What makes us go crazy for Christmas lights?

A newbie tries to explain

My first exposure to the idea of animated Christmas lights was from Carson Williams’ Wizards in Winter video that went viral back in 2005. I thought it was cool, but it wasn’t until Todd, one of my co-workers said “I bet you could do that!” that started my on the path to animating our Christmas lights.
It took three years to get everything together for my first animated show. Most of the work was done in November of 2008 once I realized I finally had everything I needed. If you’re a newbie to animated shows, here’s an insight of what I went through to pull everything together.

I started by researching what Carson used to create his display. I soon visited the Light-O-Rama web site (www.lightorama.com) and found that most of their controllers handled 16 different channels, which are best described as computer controlled light switches.

Now that I had an understanding of what was used to create an animated display, it was time to find a starting point. Back in 2005, other than the three strings of lights for the inside Christmas tree, I didn’t have anything. I knew before I could animate anything, I had to have a display of more lights, something to make go blinkie – flashy.

Our house at Christmas
Our house at Christmas

I waited until after Christmas for the clearance sales. I was up early and waiting at the door for the store to open. I made it to the Christmas section where everything was marked 50% off. It was like being a kid in a candy store! Knowing that the controllers had 16 channels, I picked up 16 boxes of lights and headed for the checkouts, not realizing that in a few years I would be pushing multiple carts full of lights to the same checkouts!

2006 was a busy year, and a lot of things changed, including moving. With the move, I didn’t have time to even think about the big display, let alone putting up the Christmas lights I had purchased the year before.

To be honest, in 2007, I started losing interest. It was the beginning of December and I hadn’t done anything other than purchasing those 16 boxes of lights two years earlier. My wife suggested that since we had bought the lights the least we could do is use them. So I put the 16 boxes of lights on the two big tress in our front yard. For the size of the trees, it wasn’t much. My wife came out to look and said “That one looks kind of lame, I think it needs more lights.” Little did she know what would come over the next three years! After multiple trips to the store I had two well-lit trees using 6,000 lights.

After my first year with a static light display I knew I would need more lights if I wanted to animate. I made a list of what I wanted and prioritized it based on what I really needed. I wanted lights on the house before I started putting anything in the yard.

After Christmas 2007 I again hit the clearance sales. This time I knew what I was going for and grabbed four cases of lights before the employees has a chance to load them up on the shipping pallets. Now that I had a real plan I could start looking into what else was needed to create an animated display.
I signed up for the Light-O-Rama mailing list and when I was notified of the summer sale, I planned on purchasing my first controllers and software. Not knowing what I was getting into, I waited until the sale to continue thinking about going animated.

Finally the e-mail saying the summer sale arrived. I had a couple of questions on what to buy, so I called their support and they helped me figure out what I needed. I purchased my two new CTB16PC assemble-everything-yourself controller kits. I had the potential to control 32 channels and I just about couldn’t wait to get started.

Soon the UPS guy brought me an early Christmas present of my fist two controllers! I immediately opened the box and looked at the boxes of little parts forgetting I needed to build the boards. It had been over a decade since I soldered anything and I never anticipated receiving something this complex. I soon dove in and started assembling the controllers and it went faster than planned. Then I realized I was still missing two major items to put the entire display together. I needed extension cords and being in Minnesota, I had to have an FM transmitter so people could listen to the music in their cars. I put the controllers into storage figuring I would have to wait until the next year to purchase wire and a transmitter plus this would give me plenty of time to figure out how to sequence lights to music.
I started reading the PlanetChristmas forums (http://forums.PlanetChristmas.com) about what FM transmitters were available. I stumbled across a thread for a group buy of EDM FM transmitters. From the reviews this looked like a good device for the price. I ordered one, and was told that it should show up early November.

I was getting close and now all I needed were extension cords to connect the Light-O-Rama controllers to all the lights in the yard. I checked the Sunday newspaper ads and found one of the hardware stores had outdoor extension cords on sale. I took a guess at the lengths needed and picked up 40 of them. I got a few looks from other customers as I loaded all the available cords in my shopping cart but it was nothing compared to what I received this year as I picked up a hundred of cords each trip!

Now that I had everything that I thought was needed for the display, I started looking at sequencing the lights to the music. The first time looking at that grid was scary. I had no idea where to start.
I went back to the forums to look for suggestions and there were plenty but the best information came from links to other people’s sequences. I was able to use these downloaded sequences to learn my way around the Light-O-Rama S2 Software Suite software. Because of this, I make all of my sequences available on my website for others to copy or learn from.

The first couple of songs were pretty much a one-to-one copy of what Marty Slack’s sequences at www.ChristmasUtah.com provided. As I learned more about how the sequencer worked, I was able to start adding my own effects. After working with five songs I was able to start working on my own sequences.

As I look back at the 2008 videos, my first sequence done totally on my own was West Indies Carol by Strikepoint. I shared the video of the lights with Strikepoint and they loved it! I was officially hooked on animated displays and there was no turning back.

I don’t remember much of November, 2008. When I got home from work I would go outside and concentrate on getting the lights set up. Wrapping the trees took forever. When I ran out of daylight or lost feeling in my fingers, I would head inside to work on the sequences.

I didn’t have anything in the yard. All the lights were on the house and in the trees so my neighbors had no concept of what was coming. I didn’t dare tell them because I had no idea what it would really look like. After the first year, I’ve talked with all of them, and they love it! They have asked both years since if I’m going to do it again and that they can’t wait to see it!

Now back to November, 2008. It’s Thanksgiving and we’re hosting our families for dinner. They knew I was working on something with the lights, but I don’t think they really knew what. After dinner I took everyone outside so they could see the show for the first time. I had never run the full show before, so this was the first time for me, too!

Wow, to see all the work come together was such a great feeling! And everyone loved it, saying they had never seen anything like it! With the preview over, the next day was the official reveal.
I had to work “Black Friday,” and half way through the day it hit me I had forgotten something pretty basic: how do I let people know where to tune their car FM radio? I created four documents, each containing a single word and each the largest I could fit on a sheet of paper: “Tune” “To” “91.9” “FM”. On the way home, I picked up some adhesive clear shelf covering, cut the documents to fit, and taped everything to a piece of cardboard. Covering both sides with the shelf covering, I now had my radio sign and people knew where to tune their radios as they watched the show.

It took an hour or so for the first car to stop. In a few days it became consistent cars! I was amazed to look outside and see people enjoying the display!

After all the work in November, I sat back and watched the cars view the show. Every time we came home the kids would want to stop and watch one song. This quickly turned into “the next song is my favorite, can we watch one more?” Of course! But then the song after that would be my favorite so we would have to stay for one more. No doubt about it. I’m hooked!

You’re only an animated display newbie once. There’s no better time to start than right now!

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

By Mark Anderson

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