Olbrich Botanical Gardens, located in Madison, Wisconsin, is just a few miles from the ETC headquarters building. For the past six years, in late summer, a team of lighting designers, artists, marketing/branding specialists, and horticulturists collaborated to produce a community art exhibit called GLEAM. The collection of art installations enhances the Gardens' natural beauty and brings the wonder and enchantment of light to life.
This past year a team of ETC employees were brought on to help with the exhibit, “Enchanted Tree Chronicles.” Oddly enough, the installation acronym is ETC, which the main designer (Bruce Winkler) thought was an amazing coincidence.
The story behind the installation
There were a total of seven trees included in the design of this immersive art experience. Each tree was “interviewed” to understand its personality and what type of lighting would best bring its persona to life. Embracing the community-based talent approach, the team collaborated with the Children’s Theatre of Madison to write and record the script for each tree that would be heard when guests encountered them.
Chromatix, a local a cappella group, recorded the singing portions. And ETC helped with the overall design, programming, build, and lighting installation for each of the trees, which required its own unique sound system and a variety of lighting technology to personify the environment.
In the silent heart of the forest, an unseen network thrives, known as the “Wood” Wide Web. A mesh of roots and mycelium carries whispers of a prehistoric plant language unknown to us and other evolved beings. Imagine if these silent conversations resonated in our world. What if, under cover of darkness, the trees found their voices, and their dialogue echoed in a symphony only heard in the still of night? What stories would they share? What songs would they sing? Would they answer the timeless query, “If a tree falls in the forest, and there's no one around to hear it, does it make a sound,”? This question exploits the tension between perception and reality and urges us to step beyond human observation. Our art installation invites you into this secret world to question, listen, and hear the forest's untold tale.
The senior design team produced the overall concept and created the LED faces for each tree, but every other aspect of lighting and show control was provided by the ETC Team. This included the up-lighting and color design for each of the trees, the expertise for planning and wiring of the LED faces together so they could be controllable by Eos, and the synchronizing of the audio files with the Eos show file. The ETC team also programmed the installation and automated the startup and shutdown for each night.
“The Enchanted Tree Chronicles was a unique project compared to live theatre. It was a fun challenge planning a show that takes place in an outdoor venue. It took a lot of planning to make sure it would function on its own over many months without us having to come back to site to fix it. – Fen Gustafson, Product Assurance for ETC LEDs
ETC was one of three outside partnerships the senior design team had. The Children’s Theatre of Madison provided youth writers to provide input to the dialogue the trees had with one another, and Chromatix A Cappella Singers provided all the arrangements and vocals for the songs each of the trees sang. ETC was by far the most involved from start to finish of this installation.
“The Enchanted Tree Chronicles installation was distinctly unique from all the other 2023 GLEAM exhibits. It transformed a static garden of trees into a living and breathing forest that invited the guests into a dynamic world. Our ETC Team focused a lot on how the guests would perceive the installation from start to finish. We wanted the natural flow of the landscape, along with color and lighting intensity, to draw our guest’s eyes to various parts of the forest to tell and progress the story.” - Kylee Hauxwell, R&D Test Engineer
The tech behind the trees
Starting in late August, GLEAM 2023 ran every Wednesday to Saturday starting through October. Because this was an ongoing event that had various start and end dates and varying times due to the changing daylight hours, the team decided to use Mosaic to automate the start and stop of the installation. Mosaic enabled the team to start the show at the selected dates and times using its real time clock and scheduling capabilities. They could easily test automation and change start and end times for the changing schedule at the Gardens.
Mosaic was also able to detect any failures and automatically restart the show from the beginning. Using the Mosaic Show Controller, the team was also able to communicate with Eos and QLab to automate and trigger various cues, ensuring the show started correctly in all three show-control systems.
“Lighting trees to look alive with minimal lighting posed a unique and challenging task, but I feel like we effectively gave character to our subjects with minimal ETC lighting per tree.” – Brian Hair, ETC R&D Development Engineer
Each tree required a unique and significant bundle of cables for audio, DMX lighting controls, 110VAC, 12VDC lighting controls, and ground and sound-activated lighting – this translated to several miles of wire used to bring the installation to life.
Using NET 3 Gateways, the team ran DMX to each of the Desire up-lights and the LED strings that created the tree’s faces. To add a little extra playfulness, the LED eyes were also DMX controlled to blink at randomly generated times.
Each face was then connected to a simple on/off DMX-controlled relay that was sound-activated by speakers placed near each tree. The speakers for each tree were programmed to a single audio channel, so when people walked by, the LED face responded, seemingly singing to that one person. It took a fair amount of coordination for the team to select trees that were far enough apart. This ensured that the LED lights did not pick up audio from any neighboring trees while keeping the designer’s intent on various tree sightlines and crowd flow.
It should come as no surprise, with all of the thought, planning, and programming that went into creating this enchanted, interactive forest, the installation was awarded Best in Show.
“This project was my foot in the door for lighting work. It helped me discover a new passion and truly was an eye opening experience for me. I hope that I get the opportunity to work on GLEAM in the future!” – Ethan Timmel, ETC Systems Admin
- (10) D40 XT’s
- (8) D60XT’s
- NET 3 Gateways
- Mosaic Show Controller
- Eos (on a mac mini) and Ion Programming Wing
- QLab for triggering sound and Eos lighting cues
ETC Team (from left to right)