Sequencing for a living

It's finally November...

It’s finally November. For many lighting enthusiasts we’ve been planning our over-the-top displays for months and are now ready to begin putting up the lights. I know quite a few of the larger displays have already started the outside work.

This is the time of year when many newcomers join the decorating community and are dazzled by the elaborate displays. Many do not realize the amount of planning, time and effort that goes into these works of art. There’s another component of our displays some would rather not discuss and that’s the cost. Like many hobbies today, this can get expensive. The trick is planning and budgeting.

Do you want to put up a large display but have never done so before or maybe you’re a bit intimidated? If so, this article is geared towards you.

First I need to mention one very important item; if you’re reading this article in November then it’s too late to do a large display for this year. I hope to give you a roadmap for planning your 2010 Christmas display because it’s never too early to start.

There is no perfect way to plan your first big display. I know people who started their first year with 200+ animated light channels and now have 800+ channels. I know others who started with just six light channels of animation and kept growing. I even know others who animated for a few years and went back to static light displays.

So, where do you start? There are few things that you must first consider:

One of the most debated issues in the lighting community today is whether to go with incandescent lighting or LED technology. There’s even a story in the magazine about this very topic. It’s my opinion the real difference between incandescents and LEDs isn’t power savings or light cost but how much power is available for your Christmas display.

Most homes have a single 15 amp circuit on the outside and with any luck the plug isn’t shared with other outlets a few inches away on the inside wall. When you apply the 80% safety rule, there are 12 amps of power to use on your display over this one circuit. With incandescent lighting you reach this power limit with about 35 strings. With LEDs you can increase that number to 120 strings. Typically, the more lights you have the more power you will need and this is where LEDs show their greatest advantage. Using LEDs can reduce the number of power circuits required for large displays. While the power savings are nice, the ability to run more lights while consuming less power is a major benefit. The biggest challenge is LEDs cost more to initially purchase. The average in-season cost for a 100 count string of incandescent lights is about $2.50 per box while a 50 count string of LEDs could cost you $9.25. Ouch.

There comes a point when it’s time to decide if you want to do a static or an animated display. There is no right or wrong answer; it’s up to you and what you want to do with your display. Generally speaking, a static display is going to have a lower up-front cost, while an animated display is going to cost more but use less power since the lights are flashing instead of staying on all the time.

When deciding which route to go, consider the hidden costs associated with an animated display. You are going to have to purchase lighting controllers, software and plenty of extension cords. This is in addition to any lights and decorations you want to buy or build for your display. Animated displays also take longer to plan, set up and program compared to static displays. If you place a high value on your time, factor it into the big equation.

With animated displays give yourself time to become familiar with the lighting software used to synchronize the lights to the music. While the concept is very simple, the actual programming of the lights isn’t something people pick up overnight. There are many nuances and shortcuts to learn and it takes time to absorb the best way to do things. Don’t underestimate the time it is going to take to sequence your display. A smaller display of 64 or fewer channels might take a couple of hours per minute of animation to program. Larger displays (128+ channels) could take four hours per minute. If you decide sequencing simply isn’t your cup of tea, there are companies glad to program your lights. Here’s the key: give these companies plenty of time to sequence your unique setup and the earlier in the year you contact them the lower the rates will be. People tend to wait to the last minute and that gets expensive.

Once you’ve decided what kind of display you are going to tackle, here are some tips.
Start early. Now is the time to begin planning the display for 2010. Take photos of other displays in your area, read the PlanetChristmas message forums and gather ideas. Make notes about what you like and dislike.

Take pictures of what you already have or at least want to keep for the future. If you have a display and are looking to grow next year, be sure to photograph everything during setup and teardown. For the record, it’s not possible to have too much information during the planning phase.

Make a budget and plan to stay within it. The leap to animation means major expenditures. Depending on which brand/model you purchase, expect to spend $7-$23 per light channel. If you already have a display, take the time to determine what would need to be purchased in order to animate it. This will give you a good idea of what you may be getting ready to spend next year.

Have a reasonable plan: If you plan to start with 200+ light channels in the beginning, it’s likely you’re setting a course to become frustrated. Don’t underestimate the time it takes to build display elements, hang lights, and programming the shows. Too large a display in your first year could very well lead to mental burnout the second year. I speak from experience because it happened to me in 2006. I spent so much time planning for the 2005 display that I didn’t have the energy to work on 2006.

Take a break. The larger your display the first year, the more time you are going to need to spend planning for it. Make sure that you incorporate some downtime throughout the year in order to avoid Christmas lighting “burnout.”

Perhaps there is no better way to see how a large display comes together than to look back at my own display. While certainly not the largest, it does offer an excellent method for planning most other displays. I think this offers those with a pre-existing display an excellent roadmap on how to make the leap to animation.

2002 – 2004: The first years of my display were static lights. Each year more lights were added. Since I used all incandescent in the early years, I had no choice but to add more electrical circuits. What I didn’t know at the time was how much of a help this would be when I decided to animate my display. When planning my animated display I decided to re-use as many elements of my static display as possible. This allowed me to determine how many light channels (or controllers) I would need if I wanted to animate my existing display. Since I had an idea as to how much I could afford, I at least knew that I had the ability to add some display elements to the 2005 show. In my opinion it is always easier to animate an existing display.

2005: This was my first year of animation. Remember when I said it’s never too early to start planning? I started planning while the lights were up in 2004. This was a huge advantage as I was able to take photographs of the display and make notes about how things were currently set up.

Since I wanted to keep the first year of animation as easy as possible, I only added two major elements, plus a few minor ones. The two most noticeable changes were the 16 mini-trees and the yard grid. A second color was added to the real trees making them red and green. I kept the wireframe trees and reindeer and incorporated them into the display.

Since I built my first animated display with a budget in mind, I knew how many controllers I could afford to purchase. Here’s a big hint: the animation vendors have sales during the slow time of the year. The plan for my first animated display was finalized in April of 2005 and I made sure there were no major changes after this point. This saved me from having to re-work lighting sequences I programmed starting in May. It’s important to finalize your display before any sequencing begins.

I spent May through October building mini-trees and light controllers. I even got out one hot August day and tested a yard grid. By doing the majority of work in the Spring and Summer I was able to avoid the stress of trying to do too many things at the last minute. This turned out to be a blessing because it took nearly twice as long as planned to actually put up the display. While I had allocated an entire week, Mother Nature decided she didn’t want me outside the first two days. As a result I ended up working much later into the evening than I had wanted on the nights that were left.

As a result of careful planning I was able to go live the day after Thanksgiving with ten synchronized songs. I have no doubt if I had started planning the display in August things would not have gone as smoothly. Planning is very important to your overall display experience. I can’t stress enough how important it is to start early.

Since that first reveal to the public I’ve made small changes to the display each year to keep it fresh. I’ve gone through two styles of mega trees, changed out the roof lights to LEDs and added more colors. Small changes to the display will delight your visitors for years to come.

Here’s another important hint: take the first three months of the year off by not even thinking about the display. This allows the Christmas batteries to recharge and you’ll be mentally ready to go again.
We all participate in a unique hobby because it’s one that brings joy to the faces of young and old each year. No matter what you do, don’t lose sight of the real reason we set up our over-the-top displays.

And Now the Shameless Plug

Don Teague is the owner of Synchronized Christmas, Inc., providing design, consultation and programming services for residential, commercial and municipal displays featuring synchronized Christmas lights.

This article was included in the November 2009 issue of PlanetChristmas Magazine.

By Don Teague

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