How I Did That: Sweet Sixteen Lighting Fantasies

I love designing house parties. Much like skiing on fresh powder, homes are virgin landscapes, the designing of which results in high praise from the client every time. However, a lack of power and the inability to easily hide cables plague nearly every home, so it can be both rewarding and challenging. What more could a lighting designer ask for? So when Rhonda Caldwell, president of The Main Event Inc., asked me to work a sweet sixteen party in one of the most beautiful homes in Charlotte, NC, I rearranged that weekend to get the equipment and personnel to make it work.

Originally, we were designing several rooms inside the home; however, the mother of the honoree decided to keep the energy outside. One hundred-fifty high school kids can create quite a mess, no matter how well behaved. On top of the mess, we were threatened with thunderstorms. We discussed moving the party to one of the garages, but we decided to take a chance and have the party outside anyway.

In preparation for any potential rain situation, I always pick up a box of white trash bags. Trash bags are essential to every production — from clean up to raincoats for lighting fixtures, trash bags can save your show. As a light drizzle teased my electronics, everything exposed to the rain was positioned and instantly bagged. Cables were run. However, power remained off. Fixtures with cooling fans will malfunction if you block the intake or outtake. For LEDs, the white trash bags allow the programmer to see the programming and modify the scenes in the rain. White trash bags also make fixture recognition easier for layout checks by production managers. We were all held in suspense until a solid hour into the party when the rain stopped long enough to unbag.

On a side note, I started writing articles in 2004 because, when discussing lighting design with many people, I might as well be speaking Martian. My clients are usually extremely intelligent, but lighting can be counterintuitive. Most come to me with very little ability to express what they saw in Miami or Vegas or Atlanta or whatever inspired them to call me. An hour into the party, with only half the lights on, one can imagine how Rhonda felt waiting for the rain to stop, hoping that my descriptive ramblings were going to yield a dynamic design.

For the entrance, I used 12 Elation Opti-PAR LEDs to light the nine massive columns around the porte-cochere. As guests approached the brilliant entrance, the magnificent columns were bursting with rich hues sweeping through the covered driveway. Each light was positioned on the front of the driveway to maximize the picturesque view as the vehicles climbed the steep incline. Two groups of six Color Kinetics ColorCast® 14s lined each side of the porte-cochere, transitioning the colored lighting theme into the dim white light downlighting the rest of the home. Upon entering the porte-cochere, the four lights framing the grand entrance filled the ceiling with light keeping the interest toward the door leading to the party in the back. A single fixture was placed on the inside of the middle column opposite the entrance to bring balance to the space.

As guests entered the foyer, warm colors greeted them from eight American DJ E27 MR16 RGB. Graciously beckoning inward, the LED lamps provided softer lighting which contrasted the bold lighting outside. The 5W LEDs encased in black PAR16 were hidden in the ornate wrought iron railings of the open arm staircase.

On the patio, guests were welcomed by eight Elation Octopods arranged in a line on a small fountain above the pool. The LED fixtures swept color in a Knight Rider-esque fashion. On each side of the Octopod system, a Global Truss DJ System held two American DJ Accu Scans on each truss leg. Under the outer Accu Scan, an American DJ Fantasy Scan was inverted, mirroring the Accu Scan. The Fantasy Scans provided a powerful psychedelic wash behind the house. With its wide 30° beam angle, each fixture cast light about 40 yards, covering two stories completely. I am still amazed at how effective the optics are in the Fantasy Scan 250. The outer Accu Scans traced the pool with a cool blue spot, enticing the partygoers to get into the water. The inner Accu Scans swept the dance area and cut through the effects along the back of the house.

The truss also doubled as the framework for two 5.4'×4' video screens. An Edirol V-4 was used to mix several DVDs of the latest in hip hop and dance animation. The screens were made of a medium gauge Lycra and provided a great projection surface for the View Sonic PJ402D 2,000 lumen projectors — a great solution for a low budget and one-use custom screens. The screens were set snuggly in the trussing system with 6" of space around the edges.

The final touch was the VIP balcony. Ten 20" Chinese lanterns lit with Color Kinetics Sauce LightTro color-changing light bulbs floated above the area, with each lantern changing color at different speeds. The effect was breathtaking as the large orbs glowed while hovering above the crowd.

In the beginning, the birthday girl made only one request: she wanted her party to be different. With years of nightclub design for some of the craziest parties in Charlotte, we pushed the envelope of what a house party could be, and the response was priceless. Nearly every teenager present was sure that MTV was hiding somewhere in the house. I think, at one point, I was accused of lying because I “obviously had a hidden camera somewhere.”

From entrance to poolside, the party impacted friends and family. By changing the lighting from the front to the back, we transformed the space into something special.

Jack Kelly is president of Eye Dialogue based in Charlotte, NC. For more information, visit


Martin Light Jockey

Elation DR-512 DMX Recorder

Edirol V-4

12 Elation Opti-PAR RGB

2 American DJ Accu Scan

2 American DJ Fantasy Scan

8 Elation MR E27 LED

12 Color Kinetics ColorCast 14

Elation Octopod System

10 Color Kinetics Sauce LightTro LED Lamps

10 Chinese Lanterns

2 Global Truss DJ Truss Systems

2 View Sonic 2000 Lumen Projectors

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