I have long wanted to design and build my very own animated Christmas light display. For several years I have put up Christmas lights each year, basically a typical static display like that of most of my neighbors, but I longed for the opportunity to express my self through lights that danced and moved. Perhaps this goes back to my previous career working in the entertainment field. For many years I worked as a lighting designer, building and running light shows for bands and other productions. My favorite part of this was designing a light show and running it as a band performed live. I loved every part of the process: initial concept and design, physical and technical build, and live production. For me, the show began with the work in the background and culminated with the public display.
Of course, our lives are very nuanced, and I found myself heading in a new direction. I left the world of stage lighting and light design behind me. I missed it a lot at first, but eventually my new endeavors took center stage and my old interests faded into the wings, hidden behind the curtains, but not entirely forgotten.
In 2010, my wife and I purchased a new home to start our family, and I saw an opportunity to bring back my old passion. Our neighbor put up a beautiful static display that included white icicle lights on all of his roof line. It really created a punch! I was inspired and headed off to Target and bought a bunch of Christmas lights. Thus began the fun.
Each year, I would pick up a few new items to add to the show. My birthday and Christmas presents from my family sometimes contain lights or props as well. A few candy canes here, some light strings there, even an inflatable Yoda! Slowly, the display came together. I even added in some motion by using chasing light strings on some of the bushes. in late November of 2015, we discovered a house in our town that set their display along to music that you listed to on the FM radio in your car. Very cool! I started searching You Tube for videos of shows like these. I found lots of great videos, but also started stumbling onto how-to videos that explained the process of designing and building these shows. My old interests in lighting design started flowing again, and I knew that I had to build one of these displays. I started doing the research to see exactly what it would take to put one together
I discovered some online forums full of enthusiasts who were more than happy to share ideas and answer questions. One was http://www.doityourselfchristmas.com, and another was http://www.auschristmaslighting.com. As I read I got more and more excited about doing my own show, but I also began to realize that one month was not going to be enough time to put anything together. The forums were full of people who spent almost the whole year getting ready for their shows. Their was really alot to be done! I shelved the idea of starting that year and put up my static display instead. I decided I would pend the next 12 months learning and getting ready for a debut show in December 2016.
In March of 2016, we moved into a new house. It was a two story house with peaks and eaves, columns on the porch, and lots of windows. It was a lighting display natural. I got very excited about the possibilities and continued to educate myself about the hobby. To my dismay, it was slow going, and it seemed like everything I learned only brought up new questions: Which gear to get, what software to use, what protocols were the best, how did those protocols actually work, etc. As the summer slipped away, I started to worry that I might not be ready that year. When I went back to work at my school in the fall, the reality started to sink in again. I would not be ready again. I resigned the notion of starting that year and decide to start anew after the holidays.
In early 2017, I had finally figured out the direction I wanted to go with my show. My plan was to start by using AC dimming controllers to simply add on/off/dimming to my existing lights. That option kept the cost down, as well as allowing me to start slowly into the hobby. It also most closely resembled the work I had done previously in my years as a lighting tech. In subsequent years I would start to add in individually assignable and controllable lights call pixel lights. That could quickly get expensive, so I would have to add a little bit each year.
I played around with the software and started to get a feel of how it was going to look. As the year went on, I once again found myself staring at autumn without any real progress. The controllers I needed were expensive if bought from commercial companies. The smarter way to go was to buy a kit form of community designed and sourced controller boards, but I was unskilled in the methods of putting these together, namely soldering. I became disillusioned about the prospect of skipping another year. I scoured the forums for people willing to sell their old gear that was ready to plug and play. I saw a couple of deals that were just out of my price range. Sometimes it was due to the high costs of shipping. Other times they were just priced higher than I could afford. I had almost given up on this year when I saw a post titled “New Renard Plus TR24 Just Built” offering a Renard Plus TR24, a 24 channel AC lighting controller assembled, tested, and shipped to my door for $100. I knew it was a great deal and would go quickly. I immediately sent the following message to the seller:
Subject: I’ll Take It
Body: I want this!
He replied with this one:
Subject: Re: I’ll Take It
Body: I didn’t expect such a quick response or so many responses. You’re the first though! If you’d still like it, the send money via PayPal and include your shipping address. I can ship as early as tomorrow.
And so it began.