Filming a Christmas Light Show

After all the work that goes into putting our light show together each year, we really want a nice video of the show for posterity sake and to share online. Over the years, we have learned a little bit about this process and this page attempts to capture that information. We are by no means experts at anything related to photography, videography, or video editing; however, our process seems to work well enough for our needs.

When to Film

We have found that filming late at night gives the best outcome. In our early years, we tended to film at dusk so that there would be enough light to help our camera stay in focus. This actually led to relatively poor quality because the background lighting would change significantly during the filming, especially if we filmed more than one show. Moreover, the lighting would change a lot depending on camera angle and this made stitching together a video comprised of multiple angles feel too abrupt in the transitions. One other issue is that dusk in December is roughly when people come home from work and we would have to contend with a fair number of cars in front of the camera.

We now film our show at around 11pm, well after our typical ending time of 10pm. There is very little traffic at this time of night and the background lighting is consistently dark. The biggest downside of filming in the darkness is getting the camera settings right so that the colors in the lights show up well (more on that below)

What Cameras and Equipment to Use

We have found that our smartphones (Samsung Galaxy S8) are sufficient for taking our Christmas lights videos. We use a tripod with a mount that can hold a phone steady, but that is about it. In earlier years, we tried a few different cameras (Canon point-and-shoot, a consumer video camera, etc.) but none were as good as just using our phones.

When setting up the phone, it is imperative that autofocus is disabled or overridden. On our phones, that is done just by clicking on the screen to tell the camera where to focus. If autofocus is allowed to run, the video quality is abysmal because the autofocus cannot handle the frequent transitions from very bright to very dark.

The only other setting we use is to lower the exposure setting close to its minimal level. On our phones, this is just a slider bar on the main screen. This prevents the sensor from being overexposed when the lights are bright, causing the colors to just appear white.

Filming Process

Our general procedure for filming is as follows:
– Turn on a light sequence that is bright (we use our “setup” sequence that has every element on in different colors)
– Focus the camera by clicking on the screen. We typically focus on or just above the garage door pixel screen
– Drag the slider bar down to lower the exposure so colors aren’t washed out
– Start recording
– Stop the setup sequence and start the light show sequence
– Once the show is finished, stop recording

We will film a few times from different angles. Filming late at night makes it impossible to tell that footage didn’t all come from the same show, which is very nice when stitching it together later. Our primary shot is across the street focused on the house. As a secondary angle, we shoot from further west down the street so that all of the yard elements can be seen (the primary house shot doesn’t capture all of the snowmen). We’ve experimented with more extreme angles in the past (e.g., on the sidewalk next to the last snowman looking back towards the rest), but those don’t add too much value compared to the first two angles.

Going forward, we would like to also include a drone angle (Christmas gift!) as well, but haven’t worked out all of those logistics yet. Having footage from a drone would be very nice because it not only gives a different perspective from above, but also allows for moving shots to be captured smoothly. We shall see how it goes in 2021.

Video Editing

For editing the video, we use free software called VSDC Video Editor (TBD). The software makes it easy to drag and drop each of our videos onto the timeline, as well as the mp3 of the audio.

Once our footage is imported, the first step is to get all of the angles and the music aligned in time. This can be a bit tedious, especially because the video playback gets more and more choppy as the number of simultaneous videos increase. With only 2 angles, though, it works pretty well.

Once the footage is aligned, we begin the process of going through the show and deciding when we want to cut between angles. We typically aim to use our primary house-centered angle as much as possible, and then only switch to the wider shot when necessary to show something interesting happening on the snowmen. This process will likely get longer once we have drone footage as well to consider.

As we make transition decisions, we use the “cutting and splitting” tool to split all of the angles at the same moment in time and then shrink the display size of the unwanted portions down to something very small and drag it out of the rendered area. We don’t delete anything yet since we might change our minds about a transition and still need some of that footage. Once we have made decisions for the whole show, then we make sure that the kept footage for each section is sized and aligned properly in the display.

With the video almost complete, we do any final cleanup activities in the display. In one of our camera angles, are neighbor’s window was gleaming in the background and distracting. This was remedied by adding a black polygon object to cover over that area of the screen. Since the video was shot late a night, that black polygon is indistinguishable from the black night sky. We did this same type of cleanup to remove our other neighbor’s house from an angle where it was illuminated by a street light and to cover over an annoying tiny pinprick of light where our light show was reflecting off of our gate hinge (yes, this was probably overkill but that’s what you get with 2 perfectionist engineers).

The last step is to add in a text box with our website address for a few seconds at the start and end of the video and then to export it to and MPG format. We watch it a couple of times to make sure all looks good and then do the upload to YouTube and/or Facebook to share it with the world.

All in all, the whole process of filming and video editing takes about 5 or so hours. Even though we don’t particularly enjoy the task, the end results are well worth the effort because we get to share our light show with the world online and have a nice record to look back at in future years.