Animated light display gets even bigger, better

PAXTON — Cars were lined up for three or four blocks last winter to catch a glimpse of the Johnson home at 332 W. Patton St. and its 85,000 animated Christmas lights.

At the time, Victor Johnson had just tripled the size of the display and, for the first time, had its lights synchronized to music broadcast over a low-power FM transmitter,. The response was so overwhelming that he decided there was only one thing he could do in preparation for 2013: make it bigger, and better.

“This year, I’m not quite done yet, so it’s hard to tell exactly, but it will probably be a little over 100,000,” the 23-year-old University of Illinois graduate said Friday.

The display — which is among the biggest animated displays of Christmas lights in Central Illinois — is the result of an estimated 200 to 300 hours of work by Johnson, the son of Kammy and the late Dale Johnson. He started putting up the lights uafter Halloween, but the work to prepare the display got under way well in advance.

Johnson said he spent “a couple hundred” hours last summer programming the synchronization of the lights to music.  He also attended two conventions this summer, in Indianapolis and Chicago, to meet other people from across the nation who have large Christmas-light displays. While there, he discussed with them the best techniques and products.

“It’s kind of neat because you see all these huge displays online and you get to finally meet those people who do those big displays,” Johnson said.

Many of the convention attendees, including Johnson, are members of Planet Christmas, an online forum that Johnson officially joined last year. The forum is for people like Johnson, who are fascinated with installing tens of thousands of blinking colored lights around the holidays.

“A lot of discussion (at the conventions) was about song choices and how to sequence different songs, what techniques people use to set beats and figure out how to do fades and things,” Johnson said. “I thought that was pretty interesting.”

Because Johnson added some 15,000 more lights to his display this year, he had to update  the software program he uses to program the lights and set them to music.

“I had to redo all of my sequences — which is what they are called when I synchronize the lights. I had to redo all of them to accommodate the new setup this year,” he said. “I probably spent 100 hours just redoing the songs from last year. ... For one minute of music, I might spend as much as eight hours just synchronizing that one minute of music.”

Johnson uses the software program Light-O-Rama. The “user-friendly” program allows Johnson to specify at which exact moments each strand of lights is to flash or fade, in accordance with the beat of a specific song.

“The way I would describe it, think of it as a large spreadsheet. And each column on this spreadsheet is a tenth of a second. And each row is an item in the display that I can turn on and off,” Johnson said. “And I have to basically tell (the program) what item during what time period I want on or to fade or certain things like that. For me, I have 320 different (electric) plugs in the display, so I have to tell 320 things when I want them to turn on and off for every tenth of a second.”

The lights are completely synchronized to music broadcast over a low-power FM transmitter. As people pass by the house, they can turn their radio to 89.9 FM and watch the display at work.

As of today, the songs remain the same as last year, but a few additions are expected in upcoming weeks. Johnson said the songs currently being broadcast are a techno version of “Amazing Grace” a “Pirates of the Caribbean” theme song and “What Child is This?” by Martina McBride.

“I’ll have ‘Carol of the Bells’ added soon,” Johnson said. “I still have to fix that one for the new setup.”

Because Johnson selects his songs for the animated display and prepares them in the summer, he has learned — sometimes the hard way — to choose songs that can stand the test of time.

“When you pick a song to do in the summer, it’s not necessarily going to be a hit anymore in December,” Johnson noted. “The song everyone was listening to (last summer) was ‘Call Me Maybe’ by Carly Rae Jepsen, and I sequenced that song, but now, (a different song is) the new pop hit now.”

Still, Johnson said there are no plans to scrap the song from his play list.

“I probably spent 30 hours on that. so I’m not going to scrap a song I spent 30 hours on,” he said. “It will probably be added next week. I want to get all the lights done before I add that one.”

Johnson’s light display was turned on for the season the night after Thanksgiving. He has not set a date to close the display for the season, but he said it likely will be after the first week of January.

Johnson said he was nearly finished with his display as of Friday but had a few more features to add.

“There’s a tree in the back (yard) there that’s got some lights hanging from it which isn’t hooked up yet. And there’s some trees on the side (yard) here that I’m going to put out, too,” he said.

Last year, he put together a display of about 85,000 lights — 45,000 clear, 20,000 green and 20,000 red. That number was up from a previous high of 25,000 lights in 2010.

Last year was the first year Johnson synchronized his display to music. Also, it was the first time he added colored lights to the display.

“I think ‘05 was when the first (animated Christmas display) came out, when a guy in Ohio did it,” Johnson said. “When I was a senior at U of I, I started looking into how do people do this, because more and more people started doing it. I was like, ‘Oh, it can’t be that difficult.’ So I researched a lot of it and found out it’s really not that difficult.”

Johnson said he is not sure where his interest in animated Christmas-light displays originated.

“I don’t know where it came from. Ever since I was 7 or 8, I always remember my dad putting just a few lights on the front bushes (in the yard) — not much — and I always took an interest in that,” Johnson said. “I always wanted to help him. So he would let me go out there.

“And then I my grandfather on my mom’s side, Ralph Keller, kind of got me interested in how things work — electricity and things like that, and I think that probably spurred my interest in the very beginning, too.

“When I was little I also loved my mom taking me around to look at all the Christmas lights in the neighborhood. I just thought it was really cool. So, at some point, I don’t remember exactly, but at some point when I was pretty young, I just started doing it myself, and my mom and dad reluctantly let me do it.”

Johnson, of course, kept adding to the display over the years.

“By the time I was in junior high, my dad was worried it was getting a little out of control,” he said.

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