremony was then moved to an indoor arena. It was a shame that so much effort had been made towards the outdoor setting, but such is the nature of the outdoor production business.

I left the University of Oklahoma Friday morning, drove back to Dallas where I would have a week to work on the programming without much outside interruption. It took 35 hours over the next five days to finish the most difficult 3.5 minutes of music. It was a rocking piece of music with orchestra. I used several tracks to divide the music into events including the primary beat, high strings, low strings, winds, trumpet one, trumpet two, trombone and French horn. This left me with only 7.5 minutes of programming to accomplish which I would have to do during the installation at Cedar Point.

I decided to drive my truck to Sandusky, Ohio instead of flying because I needed to take more tools and general gear than I wanted to trust to the airlines. I left Dallas at 5:00am on May 15th, drove straight to Cincinnati, spent the night, then drove five hours to Sandusky the next day. As luck would have it, the rain was pouring hard as we began work at 10:00pm and it continued for the next two nights. I think I changed blue jeans and socks three times that first night.

The park was open for business at this point and our schedule had to be built around park hours. This meant that we would go to work at 9:00pm, organize our work materials and tools, prepare the boom lifts and product for the night then wait until we received word from security that the park was clear and the path was open to us for work. For the next two weeks, everything was done at night, on boom lifts with every worker wearing a LED head lamp. There were no work lights in the area and in fact, there was very little light other than what we would create on our own. The sun would rise around 6:00 each morning giving us three hours of wonderful, glorious daylight before we had to clear the path for the park opening.

I generally worked on the path from 9:00pm until around midnight at which point my assistant took over as I headed for the hotel room to finish programming the seven minutes of the show. I programmed until 3:00am-4:00am each morning before giving it up for the night. I would wake up most mornings between 9:00-10:00am, walk down the path to check on the progress, determine the work schedule for the following night, meet with the park managers to review the progress and deal with whatever else came up. After eating lunch around noon I went back to the hotel for another couple of hours of programming. I tried to get in a nap between 3:00pm and 5:00pm each day when the cell phones were the quietest. Dinner happened around 7:00pm, and I worked through emails and other business for an hour or so before getting ready to do it all again. Decorating is a fun business!
This went on for ten days and nights. Fast forward to May 25th just three nights before the VIP show. The electricians had still not installed the power receptacles or the Cat 5 data cables. It turns out that we were way down on the to-do list in which the rides took top priority. We had run the load cable from all of the trees and buildings to the Light-O-Rama controllers; hot patched them to verify the lights were working and installed temporary data cables between the controllers to confirm everything was working so we were ready to go once the electricians finished the permanent cable runs. I had also finished programming our portion of the show at this point.

One very important element of this show was synchronizing the Light-O-Rama controllers to the theatrical control console from which all events were triggered by SMPTE time code. Our solution was a Doug Flennor DMX relay unit. This is a six channel device that takes a DMX input signal and triggers an internal N/O (normally open) relay. We mounted the Light-O-Rama controller housing the ShowTime Director next to a park DMX based dimmer panel (see the pictureabove.) We then assigned dimmer channels from the park’s lighting console to the Flenner box DMX relay unit connected to the input triggers on the Light-O-Rama ShowTime Director.

We programmed a particular channel on the existing lighting console via the SMPTE time code to trigger the Light-O-Rama system at the exact starting time. Because the show is on a loop and runs three or four times a night we had to come up with a way to end each respective show and begin a new show without introducing any delay. This was accomplished by programming a “Freeze last look” show lasting three seconds. We also had to program an “end of night” cue which killed all lighting and did not re-trigger for a next show. We used three triggers on the ShowTime Director for the “Starlight Experience” and used a forth trigger as an “All On” for the maintenance department.
Apparently we had moved up the to-do list as the electricians worked feverishly on the 26th and 27th so that we could finally see the existing system and the Light-O-Rama system work together. Immediately, we concentrated on the synchronization between the two systems and discovered that not all SD media cards are created equal for this purpose. The card that came with the Show Director would start at the precise time and track accurately throughout the show, but the card we purchased as backup had a variance in both the start time and the play time. That was an easy fix so we moved on.

Light-O-Rama controllers at CedarPoint
Light-O-Rama controllers at CedarPoint

The sun rose and set on the VIP show date and everyone was nervous but ready. Showtime came and went but the VIPs were a “no-show.” The next night, they were all there albeit unannounced. They offered a few suggestions which we implemented later that night and the next.

It was now May 30th and I realized I had a May 31st, Memorial Day concert at Flagpole Hill with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. I have been the resident symphony sound engineer for the last 28 years, have never missed an outdoor show during that time and I didn’t intend to miss this one.

I booked a flight for May 31st and asked my assistant who had flown from Dallas to Cedar Point to drive my truck back to Dallas. We worked on changes at the park until 5:00am when my assistant and I drove my truck to Cleveland. There I caught my 7:30am flight arriving in Dallas at 2:30pm. I shuttled home, took a nap and was at Flagpole Hill at 7:30pm in time for an 8:00pm show start. Of course they played the 1812 Overture and a spectacular fireworks show exploded during the finale. I don’t really remember much after that. I think I probably slept for about four days straight.

As I write this article, I am designing several professional Christmas décor jobs, my own home Christmas display, the multi-me

dia extravaganza for the State Fair of Texas in September, the fall leg of the George Strait/Reba McEntire concert tour and this week I received my first phone call for a SuperBowl event in February 2011. The Dallas Cowboys are hosting the SuperBowl next year and the events surrounding it are just now starting to line up as the NFL releases their hold on the various venues around town. This will be a huge boon to the area and I just can’t wait to be a part of it! If this hectic schedule and type of work interest you, then all I can offer is “Be it, don’t dream it.”

This article was included in the September 2010 issue of PlanetChristmas Magazine.

By Charles Belcher

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