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Illumination: Behind the Scenes

Many have asked how the Arboretum created Illumination, our first-ever lights event.  To bring our vision to life, the Arboretum partnered with top lighting design firm Lightswitch, a company that’s created lighting experiences for institutions around the world, including Virgin Galactic and the 75th Anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge.  We sat down with John Featherstone, Founder and Principal at Lightswitch to give our readers an inside look at the creation of this exhibition.

John Featherstone, Susan Wagner, and Gerry DonnellyFrom left to right: John Featherstone, Susan Wagner, and Gerry Donnelly


Q: How did this project start?

JF: Gerry Donnelly, President and CEO at The Morton Arboretum, Sue Wagner, Vice President of Education and Information Services, and a few others from The Morton Arboretum came to us over a year ago with a vision of creating a unique visitor experience, and that was a big trigger for us, as we didn’t want to do the same thing as other Chicago institutions.  We love to work with the kind of client who comes to us and says they want something different – and that’s what we found with The Morton Arboretum.  And it didn’t hurt that the Arboretum is such an established and respected Chicago institution. Considering those two factors, it was essentially a double win for Lightswitch.


Q: How is Illumination different from other wintertime lights events?

JF: We use a lot of interactive technology that draws you in and engages you with the trees in novel ways. For example, at several points we use something called a Leap Motion Sensor that uses software custom designed for the Arboretum by a company called Flow Studio, based in the Czech Republic.  These are the elements where you can wave your hand over the sensor to change the image on the trees, almost like a video game. Through these experiences, visitors’ input and influence are modifying their environment in many different ways. It’s not twinkle lights on trees, and it’s not Santa riding on a sleigh outlined in rope light; rather it’s something you see that engages you in a path of discovery.


Q: More than 500 LED lighting fixtures are used in Illumination. How did you come up with the lighting layout and the different elements?

JF: We worked hand-in-hand with the Arboretum for more than nine months, looking to find ways to not only illuminate the trees, but to entice people to engage with them reframe our relationship with winter arbor.  Our team spent hundreds of hours coming up with concepts, testing and re-testing to ensure our ideas could work and convey the message we were looking to share. Visitors may not know it when they see Illumination, but everything is carefully placed as part of a master plan. The lighting placement and colors were chosen very carefully to feature the trees and all of the lighting is synchronized – in fact, the lighting on elements like the Tinsel Colonnade and the uplights you’ll see on the trees is synchronized and changes every minute, with a one-hour-long progressive sequence.  Additionally, most of our lights are visible from multiple points on the trail, which provides a layered visual effect and presents an ever changing vista as you walk the event.


Q: The color scheme of Illumination features bright pinks, blues and greens – not your typical holiday colors.  Why did you go with the colors you did?

JF:  It was important that we stayed true to our mission statement of creating a new interpretation of holiday lighting. So that meant embracing a broader color palette. So we not only feature traditional Christmas red and green, and blue and white to celebrate Hanukkah, but also vibrant magentas, steely blues and soothing greens. And the color is not random; it is a carefully restrained progression that ebbs and flows as color sweeps across the Arboretum.


Q: There are so many lights – how much power are you using with this event?

JF:  That’s a great question. Thanks to LED technology, Illumination uses only as much power as about three residential homes. LED lighting not only keeps the energy consumption of this experience incredibly low, but LED fixtures don’t get hot, which is crucial to ensure we don’t affect the Arboretum’s trees. 


Q: How long did it take you to install Illumination?

JF: To install Illumination, we first had to basically re-wire the area for the event, placing cable throughout the grounds. Starting in late October, we laid more than 20 miles of cable, hiding it from guests as much as possible. We began lighting fixture installation in early November, working with our partners at Intelligent Lighting Creations.  For three weeks, our team of 16 technicians, designers and programmers worked through the night at the Arboretum to install, test and test again, up until the November 22 launch.  We were careful about when we worked, so as not to impact the Arboretum visitors’ daytime experience.


Q: What are you looking to have visitors take away from Illumination?

JF: In developing Illumination with the Arboretum, we have a shared goal of reframing the way people consider and think about trees, particularly in winter. It’s easy to sort of ignore trees in the winter months when they lose their leaves - but trees are very much alive in the winter as well.  So, what we wanted to do was to use our lighting and visual methodology to quite literally help visitors see trees in a different light.


Illumination runs from November 22, 2013 - January 4, 2014.  Find more information about Illumination here