How does one construct the largest artificial foliage Christmas tree in the world? Bi-Lingual-ly of course! But I’m getting ahead of myself . . . . Let’s start at the beginning.
Gallo, the largest beer manufacturing company in Guatemala, has held a tree-lighting ceremony for Guatemala City (and surrounding areas) for the last 24 years as a way to give back to the community. For their 25th Anniversary of the tree lighting, they decided to purchase a new tree; complete with a fully synchronized musical light show!
To accomplish this task, Gallo contacted Barrango, Inc., located in South San Francisco. Barrango had been building Christmas trees for the last 100+ years but needed somebody to head up the synchronization department. That’s where my company came into the picture.
Our job was to supervise all things musical – musical selection, programming and performance. First, we worked with the client to select the appropriate music for the tree. After listening to music from a variety of artists, including 80 versions of Jingle Bells and a lot of Trans-Siberian Orchestra, we settled on 12 songs which would perform in sets of three every hour. Personally, I didn’t want this magnificent creation to be just another background show so I was very picky in the song selection and set grouping. If the wrong songs were clumped together, people would easily get bored. If the wrong songs were picked in the first place, we could expect nothing but disaster and a kick out the door. No pressure…right?
The next task was to designate programming responsibility. I didn’t want all 12 songs programmed by one person or else it would look redundant. Therefore we divided the work among four programmers: three from my company (including myself) and one from Animated Lighting. This turned out to be a very wise decision as the final result had audiences so awestruck they stayed at the tree for four hours just to see all the songs!
After six months of programming, my associate Anthony and I flew to Guatemala City to provide on-site technical support for the tree. While we “knew” the schematics of the tree, we couldn’t really fathom the monstrosity we were helping to create until standing in front of it. Here are some fun facts:
Base Diameter: 57’
# of Lights: 1.5 Million
# of Channels used: 131
# of Control Boxes: 45
Full-ON amp reading: approx. 1,300 amps
This tree was a beast! The frame was custom-welded iron and divided into 21 sections, each 5’ high. After the frame was constructed, the Guatemalan crew (provided by Gallo) installed each individually-lit tree branch into special sockets on the frame before wiring the lights to a custom harness. This harness collected all the branch wires and sent a single cord down to our control center, which was then snaked into the appropriate control box. I should note that our “control center” was exactly that, a center! Located inside a shipping container, our 45 control boxes were secured to the walls; with the extension cords collecting on the roof before being wrapped (like a Christmas present) over the sides of the building. The reason we had to use 45 control boxes despite only needing 131 channels was that the boxes themselves weren’t strong enough to handle all the power. In our most extreme case we had one control box handling just one color of the entire base ring.
I’ll be honest… this was a tough job! We ran into a lot of technical issues; from wires that had been cut before our arrival to electrical interference (dirty power) coming from the primary breakers. The control boxes and CPU did not enjoy that. We often worked 14 to 18 hour days with little sleep in between adjusting, supervising and repairing the various areas of the tree that needed work. Even when we were sleeping, the night crew was still worked to install the branches and drop the wires to the ground.
Once the entire tree was wired up, it was time to test this baby. A cheer like a jet engine erupted from the entire Guatemalan crew when the first musical number played. We previewed all 12 songs for the bosses and then talked about Opening Night. Originally Gallo had made the selections for Opening Night, but after seeing the songs in action, they weren’t as enthused as they first expected. Luckily we then played for them three much more appropriate songs, and the decision to change the selections was easily made.
We ran into one more problem. After seeing one of THE most anticipated songs, Wizards in Winter, the higher ups rejected how it looked on the tree. I would personally have to program the full three-minute version of Wiza
rds in Winter in two days. If my job wasn’t stressful before, it was absolutely now! In addition, one other song needed pruning so my associate took some virtual scissors and paint to make it more presentable.
Long story short (and quite ironically), the new Wizards in Winter turned out wonderfully! It may even be my best work to date! Who would have thought? The #1 most hated song in the industry becomes my greatest. I have a new love for that song.
So after much testing, much stress and a few bottles of the most amazing beer I’ve ever tasted, it was time for opening night. First let me say what we thought was “big” was nothing compared to what we saw opening day. A massive stage was erected right in front of the tree which would host a plethora of dancing, singing and comedy acts leading up to lighting of the tree. No one but a few higher ups and the production crew actually knew that the tree was going to “perform” too, so the anticipation in the air was invigorating . . . Or that might have just been because of the Guatemalan edition of the Rockettes.
But back on track…Opening Night!
Let us jump back to November 13th. The time was approximately 7:20 PM. The countdown was about to begin!
We had connected one of our laptops to the control center CPU as a backup just in case we needed to run the show manually; and had walked through a drill multiple times just in case something unexpected occurred. Strange things had occurred the previous evening, like the audio card randomly deciding to not play; hence the backups. We had everything working just fine once we went to sleep but we wanted to be sure just in case.
We arrived at the Plaza to find the Gallo logo shining brightly (despite us not sending a command to do so). When we unplugged the Gallo logo, it went dark but when we plugged it back in to the same circuitry it remained dark. Therefore, we had an additional backup in the form of a crew member with an extension cord (connected to a hot power strip) at the ready in case the Gallo logo did not light with the rest of the tree.
A couple minutes before the countdown we cleared the control center of all unnecessary personnel and then…we waited.
T-Minus… 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5…at 5 seconds we powered-ON the CPU…
4, 3, 2, 1…The lights came on…but no boom…no audio…
T-Plus…At this point we sprang into action
1, 2…we confirmed we had no audio.
3, 4, 5, 6…As practiced we cancelled the CPU AutoShow, rerouted the audio (in the form of unplugging and rerouting the wire to the computer), then manually played the first song via the computer.
However, still no audio!
At this point we realized the issue was not in the control center. The opening night audio crew had tapped directly into our CPU and we had shut down our audio system because they were incompatible. However, the operator at their control booth didn’t turn up our audio! We were sitting ducks. The comm-radios were blaring wildly as people tried to figure out what was going on. We reported in, saying the issue was not with us and that we thought our audio was muted at the opening night booth. About 20 seconds later our audio slowly faded up. Thankfully the first song was 2001 Space Odyssey so the fade-up sounded OK.
We all breathed a huge sigh of relief when we heard the tree sing! For the rest of the opening night show, we ran each song off the computer until the fireworks show.
Once the fireworks took over, we went outside to enjoy a cerveza and enjoy the fireworks. God truly took care of us that night! It was a very stressful few minutes but the event made the front page of every newspaper in Guatemala the next morning. We walked past a news stand with six different papers all touting the Gallo Arbol.
The next night we swapped the Opening Night SD Cards with the official AutoShow cards and from then on our tree has worked perfectly since; running a three-song show each hour every night from 6 PM till 1 AM. It was beautiful watching the tree come alive without our help. It was almost like watching a child grow up. After months of working on this project, to see it come alive was extremely fulfilling.
Certainly we’re businessmen but we’re artists too. The art comes first and this was truly beautiful art.
And so my friends, that is the tale of the Largest Artificial Foliage Christmas Tree in the world! It truly doesn’t get bigger than this and everyone needs to see one of these!
Videos of “A Guatemalan Christmas” are available at JHolmesProductions.com
This article was included in the November 2010 issue of PlanetChristmas Magazine.
By Jeff Holmes