Synchronizing the lights. It’s all about the music!

Synchronizing the lights.  It’s all about the music!

From the September 2010 edition of PlanetChristmas magazine.  By Lyman Rate.

In an earlier issue of PlanetChristmas magazine, I talked about the nine steps of getting into synchronized lighting in an animated display. Now I’m going to take a few of those and go a bit further into detail on things you can do, ideas you can use and ways to make it that much easier for you this year and for years to come. I also want to tackle a decorating subject quite foreign to many of us: Halloween.

Planning and Powering

This is a step that I cannot stress enough. Grab your paper, pen, pencil, crayons, chalk, computer, notebook paper, cocktail napkin and/or etch-a-sketch and start doodling to get an idea of what you want to accomplish. By drawing out your thoughts, other ideas typically start to flow. Think mega-tree in front of the chimney, leaping arches on the right side of the driveway, etc. Sketch it all out and don’t worry about being a Michelangelo with your drawing technique. Get an idea of where things are going to go but don’t be worried if you draw too much. If you have an idea, draw it out. Sorting out what you can and can’t do will come soon enough.

Once you have a basic drawing you at least have an idea where you’re going so start to work with your lighting channels. Take each design element, determine how many channels it will take to get the desired look you’re looking for and write it down next to the piece. Keep repeating until all the pieces are identified and lighting channels determined. Now the challenge is making sure you have the number of control channels needed. In my case I have eight of the 16 channel lighting controllers making for a total of 128 lighting channels. Since I know my maximum number of channels available I start subtracting each element from the total. Example: If you have 10 mini-trees and each is one color then that’s ten channels. If you have 128 channels available for your display, you now have 118 left to use elsewhere.

You have a drawing, you know how many lighting channels it will take and you’re happy with it. Now get ready for the hardest part. Don’t change it! There’s a simple reason for not altering your display once you figure out how everything will fit together: if you finalize your display on paper it will be finalized in your mind so you can move on to other tasks like figuring out which songs that will work with your design. If you change the layout, say adding two leaping arches, a mega-tree and Santa with reindeer, then you add elements that weren’t there to begin with and your sequencing work is trashed. Instead, save the enhancements for the next year’s display.

Planning includes taking and calculating the number of lights in the display, the power requirements as well as the number of extension cords needed to get everything connected to the light controllers. Why worry about this now? Keep an eye out for sales and you might save quite a bit of money. Come Christmas time discounts on what animated displays need are hard to find.

Know what your house electrical wiring is capable of and what you can and can’t do when it comes to the number of lights in your display. Most serious decorators (people with more than a few strings of lights) know that a single strand of 100 count incandescent minis draw 0.33 amps of power. Put three strands together and you consume one amp of power. Now figure that each standard residential home has 15 amp outlets you’ll plug into. Technically you could run 45 strands of lights (45 x 0.33amps = 15 amps) off that one outlet, right? Probably not. Chances are good there are other outlets on the same electrical circuit with toasters, printers and hair dryers waiting to be turned on. They’re all sharing those 15 amps and it’s pretty embarrassing on the night of your big reveal when the spouse turns on a reading lamp and your house goes dark because a circuit breaker became overloaded and tripped.
So what exactly is a good way to determine what is possible with the power available? The safest thing to do is call an electrician. This person can tell you how much power you can safely use for a Christmas display. Another option is go to Radio Shack and buy a Kill-A-Watt meter and/or electronic ammeter. These simple devices will allow you to tell how much power specific components are using. Plug a couple of strings of mini-lights into an extension cord, plug the male end of the cord into a Kill-A-Watt or ammeter and read how much power is being consumed.

Now you can figure out how many strings of your lights can be plugged into a typical home electrical circuit, almost. I have always used a general rule of thumb an electrician friend of mine lives by. “Never use more than 60 – 80% of the available power from any one single outlet.” This means that if you have a 15 amp circuit you don’t use more than 9 – 12 amps of that circuit. When it comes to electricity, always be careful. Cheating typically brings a visit from the fire department because your house is burning.

The flip side to knowing your power availability is also knowing if you are using Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs) or incandescent lighting and thus your consumption. Many decorators still use the traditional incandescents, but as LEDs have evolved, so have the number of users. The one major advantage of LEDs have over incandescents is that LEDs consume only 10-20% of the power for the same amount of light. If your home is energy-challenged, investing in LEDs is typically cheaper than rewiring your house. Knowing your lights and their power consumption will help in designing a better, safer, and less blackout-prone display.

Picking the Music

You have your design and it’s finally time to determine the right music to bring life to your display. Keep in mind people make an emotional connection when they see lights synchronized to music and in essence you’re telling a story. Boring stories are, well, boring. Great stories keep people coming back for more. There’s a lot of pressure on you to choose just the right music.

How do you find the songs that work for your display? Techno, rap, country, classics, contemporary, modern, jazz, the genre list never ends and it can be totally overwhelming. It’s time to shed a little “light” on the subject of music.

Everyone says they pick a song based on simplicity, complexity, recognition, fan favorite (Wizards in Winter anyone?) or just to do something totally different. To make a determination on what to use, here a few things to consider:

Your personal favorites are easy to go with because if you like the music then you will be more likely to want to sequence them and not mind listening to the tunes over and over. Picking your favorites takes the guess work out of figuring out what songs to use and you’re assured at least one person will like the display. I personally don’t use this system because I feel it limits one’s full creativity and artistic freedom.

Letting family and friends choose the music is an interesting way to make your song selections and is also risky. You might have a very elegant layout when someone suggests using “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” or “The Twelve Days of Christmas” even though you have no hippos or partridges in a pear tree. On the other hand, if your display lends itself to the suggestions this can be a fun challenge as you will be creating a show that your family and friends will enjoy seeing over and over again. This is an interesting idea to use if you want to get your neighborhood involved. They might not really enjoy having all the traffic, noise or flashing lights but let them help with deciding the music so they feel they’re part of the process and they’ll tell others to come watch what they have accomplished.

There’s a music selection method I believe has the most risk but is also the best way to judge what people like. Watch the people who come to see your display. If there’s a big response to upbeat songs, then consider using more of that style of music next year. This can be described in the phrase “If they love the song, don’t change the song.” Unfortunately, this applies to the crowd favorite “Wizards in Winter.” We might be tired of hearing and sequencing that pulse pounding tune, but the crowds sure aren’t tired of watching it. You have other songs in your display that are the same way. I’ve known people who are not able to change their song choices because they are the crowd favorites in their area. Instead they just re-work the songs to fit the display they redesigned and add one or two more tunes each year to vary the look.

You might like the techno Christmas music and it is easy to sequence because the beat is very consistent but in my area I found techno just doesn’t work with the older crowd. One thing that does seem to work magic across all ages are the old classics from Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole and Gene Autry. If you cater to the musical tastes of your audience you can count on word-of-mouth advertising and more traffic as others will want to see that display everyone is talking about.

I have touched a bit on song selection and why people pick what they do. I leave it in your capable hands to make the magic of Christmas come alive through your displays and choice of music! The right tune helps you tell a great story to keep people coming back for more.

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!

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