Science and the art of Christmas lights

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

Science and the art of Christmas lightsAs the season for twinkling lights coaxes out throngs of residents to view the nightly spectacle of perennial favorites, winterscapes, pop-culture tributes and elaborate neighborhood collaboratives (Vicki, Church, Alene and Victoria Court, just to name a few), one local enthusiast has given the News Review a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the time and creativity that goes into designing a light show.

Edward Czajka’s show at 907 W. Wildrose St. features 6,000 lights on 650 channels that “perform” six different Christmas favorites through a variety of unique light configurations — including a singing Santa, candy-cane fans and other flashing and twinkling light displays. It also represents hundreds of hours of soldering, gluing, editing and programming that started last summer.

“I go to places like Disneyland to learn the principles of don’t-show-everything-at-once. You learn about primary and secondary colors, timing, and making everything work together to tell a story,” said Czajka.

This is somewhat of a departure from the “Great Christmas Light Fight” approach, he explained, since rather than trying to outsparkle his neighbor, he is attempting to choreograph light and music to tell a synchronized, yet subtle, story.

“I start by listening to a song, then I think of a visual effect that can express the message in the song,” he said. Those visual effects range from a sequenced flickering to signify a firework burst to alternately lit radials mimicking the waving of arms to paired lights moving across the lawn like a couple walking through the snow.

Each effect is like a dance move that, once programmed, can be personalized and reused to create unlimited storytelling possibilities.

Incidentally, the primary investment for this hobby is not in the cost of the electricity to power the display — Czajka calculated that last year’s five-week show cost a grand total of $5 — but in the meticulous process of programming the lights. Contrary to how it looks, the synchronization is not triggered by the sound, but by hours of programming.

But for Czajka, it’s worth it.

“The rewarding part is that ‘aha!’ moment when your viewer sees and understands the story you are telling,” he said.

A programmer by trade, Czajka was first captivated by a light show in the sixth grade when his elementary school projected a laser-light display to the “Chariots of Fire” theme. “Halfway through the show the laser emitters were tilted back so that the show was projected onto the ceiling. It was just such an incredible effect — and that’s where this all started for me.”

The hobby unifies his technical capabilities with a creative expression he likened to video producing. “The two are very similar — you have full creative control out of the output and you are using a visual effect with music to tell a story,” he said.

Czajka is also just a small part of a much larger community dedicated to the hobby — which locally has a casually organized presence through Facebook and internationally supports vendors that have cropped up to cater to enthusiasts.

For those who have not already visited his popular display, add Wildrose to your driving route. (And don’t forget to set your radio to 97.9!)

Story First Published: 2013-12-25