Synchronized Lighting Heads and Skeletons

Think Halloween as a warmup for Christmas

I feel it’s time to talk about Halloween in PlanetChristmas magazine. More and more people are decorating for the last day of October and many of the techniques are also used in Christmas displays. Think of Halloween as a warm-up for Christmas.

Last year I saw a house with orange net lights in the bushes, a few purple floods on the house and it all synchronized to Michael Jackson singing “Thriller.” I immediately thought it was a Christmas display with the wrong colored lights. Ends up it was a Christmas decorator that had “repurposed” his animation controllers for another day of the year. Smart!

Now I’m seeing Halloween displays with animated faces, pumpkins that sing and even dancing skeletons. I’m constantly hearing the question “how do they do that?” Look closely and you realize the behind-the-scenes magic we use in our Christmas displays is moving into Halloween. Let me “illuminate” you a bit on those ghoulish and delightful haunts and how they work. How do I know about them? I’ve done them.

The trick to creating a really good Halloween animated face or singing pumpkin is to make the features as varied as possible. By using lights to make the appropriate outlines of the eyes and mouth, you can get very clever. Depending on the scale of your characters, use ropelight or mini-lights mounted appropriately. Make the mouth using four or more lighting channel lines. Do one channel for the wide open mouth, one channel for a half mouth, one channel for an “O” shape and one channel for a closed shape. The more you design the mouth the easier the capability of making it actually appear to sing the words of the song. Then you design the eyes. This can be as simple as just on, or on/off or as intricate as you want to make it (each eye on/off, blink, the middle of the eye, even as far as making eyebrows arching up and down.) I like to make each eye separately controllable as you can give more depth to the face while it’s singing.

Construction of these faces can be made using chicken wire strung over a round frame then attaching the lights to make the eyes, mouth and other features required. The fun then begins on sequencing those features to make a seamless (or nearly so) movement of the mouth to form the words of the song.

Find the written lyrics to the song you are using (Internet search, inside cover of a CD jacket or just repetitive listening of the song.) Look at the lyrics and highlight the different ways the words sound when you pronounce them out loud. You might even watch your mouth in a mirror as you exaggerate saying each word. For “Halloween” you would write it as three distinct syllables: Ha-lo-ween. This would be the wide mouth, the “O” and then the half mouth to make the word. You continue through the lyrics until you have all the words pronounced to fit your animated face.

Within Light-O-Rama’s S2 sequence editing program, slow the song down to half or quarter speed. This is very important when you work on the actual sequence so you can capture the timing and nuances of each syllable in a word. It’s not an easy process but over time you will get proficient and be able to speed things up. When actually sequencing, use the fade down feature to move seamlessly from one mouth movement to the next. It gives the appearance that the face is talking and not stuttering from one word or syllable to the next. This can be tedious but once you finish, the end result is pretty cool to watch. Remember this one key item, though: the mouth is the most important part of the animated face.

For the eyes you can do on/off for the eyes as they don’t need to be as fluid in motion as the mouth. Blinking the eyes randomly or at the appropriate times to the music gives your animated face a bit more of a human quality.

Doing skeletons is similar to doing faces. Instead of mouth and eye lines of light, you create light lines of a skeleton shape in different poses. Each arm and leg might have three different positions and the same for the position of the head. The movements on a dancing skeleton can be simple or very intricate depending on how many lighting channels you can make available. Now spend some time imagining you’re dancing to the music and what your arms and legs are doing. Using the same techniques as positioning a mouth, do the same for all the parts of the skeleton. I don’t personally endorse using either the fade technique or the on/off approach. You are the designer of the skeleton and therefore you can make it do as you please. Your audience will be haunted and delighted at the same time with your prowess at using lights in a way they have never seen before!

Happy Haunting and have a great time making faces and skeletons. They will be fun and entertaining for all who see them and your work will be well worth the time invested. As an extra benefit, think about re-purposing those animated heads and skeletons used for Halloween for they next great event requiring Santas and elves!

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

By Lyman Rate

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