Think like your cellphone

My first year to install an extreme Christmas light display at my home was in 2005. I had to buy all the products, learn a new software program, stumble through installation procedures, install an electrical sub-panel in my garage and make about a hundred trips to Home Depot for electrical supplies.

The display was fairly simple and included 45,000 lights, 80 channels of computer control and very few props or tricks. I programmed about eight unedited songs, one after the next much like a collection of songs on any given album. I thought it was really cool and I had done something artistic. Now when I look back on the videos I made from 2005, I am appalled at how bad a job I did. Lights were crooked, timing beats were off, some of the songs did not make a good fit with the others and colors I chose for the C9s did not work on every song. I chalked up that year’s efforts to learning this new concept of extreme Christmas light decorating and don’t ever watch those videos any more.

Although I have been in the technical production services business all of my adult life, I intentionally did not borrow from my business experiences and instead used all of the equipment, techniques and ideas that I had read about on PlanetChristmas to create my first display. In 2005 there was a good amount of DIY involved in the making of my Christmas display. I wanted my home to be both a traditional Christmas display in the sense that I used conventional strings of lights, offered traditional Christmas music via the radio, yet non-traditional in the sense that I was using this new technology to synchronize the lights to Christmas music in a non-commercial setting.

Well, that was then and as the saying goes; “The only good thing about the past, is that it is over.” It only took that one year for me to realize this was the next big thing to happen during the Christmas holiday season. I wanted to be a part of it and expand however I could. I decided then that bringing my professional life experience into the mix could be a good thing.

Beside the fact that I now use the correct fasteners and devices that keep the light strands straight, take advantage of the latest software features to program the lights in a speedier and more precise manner, use a color chart to coordinate led bulb color and (drum roll please) I also use whatever lighting and mechanical equipment I have at my disposal in our 30,000 square foot warehouse to make my display an entertainment experience to remember for my audience. Yet somehow through all of this change and upgrade, I still manage to visit Home Depot about a hundred times every season and stumble through more challenging installation methods.

Reflecting back on some of the shows with which I have been involved, I have taken special note of the intangible elements as well as the visual elements that separate the mediocre shows from the memorable shows. The idea behind the most important element in any well presented show is right there on your cell phone. Go ahead and grab your phone before you continue reading. What is the first thing you do when you get a new phone? You scroll down the menu and stop on “Themes.” You can make your phone look and feel many different ways. Without this feature a phone is functional but very boring.

Once you have established a theme, then you navigate to “Tools” and select the items you need to support your use of the phone. After you have made those selections, you navigate to “My Stuff” and select the content you want to be accessible. This hand held unit is a phone, but phone numbers are the last items to be added after the initial set up. It is funny how that works and remarkable how similar designing a show is to navigating and setting up your cell phone.

My wife, Vickie and I decided we wanted to try to entertain our guests during the Christmas season with a mindless theme which could allow them to escape from the everyday structure of life for a brief time. Our goal was simply for people to drive away with a big smile and say; “Wow, that was fun!” Since 2006 our Christmas display has had a theme which focuses on that goal and has been some variation of Mr. and Mrs. Claus doing funny things live in public. (
The tools of our show; ie., the software program, hardware controllers, electrical distribution panels, miles of electrical cables, light clips, 2×4’s, tie wraps and metal posts allow us a foundation upon which we can add our “Stuff”.

Our stuff is the sound effects, voice-overs, show music selections, break music selections, the order of the music, the edit of the music, the segues between songs, the types of lights, the color of the lights, the videos, the fog and snow and various other props.

There are many themes from which to choose for your extreme Christmas light display and not all themes will relate to all audience members; but first class production and entertainment value are appreciated by all and any well presented theme is still light years beyond a series of unrelated events. Everyone has seen a movie with a shot or two that would have been better left on the cutting floor or has several albums of which you only play two or three cuts or has heard one of those awful drum solos in concert while the lead singer goes off stage for a costume change. Those things are fluff or filler. They add no value at all to the overall product and the decision to include them are driven by issues other than art.

Chuck wanted me to include a description of my 2009 display primarily to show what someone with a lighting toy store at their disposal has in mind. I guess this is a DIY’er for someone whose idea of DIY is loading up a truck with a bunch of gear and bringing it home. For those of you who do not know me, I present this with the knowledge that I am very fortunate to have these items available but while I use a good amount of professional equipment, the same results can be accomplished with similar consumer based equipment and by following your cell phone menu as a guide.

Here is what I have planned for 2009. I am currently in the middle of putting it all together, so everything is subject to change. The theme is Dancing with the Stars. I am using one 30:00.00 minute .wmv file which includes the 18 minute synchronized show and the 12 minutes of break music and voice-overs with minimal static lighting. There are no black outs nor breaks between any segment of the show and every song is segued from one to the next with either musical overlays or sound effects. I used a .wmv file because the main feature of the show is a video which chronicles Mr. and Mrs. Claus as they take a sleigh ride from the North Pole, through New York City, Dallas, Rowlett, Vegas and finally Hollywood. I used one single file because I did not want any down time while the program loads from a .wav file to a .wmv file and back again.

I am using a 5,000 lumen projector in a weatherproof enclosure. We are using green screen video techniques like weathermen have used for years and like so many TV commercials use today. With this technique we can film Mr. and Mrs. Claus sitting in the sleigh then key in the city skylines and the dance floor of the set on Dancing with the Stars in the video editing software. We decided to do our spin on this by using ballroom dance steps to a nine song medley of 70’s disco songs and of course we show the judges giving us a perfect 10 score as the crowd goes wild. If you can visualize doing the Cha Cha with a few disco era hand moves thrown in to “Shake, Shake, Shake” by KC and the Sunshine Band, you get the picture. I programmed all nine songs at 120 beats per minute so once your foot starts tapping to the beat it never changes tempo.

I use Light-O-Rama S2 and currently have around 20 tracks and still counting across 2026 channels which is scaled down from the 3500 channels I used last year. There are 256 channels of controllers and seven iDMX-1000 adapters each driving 256 channels of DMX controlled devices and split across three separate networks.
For conventional Christmas lighting, I am using regular incandescent strands or nets on the house eves, bushes and trees. I will have one 12’ mega tree with three colors, one 21’ mega tree with three colors and 16 mini trees in white lights only and various rope light props behind white scrims. The props behind the scrims will not be seen until cued so there will be a surprise element working rather than an anticipation element such as felt with a yet-to-be cued but partially visible mega tree. Connected to the iDMX-1000s are 144 LED tube lights, three Martin Pro Mac 550 automated fixtures in environmentally controlled enclosures, twelve Chauvet Colorado 3 LED wash lights and five Elation OPTI PAR RGB color changers. I am also using the faux fireworks I created a couple of years ago on the peak of the rooftop and a High End F-100 fog machine to create some extra special effects.
One important feature this year is the use of gobos in the Martin automated fixtures. Each fixture has nine available slots on an indexed wheel into which I am inserting custom gobos made by Apollo Design. ( These gobos will help visualize the words in the music while the lighting follows the beats, patterns and solos in the music. I wanted to add a new dimension to the show separate from the musical content as the images can contain color, move, spin, rotate, zoom in or out or whatever I need them to do.

Green screen in studio
Green screen in studio

In addition to the idea of using video this year and needing a screen, I also wanted to hide my three big cedar trees which I have lighted since 2005. With both goals in mind I am erecting an aluminum set piece which includes five 23’ tall truss towers connected horizontally at the top and bottom with curved trusses. All trusses are 20.5” aluminum boxed bolted together and guyed with steel aircraft cable to anchors I am drilling into the ground. Each vertical truss tower will have a white scrim “sock” around it with one OPTI PAR RGB color changer at the bottom to light up the tower. Tied to the top and bottom horizontal trusses in between the five vertical towers are three 12’ wide x 20’ high white scrims. These will be used as projection surfaces for the Colorado 3 wash lights, the gobos inside the Martin 550 moving light fixtures and the video projector. If this sounds big, then welcome to Texas! In fact, the house next door and directly across the street are for sale as I write this article.


Laying on the second story rooftop, I will have four sets of LED tube light grids. Each grid consists of a 5’ wide x 10’ high aluminum frame housing 18 tube lights. Each tube is 3’ long and contains 10 pixels each of RGB LEDs.
The first story rooftop has the same arrangement of tube light grids. Think of Danny DeVito’s rooftop in Deck the Halls. The tube lights have infinite color ability and I have them circuited so they can be programmed simply left to right, right to left, top to bottom, bottom to top or emulating a marquee with complex chase patterns.
Sounds pretty impressive, I’ll have to admit. For those of you wanting to do this on your own, here’s my current list of parts:

(1) Light-O-Rama S2 software
(15) Light-O-Rama 16 channel controllers
(7) iDMX-1000 converters able to handle 2032 channels, including DMX and conventional
(1) 5000 lumen projector
(3) 20′ high x 12′ wide white scrims framed inside of a 20.5″ aluminum truss grid (guyed to anchors drilled into the ground)
(5) Vertical truss support towers with white scrim “socks”
(5) Elation OPTI PAR RGB led color changers to light up the vertical truss inside the socks
(12) Chauvet Colorado 3 RGB led color changers to light up the scrims both top and bottom (various lighted props behind the scrim which will be hidden until cued)
(3) Martin Pro Mac 550 automated lighting fixtures which will perform the following functions:
* Project gobos onto the scrims (each fixture will have 9 custom gobos depicting various scenes to help visualize the story of the music)
* Moving light beams
* Color change
* Light beams which focus, iris and zoom
* Housed in weatherproof enclosures
(72) 3′ LED tube lights with 10 pixels each of RGB across the upper roof housed in three 10′ x 5′ aluminum frames
(72) 3′ LED tube lights with 10 pixels each of RGB across the lower roof housed in three 10′ x 5′ auminum frames
(6) Opto-splitters to distribute the DMX across the tubes

Then there’s all the standard Christmas lighting things everyone else has.

I’m pretty sure I forgot some stuff. All things said it should be an interesting year from a production standpoint if I don’t lose my cell phone.


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

By Charles Belcher

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