The Suburban Maximalists Making Viral Christmas Displays

Matt Johnson. Ryan Kasper-Cook. Tom BetGeorge. These three kings deal not in frankincense and myrrh but in dubstep and mirth. They’re the vanguard behind the viral phenomenon of maximalist, Vegasified Christmas houses, spangled with lights flashing in time to everything from the Trans-Siberian Orchestra to Slipknot. BetGeorge’s 2016 homage to Harry Potter, for example, featured searchlight-style spotlights visible up to 16 miles away, a to-scale Hogwarts model in the garage, and a 19-foot illuminated piano on the lawn. All it takes is basic programming and sound-editing skills—plus neighbors with extra deep reserves of holiday cheer.

The craze began in the 1980s with pioneers like Chuck Smith of Franklin, Tennessee, who linked his Christmas lights to an Apple II in the garage. “I was on the bloody cutting edge of this and I didn’t even know it,” he says. But while early practitioners dazzled their suburbs, today’s lighting bugs have the world at their doorstep, garnering millions of views on YouTube and Instagram. Video of Johnson’s 2015 dubstep jamboree, for example, garnered 4.7 million YouTube plays.

But you don’t get millions of virtual passers-by by just flipping the smart bulb on your porch from green to red. It’s a painstaking process that starts with three basic components: a single-board computer like the Raspberry Pi; LEDs that can be individually manipulated to produce any hue at any intensity; and the controller to sync them.

Song choice is also important to viral fame—high-energy electronica, hip-hop, and movie theme songs trump traditional carols—as is your choice of LED. (Phillips Color Kinetics, the same brand used to make San Francisco’s Bay Bridge twinkle, are considered the Mercedes of pixels.) These flash masters synchronize the lights to their soundtrack using Vixen 3, a free light-sequencing software program, and labor begins well before Halloween: Johnson devotes 10 hours to every 10 seconds of lighting. “To synch my lights to ‘Jingle Bells’ would be a waste of the technology,” he says. An FM radio transmitter beams the track out into the midnight clear, so passing cars can hark the herald. And global warming scolds needn’t finger-wag about the electricity bill—even when the displays consist of tens of thousands of pixels, the electricity bill bump is negligible. Cook says he spends an extra $40 to $50 a month during the holidays.

The obsession that began with a few provocative programmers is growing more outrageous by the year, as DIYers vie for likes, shares, and YouTube views. (Johnson has spent $20,000 on his show.) “More people are putting up over-the-top computerized light shows,” says Smith. “And they’ll only become more and more extravagant.” NIMBYs and circuit breakers be damned.

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