Seen from a distance, the Steam Illumination Christmas Train appears like a rolling band of moving light cutting through the dark night as it rolls past the farms and fields of the Hampshire countryside. To those inside, the experience is even more magical, as they find themselves immersed in a rotating tunnel of brilliant colors and patterns.
Covered entirely by LED lights, this special 120-metre-long train seems like something out of a fantastical Hollywood Christmas movie suddenly come to life in South East England. In reality, however, it was the result of extensive of planning and hard work by the nonprofit Mid Hants Railway’s Watercress Line and a creative team that includes Simon Horn.
The owner of Purple Lighting in West Sussex, Horn was responsible for designing and programming the 78-universe Steam Illuminations lightshow with the help of his ChamSys MagicQ MQ500M console and MagicVis software. “This was the kind of project you become completely immersed in,” he said. “The Watercress Line typically has visits with Santa every December, but this year that was impractical because of COVID, so the foundation turned to something new.
Horn spent two weeks programming and four months on background research for his show, which involved two Steam Illumination trains, each adorned with 14,000 individual fixtures. (Some fixtures are banked, so the console sees just shy of 10,000 heads and pixels.) He programmed roughly 1000 cues for his show, breaking them down into an internally timecoded cue stack for each section, which cover the intervals between the two stations on the 20-mile roundtrip route as well as the time spent at each station.
“I programmed everything on my MQ500M,” said Horn. “Although the design was originally built on another software, I ended up using the MagicVis Visuliser to preprogram this show, as it was far more stable and smoother with visualizing such a big array of pixels.”
The ability to manage a large number of pixels was a key benefit of using the MagicQ MQ500M in this project, according to Horn “Being able to make pixelmap grids automatically from the plot, saved me days of work, as 10,000 pixels all in a slightly complicated array would have been nearly impossible to do myself,” said Horn.
Given the size and scope of this lightshow, the channel capacity of the MQ500M was another important benefit for Horn. “At 78 Universes and with limited space on the train for control gear, my console was a life saver, because it handled everything with no need for any racks of external processing.
“The on-board audio playback was also essential,” continued Horn. “Using the console to play back the Audio content was a fantastic help. One gain, the meant I needed less equipment. It was nice and simple to have an all-in-one solution with audio and time code all in one place!”
Aside from dealing with cramped quarters, Horn also had to content with power and data distribution issues. “There are a great many long cable runs in a railroad environment,” he said. “This can play havoc with distribution. We got around this by using custom waterproofed and powerful PSU and drive modules that were built for this application with its complex cabling system.”
Dealing with these issues freed Horn to push the creative envelope for Steam Illuminations. For example, he created immersive and memorable looks by rolling an intensity effect from one side of the train over the roof and down the other side. In addition to creating a jaw-dropping impression on those viewing the train from the outside, this created an engaging tunnel effect for the train’s socially distant passengers.
Horn also used his lighting to play off the tress that the train passed along its 20-mile roundtrip route. Hitting the trees from two angles from the wash lights under the train, he created animated color shadows that mesmerized passengers as they passed through wooded areas.
At some points, Horn even created rainbow chase effects, something he normally avoids.
“In the concert world, I would look at these as ‘my first lightshow’ kind of effects,” he said. “But as it’s Christmas — and also as a nod to our hard-working NHS – I did it, and frankly it looks pretty epic in this scenario.”
For those visiting Steam Illuminations, which ends January 3, many of the looks created for this event will be “epic.” By combing a centuries old form of transportation with cutting edge lighting technology, this popular attraction is transporting visitors away from the daily concerns of life in 2020, to a place where the magic of the Holidays blooms in vibrant colour.