Take your Christmas display to the next level with DMX-512

How the pros control the lights

When each of us purchased our favorite software and hardware systems to create an extreme computerized Christmas light display, we were given the opportunity to show the world, or at least the next door neighbors, our passion for Christmas decorating. We didn’t give a second thought about how the technology worked. We just loaded the software, took a controller out of the box, threw a light string on the floor and jumped in head first with the biggest ear-to-ear smile on our face since discovering presents under the Christmas tree as a kid.
When Chuck Smith asked if I would be willing to write a column for PlanetChristmas magazine about using DMX technology in Christmas displays I immediately decided to avoid wading into the arcane technical aspects of the protocol. A simple search on the subject revealed enough reading material to last a lifetime and I knew people interested in DMX-512A (which is the official terminology for what some call simply DMX) have already read themselves to sleep for too many evenings.

I have been in the concert sound and lighting business most of my adult life. Backstage at a show when a situation comes up and a newbie doesn’t know what to do, we jokingly say, “Do something, even if it is wrong.” What we really mean is they have an opportunity to learn from a new experience. Now you have an opportunity to do the same and steer some of your creative energy down this road called DMX-512A.

Why should jumping into DMX-512A be any different than when we initially got into computerizing our Christmas displays? Why can’t we just add a DMX based element here or there and dress up the display a little? Well, you can by following a few simple rules of the protocol similar to the rules you already follow with your current set-up.

There are many fixtures and devices that are DMX-512A controllable which can add a new dimension to any Christmas display, make it distinctly unique from others and create a buzz among the viewers. Think about surrounding a snowman wireframe in low lying fog to give it that North Pole frozen tundra image. If you live in an area where the weather never gets bone-chilling cold you can drop a curtain of giant snowflakes in front of your mega-tree and watch the people’s faces as they imagine being at Rockefeller Plaza in New York City. If you want to go from a static look to a dynamic scene, wash a wall of your home with a few LED color changers in deeply saturated blue light, have a moving mirror fixture project a gobo of a red sleigh flying through the blue night sky with the coroplast harvest moon you made slowly descending in the distance on thin wires connected to a DMX-512A enabled windshield wiper motor as your audio track captures Santa saying “Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.” Wow!

DMX-512A is used everywhere now and taking advantage of it to enhance your display is easier than you think. But, there’s so much more to consider. Think about what you can do from the perspective of your viewers.
Don’t give the audience too much of any fixture or device special effects. Light and color influence people’s mood just as music does. Let the mood of the display paint the scene the audience should enter. Program the light and music to lead your viewers through the door. Use sound effects to emulate reality and use space in the light sequence to bring pause to the overall feel of the program.

Present magic moments in your show almost as reveals then segue to another scene or segment. Make your display unique by being interactive with the viewer’s imagination. If your audience feels as though they have been somewhere, they will come back and bring others with them.

The basic qualities of lighting in any display are intensity, color, direction and movement.

The use of these fundamentals will define your display. Though most lighting fixtures that are DMX-512A controllable come with a higher price tag than conventional light strings, they far surpass typical Christmas lights in the ability to bring out these elements. If you can afford to add a few to your display then use these qualities to accent certain lyrics in the music, enhance the general tone and/or bring the viewer to the meaning of a passage.

Think about using a moving head fixture to build anticipation. Let it create a large twinkling white light beam that moves from the sky and narrows as it comes to rest in a flesh tone pink color on your nativity scene. The intensity of the movement, color change and direction of the beam heightened by dimming all of the other lights in your display will make the nativity scene the sole focus. Your audience will be in that manger until the scene fades and gives way to another interesting feature in your display.

Most importantly, your lighting composition must reveal objects and scenery in proportion to their importance by building a visual picture. Random bounces between unrelated elements in your display break continuity which is a precious commodity in building a sense of direction and intended purpose. Use substance over form. Don’t make your show a project of filling up the 0.05 second timing squares in a software sequencing program.
Whatever you do with DMX-512A, don’t forget that you have designed a Christmas light display, not a science project. You put your heart and sweat in it because you want to share it with everyone. If you can create warm memories for others, they will give you many great memories in return.

We’ll get into more DMX-512A implementation details in future columns. Between now and then, do an Internet search on “DMX lighting” to get a general idea of the incredible potential for your display.


From the Spring 2009 edition of PlanetChristmas Magazine

by Charles Belcher

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