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The Trees are the Stars
The Lightshow at The Morton Arboretum

by Greg Frank
Lighting Design by Lightswitch
Photo Credits: Benjamin Roy, Lightswitch

The Trees are the Stars

For six consecutive years The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Illinois has held a festive winter lightshow, called Illumination: Tree Lights, that can be described as an immersive experience because lights, sounds and video projections captivate visitors along the nearly mile-long walk. Situated near the arboretum's visitor center is Meadow Lake, which features custom-made rafts to float lights manufactured by Elation Professional. The lights are tethered on both sides of the lake and sit on top of black boards that are essentially invisible during the night. To string the lights, crews used a remote-controlled boat to pull a lead line across, before tying the lights to the lead line and pulling them back across. The lighting design for the experience was undertaken by Lightswitch, an audio, lighting and visual design firm homebased in Chicago.

Illumination: Tree Lights at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Illinois, is a temporary, winter, light and video installation that measures 50 acres in size (out of the arboretum's 1,700 acres) and can be best referred to as an immersive experience. Encompassing roughly a mile of paved walking path around the arboretum in the middle of the Midwest, the exhibit features over 600 weather-proofed lighting fixtures and over 1,000 trees along the route.

The fixtures were manufactured by Elation Professional, an intercontinental lighting manufacturer homebased in Los Angeles, and rented out to the lighting designers by Intelligent Lighting Creations, a nationwide lighting design and delivery company.

The lighting design and layout was completed by Lightswitch, an audio, lighting and visual design firm that provides consulting services around the nation. John Featherstone, principal of Lightswitch, was the lead lighting designer for the lightshow ever since its inaugural year in 2012, and he has been assisted by Austin Shapley throughout all six years.

The original idea for the lightshow arose because the arboretum was looking for ways to increase visitor attendance during the cold winter months and Featherstone heard about this on the radio and contacted them with the idea of installing a light and audio show. Six years later, the immersive experience has been extremely well attended and has transitioned from a curious novelty to a wintertime tradition.

Setup took the firm roughly six weeks and included installing, programming and previewing the exhibit before it was opened to the public on November 3. This year, Illumination: Tree Lights at The Morton Arboretum was so well received that it even ran an extra week after the scheduled closing date, lasting until January 9, 2019.

In addition to drawing visitors to the arboretum during the cold winter months, the landscape lighting design firm wanted to highlight the beautiful trees and plants of the arboretum in a different light.

The Trees are the Stars

The "Fantasy Forest" is akin to the grand finalA(C) of the experience and can be referred to as being a "fireworks show without any fireworks." Incorporating over 62 lighting fixtures, this section has a custom piece of music that was orchestrated expressly for the arboretum.

The Trees are the Stars

Over 1,000 trees are illuminated along the route.

"One thing we [tried] to underscore with Illumination [was] that the trees are certainly not dead in the winter but are dormant and sleeping," states Featherstone.
To do this, Lightswitch opted to use up-lights and projectors, instead of lights that wrapped around the trees, diverting visitor attention away from the light fixtures themselves and onto the trees instead.

"We did not want to use the trees as armatures for wrapping twinkling lights around them, but to up-light and illuminate them in such a way that made them stars of the show," Shapley relates. "This showed off the trees' natural and intrinsic features, such as the bark, thorns or vines."

Almost all of the 600 fixtures used for the immersive experience are light emitting diodes (LED), making the total amperage of the entire project less than 300, on par with the same power draw as 3 homes per month.

The Trees are the Stars

The Morton Arboretum has an application for your smart phone that will take you on a guided tour of the Illumination lightshow experience and can do so in both English and Spanish. Around ninety minutes is the time suggested for visitors to allocate in order to experience the entire exhibit. In addition to the immersive lighting stations, such as the "Enchanted Forest," there are fire pits and concession stands located in the arboretum as well.

The Trees are the Stars

These custom metal luminaires were built specifically for The Morton Arboretum exhibit by HYBYCOZO, an artistic duo comprised of Serge Beaulieu and Yelena Filipchuk. The five fixtures sit upon a hill and look like a crown from afar, giving them the name of the "Crown of Light." Each installment features individually unique leaf patterns and house a Proteus Beam moving light.

Additionally, all of the fixtures chosen have been Ingress Protection (IP) rated and score IP65, IP67, or higher. The IP rating system is an International Electrotechnical Commission standard that attributes two numbers to fixtures in order to rank their resilience to particulates and water. Six is the highest the first number can go, meaning it is "impossible for dust to enter" the fixture; while eight is the highest the second number can reach, which would mean the fixture is suitable for continuous water submersion deeper than one meter.

Every cable used was also IP rated and connected to the fixtures with water-tight, screw lock connectors. Furthermore, every connection point is wrapped in waterproofing tape. Once an area's cables have been laid down, the cables are stapled down to the ground using 3-inch lawn wickets. This is coordinated with the groundskeepers to ensure none of the wires get damaged. When the ground freezes, the lawn wickets are so firmly held into place that sometimes they cannot be removed for several weeks after the exhibit closes!

The Trees are the Stars

The Trees are the Stars

This is one of two video installations found within the experience and it is known as "Treemagination." Here, quiet sound effects accompany a roughly 20-minute custom-mapped video that is projected onto a group of large hemlock trees. At times during the show, the hemlocks appear wrapped in gift paper and then proceed to unwrap themselves, as wrapping paper sounds are played in the background. This area was designed for people to enjoy a somewhat augmented reality experience.

Shapley relates that the light fixtures are usually able to stay warm enough to melt snow off the lenses without any need to clean them. He also mentions that, "Theoretically, it could all be powered by solar collection, which would be really cool."

In the beginning, the lighting design consultants needed to use generators in order to power everything. However, after six consecutive years, lighting infrastructure has been added to The Morton Arboretum grounds eliminating the need for any generators. Instead, the wires were able to be connected to about six transformers stationed throughout the arboretum.

The Trees are the Stars

This grove of trees is known as "Symphony Woods" and it plays a selection of holiday music that changes every year. This past year it was a triple variation on the song "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" that had a standard orchestral version, a big-brass-band version and an electronic dance music (EDM) version. The lights blink, move and react to each fifteen-minute audio track.

The lights are controlled remotely by a grandMA2 lighting control console. It is stored in one of two small sheds that were temporarily erected specifically for the Illumination show. The lighting control panel is connected to a wired network, that then connectes into a wireless network in order to remotely control each light on the property.

Shapley concludes by mentioning that he and the team at Lightswitch, along with the other companies that worked on the show over the years, have learned how to really streamline the process of installation and deliver a truly captivating experience, allowing the Illumination: Tree Lights at The Morton Arboretum to be successful for six consecutive years and counting.

As seen in LASN magazine, April 2019.

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September 21, 2019, 9:14 am PDT

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