How It Works.

 

The Sanderson Family Christmas Display is computer-controlled with audio that is broadcast via a low-power FM transmitter. In this case the lights are controlled using Light-O-Rama equipment and audio is simultaneously broadcast using a low-power commercial-band FM Ramsey radio transmitter.

A number of control boxes, most with 16 channels each, control the lights in the display.

 

Here's what they look like on the inside. (Note the black data connectors at the top, which we'll talk about in a minute.)

Each channel controls a light or section of lights that can be set to be on, off, partially on, fading up or down, twinkling or shimmering at a given moment. Once you do that, then all you do is plug in the approrpiate light or section of the display into the correct electrical chord coming out the bottom of each box, turn on the program, and away you go.

But that also means that each controller not only need a power connection (actually two, one for each 8 channels), but data from the computer. That's what those black data connectors in the controllers are for. We get that data outside without making a hole in the wall by using 900 Megahertz boxes that transmit and receive that data, then hard-wire to the controllers from there.

We use a computer program to build the necessary data we need for each sequence over a period of months during the year before each Christmas. This is what that program looks like. This particular screen is from where the female tree tricks the male tree into coming closer, then knocks him backwards. (It's called being juvenile in a high-tech way.)

The computer program also lets us see if what we are programming is going to be close to what we want by using a photo of the house, mocking up lights in the program and running an animation of how things might look using real lights. It's not perfect. But it gets us in the ballpark. Here's what that animation screen looks like.

As far as the programming itself, the way it works is that whenever you want a light or section of lights to do something different, you have to create what is called an event in the programming. Those are the vertical lines in the program screen photo above.

So in a song I might start by creating an event for each beat. But if I want to turn off one tree and turn on the one next to it, and the one after that, then the one after that several times during a beat, I have to create and program separate events to do that every time there is a movement or other change. So by the time you're done there are literally hundreds of events for each song. And you have to make sure that each light in the display is programmed to do the right thing for each event throughout the entire sequence.

If nothing is going on and you keep the lights pretty much static during a section, that's pretty easy. But nothing going on is also boring, so we don't want that too much. (Heck, if I wanted to bore you, I'd just tell you to read this page.) So what we really do is try to have something going on most of the time. With the trick being to make sure that what we program makes sense and is fun, impressive, or beautiful. And that takes time. A lot of time.

So, for example, when I worried about those kind of details and programmed Christmas Jam in a way that I believe is the the right way to do things, it took about 150 hours.

Yeah, that's a lot of time and a ton of work. But I've see your kids' faces when they watch the lights. And I think it's worth it.