Simply Christmas Lighting

This year, the theme for our Christmas Eve services was Simply Christmas. In the past two years, we’ve done really big, Broadway-style productions, and we really wanted to change it up. We wanted to go more traditional, down-home and rustic. The service was more similar to a typical weekend service, though it had several additional key elements. I’ll talk more about the production side and set construction in other posts; for this one, I want to focus on the lighting design.

We started our idea generation by basically ripping off the hanging bare lightbulb look that has become popular at the moment (great artists steal, remember?). I found some really cool, retro incandescent bulbs at a site called 1000bulbs.com. We used three different styles for the set, the T-9, the T-14 and the S21 (view all three bulbs at 1000bulbs.com). I chose these bulbs because they looked cool and were reasonably affordable. 

We ordered 78 of them (30 T-9, 30 T-14, 18 S21) and started figuring out how to hang them. I looked to Ikea, which stocks a hanging lamp cord. They sell them for over $7 here in CA, and since we needed a lot, that started getting expensive. So I searched the Google and came up with a company in the Chicago area called MyLampParts.com. I ordered up a simple 10’ lamp cord with an Edison plug on one end and bare wires on the other, which mated to a simple lamp socket. A volunteer and I put them together in under an hour, and the whole thing cost less than $200, including the black electrical tape I wrapped them in. 

It's not quite "back of napkin" layout, but it's close. Click to enlarge.

My super-awesome lighting guy, Thomas and I decided to hang them in a grid pattern, since we have truss in the air. We plotted out a pattern that would keep them out of the center screen throw (from most seats anyway), and figured out how to circuit them. The plan was to put 24 bulbs on each side of the stage, in 6 circuits, 4 bulbs to a circuit. I bought black power strips and a small truckload of 16 gauge power cords from Monoprice.com and we set to work.

We hung each cord at a different height, each determined on the fly and chosen kind of at random. We made no effort to make the two sides match, though each side is a mirror image of each other when you look at the hang points and circuiting. When we put the bulbs, in, we decided to keep like bulbs together on the same circuits. This proved to be a great decision as the S21 was considerably brighter than the other two. 

If you look really closely, you can see the pattern. But most never will. Click to enlarge.

When we did the plot, each lamp was assigned a color (one of six). We marked the hang point on the truss with marking tape. When we ran the cords back to the power strips (which were also colored-coded and zip tied to the truss), we color-coded the extension cords. Once we got to plugging it all in, we simply matched colors. 

The result looked fantastic. From the view of the congregation, it appears completely random—you’d never know there was a pattern. The three different kind of bulbs is harder to spot; if I were doing it again, I might just go with all T-9s (they’re the cheapest), as it’s tough to see the differences once you get into the seating area. Up close it looks really cool, though.

Photo (and great lighting) courtesy of Thomas Pendergrass.

Having the lights on different circuits might seem like overkill (they’re 30 and 60 watts each, after all), but it gave us tremendous flexibility in creating various looks. As I mentioned, the S21s were about twice as bright as the other two, so we simply turned those channels down to about 50%. For the message, Thomas ran those a little higher, which gave a cool, bright light, dim light look. We also had the ability to do random intensity chases with them.

At only a few hundred lumens per lamp, these bulbs won’t stand up to a really bright stage. But since we’re all black drape upstage, and we intentionally went for a darker look overall, these worked great. We’ll be keeping them up until Easter as part of our set look for the new series we’re starting in January.

What did you do differently for lighting your Christmas services?

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