Sequencing the Lighting Effects with Vixen

Our Lighting Vision

First, we both feel passionately that a good Christmas light show should tell a story. It should evoke emotions, intrigue the mind, and delight the senses. In our opinion, it should not primarily follow the mantra of “how many things can I make flash and blink at once”. We take great pride in the programming work we have done to make our show ebb and flow with the music and to take the viewer along with us. We believe that intentional use of darkness makes the use of light that much more powerful. As with music, the joy of a lighting show is in the dynamics, the differences between on and off, bright and dark. We also believe that precision matters. Take the time to do your sequencing well (and it will take some time). Slow down the track to 25% speed and zoom in to find the exact few milliseconds where the lighting effects should change. A “tight” show stands out above others with sloppy or lazy sequencing.

All of that said, we know we have a long way to go to get to the level of sequencing we desire. We certainly hope to continue to improve at the creative aspects over years. As might be expected, we often find inspiration in other Christmas light shows (both in person and on YouTube) and concert lighting (or church lighting if you to our church!).

Lighting Logistics with Vixen

We use Vixen 3 for programming our light show. It’s the only software we have ever used for this purpose so we can’t really give comparisons but we are happy with it so far and the price is definitely right (free!). It is supported by a seemingly active open source community and they release regular updates that truly do improve the software. Other people have done Vixen tutorials and there is information online so we won’t go into the logistics too much in detail here, but will instead focus on a few key aspects. Do note that the actual Vixen documentation leaves a bit to be desired when it comes to how to actually use the software but forums like diychristmas.com are there to help.

Logistically, we highly recommend buying a large monitor and a good mouse when using Vixen. A laptop, even a large laptop, is really not sufficient screen real estate to program efficiently. Since it can take an hour or more to program a good 10 seconds of content, any efficiency gains that are possible should be pursued.

Also, don’t wait too long to start programming. It will take a while and being able to take a few days off to recuperate without feeling stressed about getting it done in time will help a lot to make this a fun process and not a horrible one. We typically start sequencing in October, though would like to begin even earlier than that to help spread out the time commitment.

Even if you are still settling on the final music compilation, you can start programming as long as the beginning of the show is locked down. Once you’ve spent the time to get lights programmed and aligned, it probably isn’t worth altering the music earlier than that point in the show because that will throw off the alignment in the work already completed.

Newer versions of Vixen have some amazing capabilities in what is known as “location-based effects”. These utilize the relative positioning of your different lights as drawn on the preview screen to calculate and render effects across multiple strings of lights. This allows for cool wipe effects across the entire house with very little effort to sequence. The pinwheel effect is probably the best example of where computers are way better than humans at calculations. It would be nearly impossible to sequence a spiral pattern across the entire house by hand, but Vixen can do it at the push of a button. Take advantage of these cool effects but remember, moderation is key. If you overuse any given effect, it loses the impact quickly.

Finally, make sure you get accurate pixel counts setup for each element in Vixen as soon as they are known so that programming effects preview correctly. This is also necessary for doing an accurate output mapping and diligence in this area will save you a lot of headaches later.